tuesdays with Morrie

“If you hold back on the 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 loving entails. But by throwing yourself into these emotions, by allowing yourself to dive in, all the way, over your heard even, you experience them fully and completely.”

Morrie Schwartz talking to Mitch Albom

Even though ‘tuesdays with Morrie’, by Mitch Albom, is a short book, it’s taken me some time to read it. Mitch Albom writes well, but the subject is such that one needs to be in the correct frame of mind to engage appropriately with the content.

Some might see it as a depressing book. The thoughts of Morrie Schwartz, a man with the incurable wasting disease, Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), were captured in conversation with Mitch Albom.

The cause of ALS is unknown. In the USA, it’s also called Lou Gehrig’s disease after the baseball star was diagnosed with the illness in the late 1930s. However, its most famous sufferer was Stephen Hawking. His battle with the disease is well documented, but his story did not strike the same chord with me as Morrie’s.

The cruelty of the disease is that while those afflicted lose all their motor capabilities, the disease does not affect the mind. The thoughts of many so diagnosed would be full of sadness, self-pity, and regret. But not with Morrie Schwartz. He follows a mantra that you must know how to die to understand how to live.

Around halfway through the book, I decided to pause and engage with Morrie through another medium. That of the recordings on YouTube made in the latter months of his life. He was everything I anticipated, and the recordings showed how well Mitch Albom captured the man’s essence on the written page. And why Morrie, throughout his life, was so good as a teacher, guide, and counsellor. Here’s a short anecdote of his,

To receive a diagnosis of ALS must be a devastating experience. No hope of recovery. Just the knowledge that you will steadily lose all motor functions over the coming months. To become dependent on others until finally, death embraces you. A death that by then you might welcome. Morrie fought that deterioration every step of the way and, in doing so and in sharing his thoughts and wisdom, encouraged many to re-examine the life they led.

Albom’s book gave context to my pending separation from my wife, Sarah. I confess to some fear in the early days as I contemplated a future alone. My first reaction was that being alone meant being lonely.

I have lived alone before. It was only for around six months, and I was working then. I, therefore, had a ‘distraction’ for much of the week. It was evenings and weekends that were the lonely periods. Sometimes the only person I’d speak to over a weekend was the check-out person at the local supermarket. Although when I look back, I realise it wasn’t every weekend. On some, I met up with friends and family; on some weekends, being alone was welcome.

I think my fear of being alone this time is that I am now in my sixty-sixth year. The fear greater of falling ill or maybe just falling over. Lying injured or unable to move and not having someone on hand. I could not clear my mind of an episode from some years ago. A colleague’s father suffered a stroke sometime during the night while living away from his family. It wasn’t until around lunchtime the next day that a concerned neighbour entered his apartment. That delay in treatment ever worsened his condition.

I realise it’s an irrational fear as the same could happen if I were away from Sarah for the evening in a hotel or Sarah was away from our home and staying elsewhere. Indeed, my father died of a heart attack sitting in an armchair downstairs while my mother lay asleep upstairs.

Reading Mitch Albom’s book brought home that it was the fear of some emotions one must combat rather than the emotion itself. Morrie speaks of the fear of loneliness, and of course, that struck a chord. But as I read on, it gave me pause for thought. Morrie encourages us to embrace the fear, not to try to deny it. By becoming familiar with fear, we can then come to understand it, rationalise it and then move on from it. Set it aside and seek more positive emotions

The book is also a reminder to think less about material ‘things’ and enjoy what we might dismiss at the time as the ‘unimportant’ things in our lives. A sunny day, birdsong, a striking sunset and pleasant conversation with family, friends, neighbours etc. To enjoy our feelings, our affection for others and they for you. To give something of ourselves without seeking some gain in return. In all of those, I’m trying.

My entire purpose for decades was to develop my career, earn a good living and give my family(s) a comfortable lifestyle. I don’t regret that. But since I retired, I’ve learned to look again at what makes me content. To ask what makes me feel fulfilled?

Morrie also speaks about forgiveness. Not so much for others but oneself. We are what we are. Subject to failings and human frailties. Suppose we can’t understand and forgive ourselves. In that case, we won’t understand and, if necessary, forgive others in our lives. It’s not easy, I certainly struggle with it, but if we succeed, we offer ourselves greater contentment.

It took the thoughts and words of a man approaching death to help this man come to terms with a fear of his life ahead. And that’s the critical word. Life. While Morrie knew his death steadily approached, he did not know precisely when that time would come, which is true of us all. Morrie just made the absolute best of each day and offered encouragement for us all to do just that.

In my copy of ‘tuesdays with Morrie’, the concluding chapter is the opening chapter of the next book Mitch Albom wrote. A novel called ‘The Five People you meet in Heaven’

The first paragraph contains a sentence that we all could do well to keep in mind.

“All endings are also beginnings. We just don’t know it at the time”.

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