The Wisdom of Morrie Schwartz

atkins-bookshelf-quotationsThis marks Bookshelf’s 500th post. This post is dedicated to Bookshelf’s loyal readers .

What happens when an individual is diagnosed with a terminal disease? Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, a pioneering psychiatrist who studied grief and near-death experiences, provided this insight: “Those who learned to know death, rather than to fear and fight it, become our teachers about life.” And that is exactly what Morrie Schwartz, a sociology professor at Brandeis University, did when he was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS): he taught us about life. Schwartz echoes Kubler-Ross’s paradoxical lesson about life: “Once you learn how to die, you learn how to live.” Indeed, Schwartz’s impending mortality was his inspiration: “[He] refused to be depressed. Instead, Morrie had become a lightning rod of ideas. He jotted down his thoughts on yellow pads, envelopes, folders, scrap paper. He wrote bite-sized philosophies about living with death’s shadow.” Schwartz’s eloquent wisdom is collected over 14 Tuesday meetings with sports writer Mitch Albom. The resulting book, Tuesdays with Morrie, is Schwartz’s final informal college class that could be titled “Life’s Greatest Lessons 101.” Like the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke in Letters to a Young Poet, Morrie shares profound, timeless truths about individual and family/community, love and work, happiness and despair, dignity and dishonor, health and illness, and life and death. Although Rilke and Schwartz have perished, their words should not die with them — they must be shared with new generations. Perhaps the world would be a better place if these two inspirational books, from these two remarkable teachers, were required reading in high school or college. And should an individual ever get lost in life, he or she can revisit these two books for inspiration and guidance. So that his life and words are not forgotten, Bookshelf presents the wisdom of Morrie:

Accept what you are able to do and what you are not able to do; accept the past as past, without denying it or discarding it; learn to forgive yourself and to forgive others.

Find someone to share your heart, give to your community, be at peace with yourself, try to be as human as you can be.

[The] culture we have does not make people feel good about themselves. We’re teaching the wrong things. And you have to be strong enough to say if the culture doesn’t work, don’t buy it. Create your own. Most people can’t do it.

So many people walk around with a meaningless life. They seem half-asleep, even when they’re busy doing things they think are important. This is because they’re chasing the wrong things. The way you get meaning into your life is to devote yourself to loving others, devote yourself to your community around you, and devote yourself to creating something that gives you purpose and meaning.

[If] you really want it, then you’ll make your dream happen.

Life is a series of pulls back and forth… A tension of opposites, like a pull on a rubber band. Most of us live somewhere in the middle. A wrestling match… Which side win? Love wins. Love always wins.

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.

The most important thing in life is to learn how to give out love, and to let it come in.

There are a few rules I know to be true about love and marriage: If you don’t respect the other person, you’re gonna have a lot of trouble. If you don’t know how to compromise, you’re gonna have a lot of trouble. If you can’t talk openly about what goes on between you, you’re gonna have a lot of trouble. And if you don’t have a common set of values in life, you’re gonna have a lot of trouble. Your values must be alike. 

I don’t allow myself any more self-pity than that. A little each morning, a few tears, and that’s all… 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 goodbye.

Sometimes you can’t believe what you see; you have to believe what you feel.

Once you learn how to die, you learn how to live.

If you accept you are going to die at any time, then you might not be as ambitious as you are.

There is no foundation, no secure ground, upon which people may stand today if it isn’t the family.

This is part of what a family is about, not just love. It’s knowing that your family will be there watching out for you. Nothing else will give you that. Not money. Not fame. Not work. 

Don’t cling to things, because everything is impermanent.

What if today were my last day on earth?

If you’ve found meaning in your life, you don’t want to go back. You want to go forward. You want to see more, do more. You can’t wait until sixty-five.

Money is not a substitute for tenderness, and power is not a substitute for tenderness.

We’ve got a sort of brainwashing going on in our country… Do you know how they brainwash people? They repeat something over and over. And that’s what we do in this country. Owning things is good. More money is good. More property is good. More commercialism is good. More is good. More is good. We repeat it — and have it repeated to us — over and over until nobody bothers to even think otherwise. The average person is so fogged up by all of this, he has no perspective on what’s really important anymore.

Love is how you stay alive, even after you are gone.

Love each other or perish.

The big things — how we think, what we value — those you must choose yourself. You can’t let anyone — or any society — determine those for you.

Don’t let go too soon, but don’t hang on too long.

Be compassionate. And take responsibility for each other. If we only learned those lessons, this world would be so much better a place.

Forgive yourself before you die. Then forgive others.

As long as we can love each other, and remember the feeling of love we had, we can die without ever really going away. All the love you created is still there. All the memories are still there. You live on — in the hearts of everyone you have touched and nurtured while you were here.

Death ends a life, not a relationship.

The important questions have to do with love, responsibility, spirituality, awareness.

You’re not a wave, you are part of the ocean.

There is no such thing as “too late” in life.

Read related posts: Letters to a Young Poet
Wisdom of a Grandmother
Wisdom of Tom Shadyac

For further reading: Tuesdays with Morrie: An Old Man, a Young Man, and Life’s Greatest Lesson by Mitch Albom, Doubleday (1997)
Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke, Vintage (1986)
On Death and Dying by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, Scribner (1997)
On Children and Death: How Children and Their Parents Can and Do Cope With Death by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, Scribner (1997)



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