At the height of its popularity, this is a book that I avoided–in part due to my stubborn suspicion of anything that charms the masses. Beyond that, I knew it dealt with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (Lou Gehrig’s disease), and I generally choose to spend my limited reading time on books with some sort of escapist potential. In a related reason, when it comes to disabilities, most of us–if we’re honest with ourselves and others–don’t really care to know that much about them. That is, until they touch our own lives and we have no choice, other than denial.
For the last nine months, neurologists have suspected that a member of my family has ALS, but the diagnosis is not yet certain. There went most of my reasons for avoiding Mitch Albom’s book. From researching the disease and attending a support group, I’ve found that–in a strange way–learning even the worst of details makes acceptance easier on some level. So I decided to see what the eponymous Morrie [Schwartz] could teach me about living with ALS.
Albom, a graduate of Brandeis University, first met Morrie when taking a class from the professor. After a warm advisor/advisee relationship, they had lost touch. When Albom learned of Morrie’s illness, student and teacher reconnected for one final “course.” The result is this book, which shares what the lifelong sociologist taught his student during their last months together. From it, the reader can learn a lot, the least of which is about the disease that killed Morrie.
Although the book is about much more than ALS, it paints a clear picture of the disease. Albom writes, “ALS is like a lit candle: it melts your nerves and leaves your body a pile of wax.” Before that, it is very hard to diagnosis, although many look back and see they’ve had possible symptoms for years. Then the progression starts in earnest–patients may need a cane, then a walker, followed by a wheelchair. Others may first lose their ability to speak followed by their ability to swallow. The path the illness takes is different for each person. Critical decisions–when to safely give up driving, how to continually adjust to steadily increasing levels of care, whether or not to use a feeding tube and/or respirator at the appropriate point–become a constant. The topper is that all of this can happen in as little as two years–or less in Morrie’s case. Without dwelling on the disease, remember that this is the context in which Morrie existed–and in an odd way, thrived–making what he shared all the more impressive. Per Morrie: “It’s horrible to watch my body slowly wilt away to nothing. But it’s also wonderful because of all the time I get to say good-bye.”
Culture is the Culprit
Long before his illness, Morrie the sociologist had determined that most human problems could be traced to our culture, which emphasizes that which is shallow. For example, men are expected to be rich, women are expected to be thin. Consequently, those who are obsessed with physical perfection face an especially difficult adjustment when nature robs them of their health. While Morrie did not fall into this category, he did enjoy the independence prized by our culture–the thought of losing it made him initially fear the personal turning point when he would no longer be able to wipe his own behind. After much reflection, however, he managed to get past this and eventually made peace with his growing dependence on others.
Along with recognizing society’s weaknesses, Morrie’s pre-ALS life-affirming solution had been to create his own subculture. He tells us to live within the larger laws of society, but to be honest with ourselves and not worry about appearances. He suggests ignoring material goods and focusing on simpler pleasures, as well as knowing the difference between what we need and what we want, because striving for the latter can lead to discontent.
Communication is the Key
Albom reports that Morrie came up with many philosophical sayings during their second round as student and teacher. One that stands out is: “Don’t assume that it’s too late to get involved.” Albom admits to being envious of all the friends who wanted to spend time with Morrie during his illness. In a society where it is common for all but the closest companions to flee during sickness, this in itself is amazing. The credit belongs to Morrie’s involvement with others, which never flagged.
Another thing that put Morrie in demand was his ability to give his full attention to those with him. He never rushed visitors and he put all his energy into listening to them. People were drawn to Morrie as he truly enjoyed communicating. Because he gestured constantly when speaking, he found it easier to contemplate needing a feeding tube than to lose his upper limb movement. And if Morrie were to lose his speech, he’d already decided that visitors could use yes or no questions with him–when silent, he also planned to “just” spend time holding hands with a friend who was losing his hearing. Finding any way to connect with others had always been his forte.
Morrie was also careful about the person he showed others. He was “realistic to a fault” about the ALS and knew enough not to expect a cure. Still he mourned each new loss in his body–but he would only cry briefly over such losses in the mornings and then face the rest of each day of living and loving. He felt that even if he were magically cured, he could not go back to his pre-illness attitudes (which weren’t too bad to begin with). Morrie also respected the lives of his loved ones and he would not allow any of them to become his caretakers 100 percent of the time, though they would have done so willingly.
The man who wanted his tombstone to read, “A Teacher to the Last,” reveled in relationships and found the positive in negatives. The more dependent he became on others, the more he enjoyed their touch while helping him. At one point, Morrie described his perfect day to Albom, who noted with some bewilderment that it was just “average” stuff, such as having sweet rolls for breakfast, walking in a garden and talking with friends. Morrie even insisted on having a “living funeral” for himself because he thought that kind words were better shared with the living than uttered over the dead.
The last of Morrie’s sayings was: “Don’t let go too soon, but don’t hang on too long.” He admired how Stephen Hawking fights his ALS and keeps on with the aid of technology, but that was not for Morrie, who said he would be gone when he could no longer fully connect with others on his terms. When Morrie was near the end, the formerly callous Albom had finally softened enough to be able to cry–something that the emotional Morrie had been encouraging for months. Although Albom lost the teacher of a lifetime, he has made that teacher’s lessons available to all of us.
Eating My Words
So maybe there is a reason that this book was, and remains, popular. But like any book, it’s not for everyone. I know of at least one person with ALS who found it depressing. Yet the opposite was true for me. For starters, I found in Morrie another who distrusts that which is superficial in society. For instance, judging people by appearances is never any good, but it can be especially damaging where a disability is concerned.
Beyond this, Morrie continues to be a model of good communication in matters that matter. Getting through to and connecting with others is always important, but when a grave illness is involved it is critical. Morrie was fortunate to come to his illness with the ability to handle the give and take of true communication–his listening skills alone set him apart from many in our society. However, anyone in any situation in life can learn how to have better relationships by following his lead.
A teacher like Morrie is something to be treasured. And I’m pleased to report that he is only one of the many people living with ALS that I have had the good fortune to encounter. Here’s to all who fight the battle with grace, humor, perseverance and faith.