Friday, June 6, 2008


I read this book recently and being a teacher understood that the number of roles a teacher could take in the life of an individual is many. The book, written by Mitch Albom, is a true story of a relationship between a teacher and a student, which goes far beyond the four walls of the classroom and spans several years. In fact it still lives through the book Mitch has written. Any one could take on the role of a teacher consciously or unconsciously for any person at any point of time in life. It was many years after school that Mitch came back to Morrie upon hearing that his mentor was dying of a terminal illness called ALS.ALS-Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, is a disease of the neurological system. The patient loses control over muscles. For Morrie it was a slow and painful walk to death. For Mitch it was remorseful to watch him this way. On the many Tuesdays that Mitch meets with Morrie, he decides the meetings to be pleasant talks between them. Life is complicated, but for Mitch, on talking with Morrie, it gets so much more simplified. Morrie talks on a wide range of topics like fear, family, society, forgiveness, death, ageing, money, greed, detachment and lots more. Who could get a teacher like this? So he is a teacher right till the end of his days, telling the world about life from the eyes of a dying man. To convert each painful moment into a happy one, to be content in whatever situation one has been thrown into by fate, is what I felt needs to be learnt from this book besides others.

In his acknowledgments Mitch after thanking all, says, “Mostly my thanks to Morrie for wanting to do this last thesis together. Have you ever had a teacher like this?”

So it made me wonder, I guess it would make all thinking people reflect about whether they ever had a teacher like this.

In India, to have a teacher like this is not a rarity. We have had a strong guru- shishya/ student tradition in place. They would learn values of life, discipline, feeling of service towards the teacher, undue respect to the spoken word of the teacher, skills based on talent; all this was ingrained right from a very young age. Children would leave the comfort of their homes to live with their Guru, thus learning lessons of life. The child would go back home whenever the guru felt it was time. There are so many similarities between perceptions of Morrie in his last days, and a Guru in India. (India of the olden days). The Guru here is like a Zen master; a person who removes darkness of ignorance, and shows light. The Guru is discerned as a person sitting on the throne of power of knowledge, with a garland of the ultimate reality adorned on his neck. The guru is a person who lets the student know himself, and encourages self knowledge. The guru in his own charming ways sows the seed of knowledge and compassion which is the base for all rightful acts. For the student, the guru’s feet are revered as the ultimate.

I was thus attracted to the content and style of this book. There are a lot of portions that I need to keep in my memory, so I am going to jot them down here for myself and for whoever else reads it.

About Morrie, a little bit. Being a Russian American Morrie was an astute, disciplined person, with a gentle attitude about him, as understood from the writings of the author. Not that life had treated him kindly in his childhood days. Money was always a problem, memories of his own mother who died when he was just eight years of age, haunted him throughout his life, there were n special attachments with his father, and he had responsibilities of his younger brother who was affected by polio. Life was tough, but a teacher for Morrie. Having gone through it all early in life, Morrie could easily sail through the latter better part of his life as a professor of Social Studies. Morrie takes his lessons freely from Buddhism, writers, thinkers, and others, Mahatma Gandhi too. He was very passionate about dance, something to me that personifies total freedom, the expression is simply soul stirring.

Now to quote from the book portions that I have specifically found worth keeping are as follows. They are taken directly from the book.

When Morie got to know about his illness: and On Death

=“Do I wither up and disappear, or do I make the best of my time left?

He would not wither. He would not be ashamed of dying…Study me in my slow and patient demise. Watch what happens to me learn with me...”

= He was intent on proving that the word “dying” was not synonymous with useless… He chose a date for a “living funeral”. On a cold Sunday afternoon, he was joined in his home by a small group of friends and family. Each of them spoke and paid tribute to my old professor. Some cried, some laughed. One woman read a poem…..Morrie cried and laughed with them. His living funeral was a rousing success.

=”There are some mornings when I cry and cry and mourn for myself. Some mornings, I’m so angry and bitter. But it doesn’t last too long. Then I get up and say, “I want to live...”

=”Dying is the only one thing to sad over. Living unhappily is something else. So many of the people who come to visit me are unhappy.”

“Because the culture we have does not make people feel good about themselves. We’re teaching the wrong things. And you have to be strong enough to say if the culture doesn’t work, don’t buy it. Create your own. Most people can’t do it. They’re unhappy than me-even in my current condition.”

= Death is a great equalizer, the one big thing that can finally make strangers shed a tear for one another.

=”Everyone knows they’re going to die, but nobody believes it. If we did, we would do things differently.”

=”To know you’re going to die, and to be prepared for it any time, that’s better. That way you can actually be more involved in your life while you’re living.”

=”Do what the Buddhists do. Every day have a little bird on your shoulder that asks,’ Is today the day? Am I ready? Am I doing all I need to do? Am I being the person I want to be?”

Morrie borrowed freely from all religions… He was a religious mutt, which made him even more open to the students he taught over the years, and the things he was saying in his final months on earth seemed to transcend all religious differences. Death has a way of doing that. The truth is once you learn how to die, you learn how to live.”

Morrie created a cocoon of human activities-conversation, interaction, affection, -and it filled his life like an overflowing soup bowl.

Morrie told Mitch: “So many people walk around with a meaningless life. They seem half-asleep, even when they’re busy doing things they think are important. This is because they’re chasing the wrong things. The way you get meaning to life is to devote yourself to loving others, devote yourself to the community around you, and devote yourself to creating something that gives you purpose and meaning.”

On caring for people

“The most important thing in life is to learn how to give out love, and to let it come in.”

We think we don’t deserve love, we think if we let it in we’ll become soft. But a wise man Levine said it right. He said, ‘Love is the only rational act.’”

On feeling sorry for himself

“I don’t allow myself any more self- pity than a few tears each morning.”

“It’s horrible to watch my body slowly wilt away to nothing. But it’s also wonderful because all of the time I get to say goodbye.”

What if today’s my last day on earth?

The culture doesn’t encourage you to think about such things until you’re about to die. We’re so wrapped up with egotistical things, career, family, having enough money, meeting the mortgage, getting a new car, fixing the radiator when it breaks-we’re involved in trillions of little acts just to keep going. So we don’t get into the habit of standing back and looking at our lives and saying, is this all? Is this all I want? Is something missing?” “You need someone to probe you into that direction. It won’t happen just automatically.”

We all need teachers in our lives.

A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops.” Henry Adams

On Family

“The fact is, there is no foundation, no secure ground, upon which people may stand today if it isn’t the family….Love is so supremely important. As our great poet Auden said, ‘Love each other or perish.’”

Even as he was dying, he showed respect for his children’s worlds. Little wonder that when they sat with him, there was a waterfall of affection, lots of kisses and jokes and crouching by the side of the bed, holding hands.

On Emotions

Learn to detach. “You know what the Buddhists say? Don’t cling to things, because every thing is impermanent…Detachment does not mean you don’t let experience penetrate you. On the contrary, you let it penetrate you fully. That’s how you are able to leave it.”

“Take any emotion-love for a woman, or grief for a loved one, or what I’m going through, fear, pain from a deadly illness. If you hold back emotions-if you don’t allow yourself to go all the way through them – you can never get to being detached, you’re too busy being afraid. You’re afraid of the pain, you’re afraid of the grief, you’re afraid of the vulnerability that love entails. But by throwing yourself into these emotions, by allowing yourself to dive in, all the way, over your head even, you experience them fully and completely. You know what pain is. You know what love is. You know what grief is. And only you can say, ‘All right I have experienced that emotion. I recognize that emotion. Now I need to detach from that emotion for a moment.”

On Ageing

Morrie had ageing in better perspective.

“All this emphasis on youth-I don’t buy it. Listen, I know the misery being young can be, so don’t tell me it’s so great. All these kids who came to me with their struggles, their strife, their feelings of inadequacy, their sense that life was miserable, so bad they wanted to kill themselves…And in addition to all the misery the young are not wise. They have very little understanding about life. Who wants to live everyday when you don’t know what’s going on?... I embrace aging.”

“You have to find what’s good and true and beautiful in your life as it is now. Looking back makes you competitive, And, age is not a competitive issue.”

On Money

“Wherever I went in life, I met people wanting to gobble up something new. Gobble up a new car, a new piece of property, a latest toy. And then they wanted to tell you about it,’ Guess what I got? “

“You know how I always interpreted that? These were people so hungry for love that they were accepting substitutes. They were embracing material things and expecting a sort of hug back. But it never works. You can’t substitute material things for love or for the gentleness or for tenderness or for a sense of comradeship. Money is not a substitute for tenderness, and power is not a substitute for tenderness… When you’re dying, when you most need it, neither money nor power will give you the feeling you’re looking for, no matter how much of them you have.”

On love and marriage

“There are a few rules I know to be true about love and marriage. If you don’t respect the other person, you’re gonna have a lot of trouble. If you don’t know how to compromise, you’re gonna have a lot of trouble. If you can’t talk openly about what’s going on between you two, you’re gonna have a lot of trouble. And if you don’t have a common set of values in life, you’re gonna have a lot of trouble. Your values must be alike. And the biggest one of those values is Love.”

Well I have tried to put forth what I liked from the book. In fact there is lots more, but more of that later……

1 comment:

Shuchi Grover said...

I loved this post, Varni. This is a heartfelt review of a book you clearly loved and enjoyed, and wanted to write about and share with others. I really really enjoyed reading this writeup, and could appreciate the sentiments you were attempting to share through this.

A truly beautiful piece of writing!