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Tuesdays with Morrie: An Old Man, a Young Man, and a Last Great Lesson ()

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I sort of like Mitch Albom.  He's a regular on ESPN's Sunday morning show, The Sports Reporters, and he tends to take an engagingly sarcastic line towards the pomp and self-seriousness of sports.  If he's a little too brash and cocky, he can also be self-deprecating and fairly funny.  So I approached this gazillion seller with a little bit more of an open mind than I otherwise would have; after all, any book about an old mentor dying seems destined to be sappy.  And, it's not that I hated the book or think that it is actually bad on its own terms, I just think that it is Exhibit A in the case for the death of the American soul.

You're probably familiar with the basic story.  Albom turned on Nightline one night in 1995 and saw his favorite college professor from Brandeis being interviewed by Ted Koppel.  Morrie Schwartz, age 79, was dying of Lou Gehrig's Disease.  Seeing the show provoked the 37 year old Albom to renew contact with Morrie and he eventually spent 14 Tuesdays talking to him about death, life, love, etc.  In their conversations, Morrie offers up a whole series of appallingly banal observations:

    To find a meaningful life, devote yourself to loving others, devote yourself to your community
    around you, and devote yourself to creating something that gives you purpose and meaning.

    If you're always battling against getting older, you're always going to be unhappy, because it's going
    to happen anyway.

    When you learn how to die, you learn how to live.

    Neither money nor power will give you the feeling you're looking for, no matter how much of them
    you have. You know what really gives you satisfaction?  Offering others what you have to give.

    In the beginning of life, when we are infants, we need others to survive, right? And at the end of
    life, when you get like me, you need others to survive, right? But here's the secret: in between, we
    need others as well.

    Death ends a life, not a relationship.

    Love each other, or die.

Now the book's hook is that Albom is undergoing sort of a mid-life crisis during all of this.  He wanted to be a musician, but instead he's an obscenely successful and wealthy sports journalist, paid to watch men play games and then babble about it.  So he goes to Morrie in search of the wisdom and perspective on big questions that he feels is missing from his own hectic yuppie life.   Each week they discus a topic (death, fear of aging, greed, marriage, family, society, forgiveness and a meaningful life) and Morrie serves up these platitudinous Hallmark card sentiments which Mitch laps up, as apparently do millions of readers of this book.

But there are several really fundamental problems with the whole thing.  First, contrary to every assumption at work in this book, the dying have no special perspective on life.  In fact, the perspective they do bring is somewhat suspect.  We would not really want people to live their lives as if they were about to end, would we?  There's an old Richard Pryor routine about how if Nuclear War ever starts he's going to run down the street and rape this one aloof woman on his block, because, after all, what would the consequences be?

Second, the guy is 79 for cripes sake.  He's led a long and full life and now its ending, I don't mean to be overly harsh but, so what?  He seems like a decent fellow, but we all die.  I would hope by the time we are 79, most of us are ready for it.

But the most important weakness of the book is that Morrie has nothing meaningful to say.  I'm afraid we're going to get a lot of pabulum like this as the Baby Boomers face their own impending doom.  Here is a cohort that has moved through American Society like a rat being digested by a boa constrictor.  When you look at a population graph they are always the big bump, which has given them a tragically overstated and largely malignant influence on our society.  When they were kids, we learned that we had to stop disciplining children and started treating them like their opinions mattered.  Then they went to College and we surrendered in a war with a Third World nation, rather than making the Boomers do their duty and go fight.  They also found traditional morality and values too restrictive, so we had a sexual revolution and tore down most of the ethics inculcating institutions in our society.  Then they got jobs, but those jobs made it difficult to raise kids, so we now accept the notion that family and family structure are insignificant.  There is no such thing as a nuclear family any more.  Their parents got old, so now we warehouse the old; after all you can't expect these Boomers to let Mom and Dad move back in with them.  Now they are getting old and facing their own mortality and they are scared.  Of course they are, if you don't believe in anything, death must be pretty scary.  They stand perched on the edge of the abyss of their own making and I just fear that all we're going to hear about for the next thirty years is how hard it is for them to get old and die.

So anyway,  Mitch Albom turns to Morrie to try to get an explanation of what the purpose of life is and how to deal with death.  But as it turns out Morrie didn't believe in anything either.  Take just the admonition "love each other or die".  Well, guess what, you're going to die anyway.  So what's the point of love?  If death is the big problem and love won't save you from it, why love each other?  Why not hate each other?  Why not just use each other?

The answers that Albom was looking for are not to be found in these homey little aphorisms spoken by a genial but ultimately unserious mensch.  Typically, his generation wants it all to be so easy.  Hey, I'm getting old and I question the value of the life I've lead.  Are there a couple of totally vapid catch phrases that will let me justify my existence to myself?

I'll just draw on one particularly annoying instance to illustrate how empty Morrie's philosophy is.  During the Vietnam War, he was, of course, a big supporter of student unrest (even going to the big Yippie rally that tried to levitate the Pentagon).  In order to guarantee that even wretched students stayed safe from the Draft, he decided not to give them grades.  When the administration told him he had to give them out, he gave everyone A's.  Let's ignore, for the moment, the trivialization of his own profession and of the educational system that this entails.  When Albom is talking to him about forgiveness, Morrie dredges up this hoary tale of a friend who sculpted a bust of him, but they gradually became estranged and Morrie never had the chance to heal this wound before the guy died.  this is supposed to illustrate both that Morrie should have forgiven him and that Morrie has had to forgive himself for not doing so.  How about asking for forgiveness from the Vietnamese Boat People, from the decent men and women at the Pentagon who were fighting for democracy, from the Brandeis students who he enabled to avoid personal responsibility, from the men who were drafted when his students got to avoid service, etc.  No, the thing he's worried about is that he felt like a heel when this old buddy died.  This sort of selfishness is emblematic of the age and is symptomatic of the disease whose grip Albom is writhing in.

Sadly for Albom and his generation, the self does not suffice.  You do not get to invent a world and a set of values of your own.  That is what the Boomers set out to do and why they now feel so empty at the core of their being.  Perhaps now, as they face the specter of departing this mortal coil, they will finally be forced back to the absolute and universal truths that they have striven so mightily to avoid.  It is not given to the individual to craft his own relativistic purposes and meanings in life.  The same things give our lives meaning now as they have since time immemorial.  First, on an individual level, you must be good; and I mean good in an Old Testament/Ten Commandments and New Testament/Example of Jesus kind of way.  There are absolute moral laws and you have to try your best to adhere to them.  Second, as a member of the species, you must participate in the effort to become God.  It is this effort that defines Man's purpose on Earth, the continuing quest to expand knowledge and life, so that we will one day become God ourselves.  Despite the best efforts of Albom and his cohort to prove otherwise, the same values still obtain, goodness and godliness are what give a life meaning.

Morrie Schwartz seems to have been a decent old guy, perhaps more decent than most.  ALS is a crappy disease and I'm sorry he fell prey to it.  He faced his own mortality with grace and good humor.  But he had little of substance to offer those of us who were left behind and because of that the book lacks the expected payoff.  We wait for Mitch Albom, yuppie scum, to evolve into a better man, but this never happens.  At book's end, he is still the same hollow man that he was at the beginning.  This is inevitably so, because the answers that Morrie had to offer, were not the ones that will enable Mitch Albom to grow.  Those answers are still waiting out there for him should he ever get serious about discovering the meaning of life, instead of just looking for easy answers from a sweet but shallow old man.


Grade: (C-)


Book-related and General Links:
    -Albom Online (cyber home for the many devoted readers, listeners, and watchers of Mitch Albom)
    -Column archive (Detroit Free Press)
    -READERS COMPANION: (Random House)
    -Mitch Albom Book Summary, Reviews Author Biography (Book Browse)
    -CHAT TRANSCRIPT: (People Magazine)
    -READERS GUIDE :  Tuesdays with Morrie (Book Browse)
    -ARTICLE: Author struggles to live out the lessons of 'Tuesday with Morrie' (Ken Garfield, Knight Ridder Newspapers)
    -REVIEW: Tuesdays with Morrie (Alain de Botton, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: Morrie's Lessons Last a Lifetime (Adam Sullivan, A&E)
    -REVIEW: Wise words from a dying man But author falls short in applying insights to his own inner life (Neil Chethik, Lexington Herald-Leader)
    -REVIEW: A man who cannot walk is led onward by his faith  (J.T. Barbarese, The Philadelphia Inquirer)
    -REVIEW: Tuesdays with Morrie  Mitch Albom (Stephanie Bowen, CNN)
    -REVIEW: 'Morrie' affirms beauty of life  Albom's book rejects superficiality, advocates idea of simplicity (Michael O'Connor, Cavalier Daily)
    -ARTICLE: Life's greatest lessons often come too late (Marty Latz, Jewish News of Greater Phoenix)
    -ALS (Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis) Survival Guide