In February I told you about Randy Pausch, the computer scientist who became an Internet sensation and best-selling author for his “last lecture,” a talk he gave at Carnegie Mellon University, where he taught, while he was dying of pancreatic cancer. You remember he talked about how important it is for us to find the passions in our lives that bring out the best in us. None of us knows how long we have. Indeed, Randy ended up living only into his 40s. But he was happy with a life in which he gave himself to those he loved and the work that filled him.
It’s an inspirational story, but you know the world may never have even learned about Randy’s story but for the work of someone else, the writer Jeffrey Zaslow. So, today I’d like to begin today by telling you a little bit about Jeff.
Jeff was a reporter living in Detroit working for the Wall Street Journal and writing about, what he calls, “life transitions” when his editor passed along a release from Carnegie Mellon announcing Pausch’s lecture. He thought it might make for a nice story.
Jeff checked on last-minute flights from Detroit to Pittsburgh and found out it would cost him $300, more than the Journal was willing to spring for. His editor suggested that Jeff stay home and interview Pausch by phone the day after the lecture. But Jeff thought that wasn’t good enough. He wanted to meet Randy and get a sense of the scene. So, he decided to drive the 300 miles from Detroit to Pittsburg and the next day was in the second row when Randy delivered his talk.
Like everyone else in the room, he was touched by Randy’s presentation of what essentially was a love letter to his colleagues and family. When Jeff’s story about it ran in the Wall Street Journal online, it included a link to a video of Randy’s lecture, which had been recorded by Carnegie Mellon, and it quickly went viral on the Internet.
Given that reception, Randy’s friends and colleagues urged him to expand the lecture into a book. Randy initially wasn’t keen on the idea, figuring that writing a book would take away precious time that he wanted to devote to his family. But then the idea arose of contacting Jeff and seeing if he might put the book together based on the lecture and interviews with Randy. And that’s what they did.
Jeff said that Randy, the engineer, was, in his words, “a time management freak.” Determined to stay as fit as he could, he went on a daily hour-long bike ride, so the two worked out a routine in which Randy would wear a cell phone head set on his bike rides, and Jeff would interview him. And so it went: an hour a day for 53 days.
The book came out in April 2008 with a press run of 400,000 that sold out in two days; the publisher went back to print five million more. “The Last Lecture” remains hugely popular both as a book and a You Tube video.
Jeff said that he thought what made Randy’s lecture, in fact his whole story, so popular was that it was clearly authentic. In a time where the air waves and Internet are full of “reality” shows that are little more than set-ups for people to strut in front of a camera, this was the real deal: a brilliant but quirky fellow who sought not to bring attention to himself but to urge us all to give our time, our love to what matters most.
Jeff said he was delighted to be able to place a copy of the completed book in Randy’s hands three months before he died. Although, he said that when he would call Randy to tell him all the places where the book was appearing or another language it was being translated into, Randy would bring him up short: “Stop Googling my name, Jeff, and go home and hug your kids,” he would say.
For you see Jeff had shared his own story with Randy in their conversations. Married and the father of three daughters – a situation I can relate to – Jeff would say, “I’m quite comfortable being outnumbered by women.”
Before moving to the Wall Street Journal he worked at another newspaper as an advice columnist, and he often found himself in the position of giving advice to clueless men about dealing with women. He tells of one column he wrote after a boy stood his daughter up who he asked to the prom. The night before, he called and said that he and his friends thought the prom was stupid and they were going to spend the evening in a friend’s basement. She was welcome to come.
Not only was Jeff uninterested in having his daughter spend the evening in that basement, he was outraged that the boy had backed out at the last minute, after she had brought her dress and everything. So he used the power he had at his disposal: he wrote about it in the newspaper, telling his readers. “The lesson of the story – and of that night – is to teach your sons to be chivalrous, and your daughters not to take it.”
Another male reader wrote to ask how he could persuade his girlfriend to have breast augmentation surgery. He responded that the woman “deserves someone who loves her for who she is, not how she looks in a sweater. If you can’t do that for her, she won’t need implants anyway because she will already have a big boob in her life. You.”
As you can tell, Jeff had a talent for zingers. But he said that the most important lesson his reporting had taught him was how fragile life is and how important it is not to leave words we want to share with our loved ones unsaid.
In one column he wrote around Valentine’s Day one year he told the story of a judge who often told his children that he loved them. One day as his 18-year-old daughter was leaving the house, he called out to her, “Kristin, remember I love you.”
“I love you, too, dad,” she replied. That day she died in a car wreck. It was a story that Jeff took to heart and led him to make a practice of saying “I love you” to his wife and daughters before saying good-bye or hanging up the phone.
This story comes to mind when we come to occasions like today that are transitions in our lives. We pray that the youths of this congregation that we send out to the world will be back many times to tell of their adventures and to share how they make their way in the world.
But we also acknowledge that this is a time of passage: there are things that these young women and men are leaving behind and new things they are taking up. So, it is a good moment to say some of those things that we want them to know: how proud we are of the people they have become, how impressed we are with their maturity, and how grateful we are to have known them and have been a part of their growing in this brief space of time they have been with us.
Too often, pride or shyness keep us from speaking our heart’s truth, or for that matter from taking the time to hear it from another. So, we make do with substitutes such as greeting cards or gifts, all appropriate in their own way, of course, but not what we really need to say and hear.
What we need to say and hear is the truth. It doesn’t have to be flowery words or orations. It simply should come from and be received by the heart.
My wife, Debbie, is a hospice nurse, and she tells the story of one day doing some work on a computer at another person’s cubicle at her office, when she saw a small piece of paper with a list of words posted on a bulletin board at work.
“I love you . . . Please forgive me . . . I forgive you . . . Thank you . . . Good-bye”
She wondered what it was about, and so she asked one of the chaplains. She was told that they feel that these words summarize what chaplains believe we all need to hear and to say before we die.
“I love you . . . Please forgive me . . . I forgive you . . . Thank you . . . Good-bye”
The end of life, after all, is a stressful time. We each approach it as innocents: we have no experience at it. And so it’s not unusual for us to be consumed with all the medical details of the dying process, treatments considered or refused, all the ways that the body slowly shuts down. Add to that the emotion burden everyone brings – regret, anger, shock, grief – and it’s no wonder that it often is a traumatizing experience.
Amid all of this, though, there needs to be time given to the truth of relationships, finding time amid all the turmoil to tell each other how much we care, how grateful we are for each other’s company, and how we hope to be reconciled at last. And finally, acknowledging the truth of parting and making our peace.
We may not fully achieve it. Life is not always tidy, and there are wounds we carry that can make it hard to find reconciliation. But it’s worth giving it a shot.
In a subsequent book after The Last Lecture, Jeff Zastrow told the story of Chesley B. Sullenberger III, the pilot who safely landed a crippled airline in the Hudson River in 2009. He recalled how a Holocaust survivor living along the river in New York City observed the whole scene and wrote to Sullenberger, applauding him for keeping a cool head and doing what he could to help the passengers survive. Jeff said the man told Sullenberger that we never know if one person someday may make the difference that will save the world. Who knows if someone on that plane might have been that person, he wrote? “So, thank you, for saving the world.”
Zastrow said in a TED talk on the Internet that the lesson he learned from Sullenberger’s feat was that we can’t know what’s going to happen, but whatever life gives us, “We’ve got to be honorable, be moral; we’ve got to work our hardest.”
And here’s the coda that adds another twist to this story. A little over a year ago, not long after his TED talk, Jeff Zastrow was on his way home from a book signing in northern Michigan when he died, much too young, in a car accident on icy roads.
None of us can know what life will give us, but we have the choice of deciding what we bring to life. We owe it to those we love to let them know that, and often. We owe it to ourselves and others not to duck our responsibilities, but to step up to them. If we at this congregation have done our job, we have given you who leave the world of high school and our Religious Education program a sense of what some of your duties are: to treat each person you meet as someone with inherent worth and dignity, to see yourselves as agents of justice, equity and compassion, to be accepting of others while holding to your own conscience.
I hope we have helped you understand your community as extending far beyond here to people of all places and in the end encompassing all life on Earth, the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.
You go with our blessings and our hopes, but we will always welcome you back with joy. And as you make your way in the world, if you find a Unitarian Universalist congregation in the community where you settle, you might want to check it out, and help us keep this great faith tradition vital and alive.
Let what you have found here in this community be a spark to your imagination that you, too, might find your place in the family of things.