Giving equals living, says guest speaker
Although loud rounds of laughter could be heard outside Ballroom 20 yesterday morning, the audience who filed out after Mitch Albom’s speech walked away with some poignant lessons about living—and dying.
“It’s true that somebody dies in every one of my books,” he said with a laugh. “But the real bond they share is they were all inspired by people who stood up for me, who gave of themselves.”
These people included his Uncle Eddie, his mother, and Morrie Shwartz, a former college professor and mentor at Brandies University who became the focus of Albom’s book Tuesdays with Morrie.
Uncle Eddie was a “barrel-chested World War II veteran” who would punch you on the shouder to say hello. “My uncle Eddie never thought he mattered in life,” Albom said. “He used to say ‘I’m a nobody.’ But he saw all these great qualities in me that I didn’t see in myself—he stood up for me. After I gained success as a sportwriter, Uncle Eddie continued to live vicariously through me.”
Another person who stood up for him was his mother, who regularly dropped him off at the library for an hour or so. When a librarian told him his selection—Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea—was too hard for him, “my mom marched right up to that woman and bawled her out, asking ‘Where’s that book? Never tell a child that a book is too hard!’ She definitely stood up for me that day,” he said.
The third person who “stood up” for Albom was his former college professor and mentor at Brandeis University, Morrie Shwartz. Although the two lost touch after Albom graduated, they were reunited in the months preceding Schwartz’s death from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS).
“Morrie had a wonderful way of making you feel like you were the only student he ever taught,” Albom said. “I liked to call him ‘coach.’”
When Albom graduated, Morrie made him promise to keep in touch. Albom promised, but it was 16 years—without even a phone call—before he made contact with Morrie again.
It’s not as if we intend to lose touch with the people who stood up for us, he explained. “Once you’ve gained some success, it’s easy to start thinking, ‘This was meant to be; I was hatched out of the egg with all this success coming my way,” he said. “We forget the people who made us who we are—the people who stood up for us. We get busy.”
When Morrie was diagnosed with ALS—Lou Gehrig’s disease—Albom recalls, Morrie decided he had two choices: He could be angry and ask ‘why me?’ or he could try to find something positive in the lousy hand he’d been dealt.
“He decided he would teach others what was it was like to die, right up to the day he would draw his last breath. When you have ALS, your mind stays perfectly intact so you’re fully aware of the horror that’s happening to you every step of the way.”
The disease progressed, and Morrie went from a cane to a walker, from a walker to a wheelchair, from a wheelchair to being carried. He was unable to buckle his belt, or brush his teeth. Throughout it all, he talked. Eventually, the story made its way to Ted Koppel, who featured Morrie on three shows over the course of nine months. Watching them, Album decided to make one phone call to ease his conscience.
“The first thing he said to me after 16 years was, ‘How come you didn’t call me coach?’” recalls Albom.
Thus began a series of visits, every Tuesday that Morrie had left in his life. And when Morrie died, Albom began to write—to pay his old professor’s medical bills. The result was a best-seller.
Lessons from Morrie
Age is not a competition. While some may think that you cannot be either too young or too thin, Morrie believed that age is not a competition. “Inside me is every age I’ve ever been,” he told Albom. “Why should I be envious of you? I’ve been there. You should be envious of me. Think of aging like a mortgage—as gaining interest on your principle.”
Giving is living. When visitors came to cheer Morrie up, Albom recalled, they often left in tears. They went to comfort him, but he got them to talk, and they ended up being comforted by him. When Albom asked why Morrie spent so much time comforting others, “he looked at me as if I just stepped off a spaceship. Why would I ever take from people like that? Taking makes me feel like I’m dying. Giving makes me feel like I’m living.”
The sentiment was echoed in Albom’s reaction to the September 11th attack. “To me, there was one overriding lesson, and it had to do with the phone calls that people were able to make out of those doomed buildings and airplanes. Almost to a person, they said the same thing: ‘I called to tell you I love you.’ In the enormity of that final moment, what made then feel alive was giving their love to someone else.” So it was with Morrie.
Touch is important. Albom recalled Morrie’s constant requests for physical contact as his disease progressed. They held hands; he frequently had to “kiss” Morrie’s cheek as he adjusted the microphone during their tapings. “Why is it so important?” Albom asked. Morrie’s answer was simple: When you’re a baby and you’re entering the world, you need to be held, caressed, and comforted. When you’re dying, you still need to be held, caressed and comforted.
Then Morrie posed another question: Why is it that in between we pretend like we don’t need to be touched? It was something Albom asked the audience to consider in their own lives.
You talk, I’ll listen
On his last visit to Morrie, Albom recalls that the professor asked him to visit his grave. “Bring a blanket,” he said, “and stay for a while. Have a picnic. Talk to me. You talk, I’ll listen.”
It turned around their relationship. All those Tuesdays, Morrie had talked and Albom listened. But, as Albom discovered, if you spend your life as Morrie did—giving of yourself, investing in others, you live on in their minds.
“Death ends a life, it doesn’t end a relationship,” he told the audience. “But you must invest in those relationships if you expect them to live on in any way once you’re gone. If you spend all day at work or looking in a mirror to make yourself beautiful then when you die, you’d better plan on being 100 percent dead. They’re just going to forget you.”
Every act of kindness, every heartfelt conversation is an accomplishment when you give of yourself. “Not every accomplishment comes with a paycheck,” he said.