Wednesday, 11 July 2012

Tuesdays with Morrie

Here's a review, just a few years late, of Mitch Albom's interesting book on his time with his old sociology professor, Morrie:

By Mitch Albom

I began reading this book alone on an airplane, in the sort of cocoon you can get into if you’re a solitary traveller not seeking to talk to your fellow passengers.  I was heading towards family, but not yet there: looking forward to being with them, romanticizing the idea if you like.  And parting from my new girl-friend for a couple of weeks, and missing her.

All of which provided the perfect situation to become deeply moved by this story of a Detroit sportswriter and his dying professor.  And it is a deeply moving book; it wasn’t just being alone on an airplane that made it so.  It is a book that calls out to us to connect, to remember others, to value love and compassion and good feelings over money and getting ahead.

Mitch, the sportswriter, feels ashamed that he has focused so much on career and accomplishments.  It seems that he has somehow neglected his family too, or has not even created one, despite the hopes of his wife.  But now he encounters Morrie, his old sociology prof, with whom he’d been close at college, who he had promised to keep in touch with, but whom he had long forgotten until he saw a report on him on television.

This report, along with a strike at his paper, which temporarily puts him out of work, prompts Mitch to visit Morrie, a visit that begins with him doing something for which he later feels shame: he finishes a cellphone call to do with work rather than leaping out of the car to see his old professor for the first time in fifteen years.  He upbraids himself for this, fitting it into his narrative of having gone astray, having lost his values.

Years before he had dedicated himself to work and accomplishment, not wanting to drop dead suddenly like a beloved uncle.  Working, succeeding, accumulating achievements would somehow help him control his life, he thought, but in pursuing this path he feels he has forgotten something.  That something, as articulated by Morrie in what turns out to be a series of visits, is love and compassion, connection with others.

As I read the opening pages of this story, tears came to my eyes.  I wanted to contact my own favourite professor and overall just be a better person.  A good thing no doubt, and perhaps if I had finished reading the book on the plane, alone in my cocoon, separated from loved ones, I would simply have found it a feelgood story that left me with a warm glow and a resolution to do better.

All of which would be admirable, of course … and yet …

I didn’t finish the book on the plane.  I didn’t get to the section in which Morrie praises Family until I was back in the bosom of my family.  And a funny thing happened: I found myself becoming impatient with Morrie, finding him or rather Mitch’s book about him to be repetitive and abstract.  Sure, sure, love, family, compassion; it’s all great, but, well, is it?

I read about the importance of Family while suddenly pitched into tensions and battles between sisters, my mother, myself.  It’s not all roses being in a family.  There are thorns too, perhaps necessary thorns, but thorns nonetheless.  The subtitle of Albom’s book promises that it will provide “life’s greatest lesson,” and I suppose that lesson is the importance of going beyond material pursuits, but it all seems a bit too pat.

For one thing, is there really any one “greatest lesson”?  Some of us spend our time looking for life lessons, for the meaning of life; we take philosophy courses or visit synagogues; we look, we hope.  Because after all there must be something more to life than just survival or even success.  For some of us there is always the hope that Aristotle or Confucius or the ancient Jewish sages may have the key to meaningfulness.

One can come to this book the same way, urged on by its subtitle and by some of the things Morrie says in it.  But is there really such a key?  Is it perhaps foolhardy to expect such a thing?  And is it possible that by seizing on something as being the good path to follow we are oversimplifying and unfairly rejecting another path?

Mitch suggests that there was something wrong with his life before he reconnected with Morrie; it was too “egotistical” because it was too much focused on things like “career, family, having enough money, meeting the mortgage, getting a new car, fixing the radiator …”  It is odd to see family listed here among egotistical things, since just a few chapters later it becomes the only “foundation … upon which people may stand,” according to Morrie, who praises his own family for being so supportive of him in his dying days.

I wonder about that support.  I am sure it was real.  But weren’t there days when Morrie’s wife became irritated with him, began to feel that taking care of this dying man was just too much?  In fact, we hardly get to see Morrie’s wife or his other family members; they are figures in the background, pictures on the mantelpiece, abstractions, idealized notions of Comforters.

And that is the trouble with this book: it is too much an Idealization, and it may lead us into thinking, Oh, Family (and Love and Compassion) – that is the answer.  Just as other books may tell us that the answer is God or the Proletariat or the Way.  Perhaps there is no answer; perhaps there are only questions.

And perhaps there is something to be said for the supposedly egotistical things: for pursuing a career, for having achievements, and yes, for creating a family.  Does Mitch go home to his wife and start a family?  It’s not entirely clear, but it seems not.  Should he have?  Family seems both good and bad, depending on which part of the book you read – which is perhaps exactly what it is.

And careers and paycheques, are they entirely bad?  Mitch upbraids himself for giving up his dreams in order to have paycheques, but should he have continued to try to be a musician (an early dream of his) and foregone paycheques?  There are some people who never get any paycheques, who somehow never join the culture of work: are they following the right path?  Morrie tells Mitch not to buy into our culture of money and success, and that is a useful bit of advice to keep in mind, but if taken to an extreme, where would we be?  Where would any of us be individually?  And what would happen to our society?

Don’t get me wrong.  I think Love and Compassion and Family are noble ideals.  I think those who have forgotten them in order to pursue riches are on the wrong path.  But to think one can just renounce one’s culture and renounce paycheques seems also to me to be the wrong path.  Surely, what is needed is a little balance.

And maybe that is really all that Mitch Albom is recommending.  He doesn’t seem to have quit being a sportswriter working with famous athletes.  He even commented once on a talk show about the reaction of those athletes to his little non-sports book.  Thinking of that brought tears to my eyes, and I wonder why: is it because it shows the little guy, the mere sportswriter, a virtual nonentity compared to a star athlete, succeeding?  The ugly duckling becoming a swan?  Isn’t that an appealing sort of story?  But how does it fit with renouncing success?

If this book convinces star athletes or anyone else who may be caught up in the pursuit of riches and fame to remember goodness and mercy, then what a wonderful thing it has done.  But it shouldn’t be seen as having the key to life’s greatest lesson.  There is no such key, as far as I can tell, and life is more than just comforting a dying man.  There is living to do, and that includes meeting the mortgage and fixing the radiator.

At one point the book refers to Martin Buber, the Jewish theologian, known for his book (I and Thou) about connecting and relationship, about how the divine resides in relating to others.  Now, the interesting thing about Buber’s book is that it rejects the mystical approach of retreating to a mountaintop to commune with Divinity.  Instead, it emphasizes the need to do one’s relating in the real world.  At times Mitch’s book threatens to forget the reality of the world, depicting it simply as an ugly place where nasty crimes take place and where people are too caught up in the meaninglessness of news about celebrities.

There is certainly plenty of ugliness and meaninglessness in the world, but it’s the world we live in, and we need to learn how to live in it better.  To do so we certainly need to remember Love and Compassion and Family, but we also have to realize that none of those things comes easily, none is without difficulty, and the solution to the problems of life do not reside in simple invocations.

I like Morrie and I can feel for Mitch, but a dying man and a sportswriter wanting to divest himself of all but Noble Emotions are not all there is to life.  Or at least the real issue is to find some way to incorporate the Noble Emotions into the reality of life.

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