By William J. Furney
The Bali Times
If you were told today you had three months left to live, what would you do? Besides panic and fall into an abyss of depression? What would you do with your remaining brief time? If you had tons of cash, would you live it up like there’s no tomorrow (and pretty soon there wouldn’t be)? Or if you had a family, would you hunker down and spend each last, remaining minute with your loved ones?
For Randy Pausch, this was the life-ending scenario he was faced with, after treatments for pancreatic cancer failed. With three very young children and a youngish wife, he was left staring life – and death – straight in the face, and had do decide what to do.
“We cannot change the cards we are dealt, just how we play the hand,” he wrote in The Last Lecture published last year, just before his death. The book is based on a final lecture he gave at his university, Carnegie Mellon, a tradition for professors who are leaving, for them to impart their wisdom on life. Only for Pausch, 47, a computer science professor, it really was his last time at the lectern.
Pausch wrote that the death sentence that was handed him was one of the best things ever to happen to him. That’s astounding, and the book – available in Bali (I purchased it at a Periplus in Ubud) – is a life-affirming read, by someone who was losing his. As his clock winds down, he gives sage advice for the rest of us – how to get the most out of life, and focus on the priorities.
One example Pausch gives is that material items are just that, and if you center your life around them, you will lose out. As a bachelor – Pausch married relatively late in life, at 39 – he occasionally looked after young a niece and nephew, and at one time was taking them out in a new convertible of his. The parents of the children had warned them to be careful in the new car, but Pausch impulsively took out a soda can and poured it all over a seat, demonstrating that it doesn’t matter about such things, that cars, as he wrote, are just there to get you from A to B.
It was a spontaneous act, one he didn’t at the time quite realize the significance of, but in hindsight was entirely glad he did it. I think that’s a wonderful thing to have done. We place far too much emphasis on the things in our lives, and taking care of them, instead of each other.
Shortly after Pausch married, his wife ran her car into his, in their driveway – by mistake. Petrified all day of her husband’s reaction when he came home from work, when he did, she mentioned it over dinner and rather than run to his car to inspect it, he told her it was nothing to worry about and that he wanted to finish his meal rather than go see the damaged car.
“Tomorrow morning I’ll get estimates on the repairs,” the wife, Jai (pronounced “Jay”), said. He told her to forget it, that the dents that were in it could just stay there and that it was only a car and there was no need to care about what others thought of it.
Some have derided the life advice doled out by this dying man as clichéd, with one internet site saying: “Randy Pausch was lucky in that, thanks to the worldwide fame he achieved from his lecture and book, he died knowing that things he did and said would not be forgotten after he was gone.
“Without the pancreatic cancer, he couldn’t have achieved that. Let’s face it, you can’t peddle the kind of pabulum cited [in the lecture/book] as ‘wisdom’ in the absence of a terminal illness.”
While it’s true there is some hackneyed counsel in the pages of the Last Lecture, Pausch’s condition – and struggle – largely negates shades of pathos.
He talks early on about his good fortune with his parents, who were austere, notably with money, yet allowed his creativity to develop, chiefly by permitting him to draw pictures on his bedroom walls, something I did as a teen and wrote about in this column last year, when I commented on Pausch’s passing, and continues about his childhood dreams and how he mostly achieved them. Which is fortunate for this man, middleclass and intelligent – and lucky, till he was struck down with a terminal disease. But though his life was cut short, it was ultimately full.
I would add: Go beyond your childhood dreams and open your mind up to all the possibilities, and you will go some way toward achieving – even surpassing – them.
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