Culture > Books

Books: Morrie's half gospel

Books | The success of a huge bestseller shows American concerns about this life but little regard for the next

Issue: "Panic at PBS?," Aug. 14, 1999

Who is Morrie Schwartz and why, by the end of the night, are so many of you going to care about him?" Mitch Albom froze. Ted Koppel's introduction to the March 1995 Nightline program caused him to stop his channel surfing and watch from the edge of his chair. Dr. Morrie Schwartz had been his favorite teacher at Brandeis University almost 20 years before and here he was on national television, Ted Koppel's subject for the evening. What gave Morrie celebrity status? He was dying. In 1994 he had been diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS)-Lou Gehrig's disease. The slow killer would soon take Morrie's life but he refused to be a victim. Morrie's candor, insights, and humor captivated the Nightline audience for five programs in 1995. After the initial show, Mitch Albom called Morrie and asked to meet with him. Mitch, who was now an award-winning sports writer for the Detroit Free Press, had promised to keep in touch with his favorite professor, but he had slipped his mind, until now. For several months, Mitch and Morrie met every Tuesday to talk about life and death. Vignettes of their conversations are recorded in Tuesdays with Morrie: An Old Man, a Young Man, and the Last Great Lesson (Doubleday, 1997). The book is entering its second year on the bestseller lists and is being sold in 26 countries and 22 languages. It has become a frequent gift by funeral homes to families coping with the death of a loved one. Tuesdays with Morrie is double-layered. The most obvious layer is Morrie's view of life from the vantage point of death. "People see me as a bridge," he says. "I'm not as alive as I used to be, but I'm not yet dead. I'm sort of ... in between." In Leo Tolstoy's masterpiece on dying, The Death of Ivan Ilyich, the dying man complained that everyone wanted to talk about his illness but no one would talk about death. Morrie and Mitch have no problem talking about death. Much of the book reflects Pascal's admonition to "live life backwards," that is, to understand that life has meaning only through the lens of death. Once he knew he was dying, Morrie Schwartz saw life in vivid hues. Idle chatter was replaced with conversations about substantive subjects-the real issues of life. "The culture doesn't encourage you to think about such things until you are about to die," Morrie sighs. As the weeks go by, the indignity of the dying process troubles Morrie, but he grows to accept and even enjoy his necessary dependence on others. The second layer of Tuesdays with Morrie is Mitch Albom's confrontation with his own life, a device no doubt intended to engage the reader in a similar self-evaluation. As a college student, Mitch was an idealist who believed that people in suits were evil and working for money was mercenary. Conversations with Morrie penetrated his soul and laid bare the shallowness of his fast-paced, materialistic lifestyle. Morrie probed Mitch's relationships and motivations. "Have you found someone to share your heart with? Are you giving to the community? Are you at peace with yourself?" Christians, though, will be unsatisfied with many of Morrie's "lessons." An acknowledged agnostic, he pulled together his own religion from Buddhism, Christianity, and Judaism, a typically American smorgasbord approach to truth. Ultimate issues are not discussed at length. Exploring answers to "The Question" (as Stephen Crane describes the mystery of life after death) is not a part of Mitch and Morrie's agenda. They do briefly mention God, spirituality, and reincarnation, but the bulk of their time is spent probing how to make the most of this life. Many of his lessons do confirm how deeply biblical themes are at the core of all human existence. Morrie explains that living life to the fullest means investing one's life in family and friends, valuing each day as a gift, and seeing through the trivialities of a materialistic culture. The quest for spirituality without moral restrictions (and even without God) has become the Holy Grail in American private life. Tuesdays with Morrie adds to the growing list of books giving us the existential charge to become "fully human" in this life through sacrificial love and relationships. There is no argument here. These truths embody the second half of the greatest commandment. The rousing success of this little book is due in part to the endearing character of Morrie Schwartz. He was an articulate, witty, and caring teacher who had the opportunity to enter the final doorway of life and describe the view as he looked backwards into life. But he would have done better also to turn around and look where he was going.

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