Tuesday, July 08, 2008

The Last Lecture on living well

Some months ago I heard about Randy Pausch and his “last lecture.” Pausch had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and was expected to have just a few months to live. He delivered a last lecture at Carnegie Mellon University in which he shared what he wanted his students, friends and family to know. That lecture was expanded into a book, The Last Lecture, and it’s a powerful read. Inspirational, even.

One theme that emerges is that people are more important than things. Once he had gotten a brand new convertible, and he was visiting his niece and nephew. His sister was worried that the kids would mess the car up, and she exhorted them, “Be careful in Uncle Randy’s new car. Wipe your feet before you get in it. Don’t mess anything up. Don’t get it dirty.”

Randy thought, “That’s just the sort of admonition that sets kids up for failure. Of course they’d eventually get my car dirty. Kids can’t help it.”

So Randy opened a can of Coke and poured it out onto the cloth seats of the back of the car. No big deal, he said – the car is just a thing. And the kids were amazed. And later that weekend, his nephew Chris got the flu and threw up all over the backseat. And he didn’t feel bad because Randy had already messed up the car.

Another car-related episode happened shortly after he and his wife, Jai, were married. One day Jai pulled their minivan out of the garage and crunched into the convertible in the driveway. Both cars were dented. She put both cars back in the garage and told Randy at dinner, “I hit one car with the other car.” She said she’d get estimates for repairs.

Randy said that it wasn’t necessary. Both cars ran fine. Randy writes, “My parents had raised me to recognize that automobiles are there to get you from point A to point B. They are utilitarian devices, not expressions of social status.” So no need to do cosmetic repairs. The cars still worked fine, so they just drove them, dents and all.

“If your trashcan or wheelbarrow has a dent in it, you don’t buy a new one. Maybe that’s because we don’t use trashcans and wheelbarrows to communicate our social status or identity to others. For Jai and me, our dented cars became a statement in our marriage. Not everything needs to be fixed.”

Pausch is an inspiring figure and an incredible optimist. When diagnosed with cancer, he first asked the doctor, “How long before I die?” And the doctor responded, “You probably have three to six months of good health.” And that reminded Pausch of his time working at Disney. If you ask Disney World employees, “What time does the park close?” they are supposed to answer, “The park is open until 8 p.m.” In other words, the focus is on the opening, not the closing; the time alive, not the impending death.

So he told his wife, “Even if the scan results are bad tomorrow, I just want you to know that it feels great to be alive, and to be here today, alive with you. Whatever news we get about the scans, I’m not going to die when we hear it. I won’t die the next day, or the day after that, or the day after that. So today, right now, well, this is a wonderful day. And I want you to know how much I’m enjoying it.”

Randy Pausch is a wise man. He knows not only how to die, but how to live. He says that each of us must decide whether we will be a fun-loving Tigger or a sad-sack Eeyore. Given the choice, whatever the circumstances, Pausch would exhort us to choose Tigger every time.


Pat L said...

This is really, REALLY good. thanks for sharing it, Al!

L.L. Barkat said...

First, let me say that your night stand is about to topple over. That, or it is a very BIG night stand.

As for the current post, very touching. I loved the quick observation about how we wouldn't fix a dent in a wheelbarrow!

Al Hsu said...

L.L. - Just this past weekend we got a new video cabinet, and I promptly brought our old video cabinet upstairs to our bedroom and use it as a bookshelf next to the bed. So this list of "on my nightstand" books represents the stacks accumulated on the tops of two separate bookcases against the wall.

And it's not even all of them, though after several months I'm not sure I can really say that I'm actively reading them all. The way books flow through our house, it's often the case that I'll get a couple of chapters into a book before the next book comes in and displaces it. So there are dozens and dozens of books on these shelves that have a bookmark a few chapters in.

Chris said...


I can't find an email address for you. I would like to ask you about a speaking oppurtunity here in the Western Suburbs to Pastors. Can you please email me when you have moment. chris at gmaildotcom.

L.L. Barkat said...

Ah, joy!

(Totally different subject now... have you seen this... Gospel Translations... and what do you think about it?

Al Hsu said...

L.L. - I'd heard about this project a while back, but hadn't seen this YouTube video. I think it's a good thing as long as they're respecting copyright and intellectual property laws and only translating material that is either public domain or has been granted permission by the copyright holders to translate and publish for free. I worry a little that folks will assume that they can translate and publish online anything and everything they want, which not only violates copyright laws, but also hurts international Christian publishers who may be trying to translate and publish their own print books and resources.

This particular effort also seems to be only representing a particular slice of the church (the conservative Reformed evangelical community). So this probably will not provide resources that represent other streams and traditions of the church, whether Anabaptist or Wesleyan or Catholic or mainline Protestant. They may well be offering good resources to the Reformed community around the world, but this is likely not going to serve the whole church.

Elaine said...

I know I'm a little late on this post, but since Randy Pausch just passed away, maybe this comment's timing isn't so off? I just discovered your blog, actually.

Anyway, about the idea that people are more important than things, I was watching a video in John Piper's blog about what makes bad language--i.e., curse words--bad. The speaker says that it's all about intentions. Jesus calls us to be edifying to people, to encourage them, and saying "F*** you" is not edifying. But what if you're cursing a thing? What would God say about that? After all, Jesus cursed the fig tree that didn't have fruit.

Here's John Piper's blog post: http://www.desiringgod.org/Blog/1325_what_makes_bad_language_bad_and_3_other_conference_interview_clips/#LinksToThisPost

P.S. I'm the girl from the CTPC retreat at the end of June, the one who went to China.