Introductory Lecture and Objectives
People face death every day, but it is when one becomes terminally ill that contemplating the meaning of a life, and of life itself, becomes most compelling. The emotional journeys of those who are dying are intensely personal and usually private affairs. Such was not the case for Morrie Schwartz, a beloved professor of sociology for many years at Brandeis University. Diagnosed in 1994 with Lou Gehrig’s disease (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis or ALS), he chose to share the experience of dying and the truths he had learned through living, and they became the subject of a book treasured by millions of readers. One of the most acclaimed memoirs of all time, Tuesdays with Morrie by Mitch Albom stayed on the New York Times best-seller list for four years, sold 14 million copies, and was translated into forty-one languages. The book was made into the most-watched TV movie of 1999, which starred Hank Azaria and Jack Lemmon, the latter in the final role of his life; the movie won several Emmy Awards. Tuesdays with Morrie also was produced as an off-Broadway play.
The book’s overwhelming success is worth deconstructing. Morrie Schwartz was by all accounts an insightful man, and before Albom, Morrie’s former student, embarked on writing his book, Morrie and his views of life and death had already been the subject of Ted Koppel’s television news show, Nightline. A gifted storyteller, Albom had written two successful books and had earned a national reputation as a sports columnist by the time Tuesdays with Morrie was published in 1997. These factors certainly contributed to the book’s success, but perhaps the most convincing reason so many people responded to it can be drawn from the praise of a minister who called the book “[a] wise and loving story that teaches us those things we ought to know already, but have somehow forgotten.”
The Tampa Bay Tribune called Tuesdays with Morrie “elegantly simple,” and in its language, structure, and message, it undoubtedly is. The book follows the structure of a college course, starting with a curriculum that introduces the subject of the class and ending with a funeral, “Graduation.” Along the way, Mitch and Morrie spend fourteen Tuesdays together. Mitch fears death, resists strong emotion, and has an almost single-minded focus on his career, yet he senses that he and his generation have distorted values—that they are getting it all wrong. Talking with Morrie (his favorite college professor) brings Mitch to an understanding of how life should be lived and how death should be viewed; Mitch asks, and Morrie explains. Their conversations include discussions of marriage and children, culture, aging, love, forgiveness, spirituality, and death. As the minister correctly observed, Morrie’s messages are not new and revelatory but are the “things we ought to know already.” Morrie believed people should look out for one another, love one another, and remain critical of cultural messages that encourage them to pursue superficial success and material acquisitions. From church sermons to yoga classes to self-help books, these same messages are offered up continually, yet people forget them when someone cuts in front of them in line or when they are asked to work longer or harder for the promise of professional advancement or financial gain. Tuesdays with Morrie may have touched a nerve with readers, therefore, because it is a simply and beautifully stated reinforcement of the truths people need to hear.
Also significant in explaining the overwhelming acceptance of the book is that Tuesdays with Morrie confronts death and dying, subjects that cause discomfort in our culture, in a way that is realistic but comforting, and even inspirational. Death often seems too profound to contemplate and too distressing to witness, but through Morrie’s conversations with Mitch, it becomes less forbidding. In his younger days, Mitch was deeply uncomfortable with sickness and death, turning away from the inevitability of a favorite uncle’s demise. From Morrie, he learns that death is not to be feared. The deterioration of Morrie’s body is described in detail; he does not let his students, visitors, or Mitch deny the fact that he will die, and soon. However, Mitch comes to realize that opportunities for renewal and growth lie in the way we die. This is his professor’s last and greatest lesson.
Mitch Albom’s career has continued an even more impressive upward trajectory since the publication of Tuesdays with Morrie. He has written several additional best-selling books and has been honored by numerous organizations. In his great success, however, Albom has not forgotten Morrie Schwartz and the wisdom he imparted, not only about dying but also about living. The proceeds from Tuesdays with Morrie were contributed to pay off his professor’s medical bills; Albom started at least two charitable organizations and works with several more. Morrie told Mitch that people should “invest in the human family” and that if they do what’s from the heart, “you’ll be overwhelmed with what comes back.” In this way, Morrie was prophetic about his own story and the good that has come from his sharing it.
By the end of the unit the student will be able to:
1. Explain how Mitch changes through his Tuesday meetings with Morrie.
2. Describe Morrie’s views about life, death, and culture.
3. Identify how Mitch uses newspaper stories and the O. J. Simpson trial to make a greater point about Western culture.
4. Compare and contrast Morrie’s views of what is important in life with those of Mitch’s generation (the latter as filtered through Mitch).
5. Identify the book’s central messages about spirituality and what happens after death.
6. Describe Morrie’s personality and character traits.
7. Explain the events in Morrie’s life that shaped his character and his philosophies.
8. Describe Morrie’s career at Brandeis University in the 1960s and discuss how he related to students and the atmosphere on campus.
9. Explain how the book is structured and discuss why the author’s use of flashback and exposition is effective.