On July 25, 2008 Randy Pausch died at the age of 47. He was a Computer Science professor at Columbia University and had been in the news several times in the year before his death. What has made him famous was a lecture he gave at his university, a lecture that has now been viewed millions. Columbia University has what they call a ‘Last Lecture’ series, an ongoing series of lectures in which professors appear in a large auditorium before whatever students and faculty want to attend, and they say what they would say if that was to be their last lecture. They are free to talk about whatever they believe is most important, or whatever might best summarize their life’s work, or, whatever else they want to say. The lecture is usually a hypothetical situation– what they would say if this was their last lecture.
It was about the time Randy Pausch’s turn came up a year ago that he received the diagnosis that the cancer he had been battling was terminal, and would have only six to nine months left to live. He decided that he would go ahead with the lecture, and for him, this would indeed be his last lecture. He would soon have to quit teaching; first of all, in order to focus on the medical treatments that might extend his life for at best a few months, and then also to spend as much time as possible in his remaining days with his young family. He had married late in life, and he and his wife had three pre-school children. He gave this last lecture in the Fall of 2007, and although he lived a few months past the time limit doctors initially gave him, he died the following summer.
What made his lecture so popular was his positive, upbeat attitude, even in the face of such tragedy and hopelessness. He was open about his condition and his prospects, he faced his reality logically and calmly, he held on to no false hopes, and he imparted a lot of good wisdom about life in a energetic, powerful way.
I read his book in which he expands on what he said in the lecture, and there is much there that I agree with and admire. He was raised by strict, old-school parents, who were also creative, encouraging of his brilliant and inquisitive intellect, and supportive of his energetic and independent spirit. He learned, and then expected his students to learn hard work, self-reliance, and the ability to take criticism and accept responsibility.
Whining was not allowed in his home when he was growing up. He was complaining one time to his mother about some extremely difficult classes and tests he was going through in college. In the book he called that time the second worst time in his life, second only to chemotherapy. His mother’s terse reply was, “Well yes, we know how you feel son, but just remember, when your father was your age, he was in combat, and the Germans were trying to kill him.” So Randy learned to just work hard and not feel sorry for himself. Later in his life, when people wondered how he got to be a tenured university professor at such a young age, he would reply, “Call me at my office any Friday night at 10:00 and I will tell you the answer.” As I said, there is much about the book that I like. In fact, I think it is safe to say that I liked everything that Randy Pausch had to say. The only thing that disappointed me about the book was what he did not say.
Randy Pausch is now dead, and I would have been interested in hearing from such a wise and optimistic man what he believed was going to happen to him when his earthly life was over. He referred to this subject only once in the book, and that was to say he was not going to say anything about it. He said he belonged to a Presbyterian church, but that is the only thing he said about religion. I wish he would have said more. Reading between the lines I have some guesses as to what he believed about what lies beyond death, but I don’t want to make too much of mere guesses. I will, however, make some general observations of my own on the subject.
It is often said that it is not the quantity of years you get that matters, but what is important is the quality of your years, however many you get. There is some truth in that. However, a last lecture by a 90 year old would not have received nearly as much attention as Randy Pausch’s, no matter how good it was. There is something especially sad and captivating about words of this dying young man with a wife and small children, no matter how excellent was the quality of his years. And he did have wonderful life. Pausch’s book is filled with gratitude for what he called ‘hitting the jackpot’ in life’s lottery; having terrific parents, a great career, and a wonderful wife and family. It was a quality life indeed; but it does matter that it ended far too soon. We want to have both quality and quantity.
But of course, it is not quantity of years, or even the quality of life, that is most important. What is most important is that you somewhere along the line figure out three things: where you come from, why you are here, and where you are going when your all too brief time here will end. All three of these questions put us squarely in the realm of religious faith, and that is the one thing conspicuously absent in Randy Pausch’s last lecture.
The question of why we are here and where we are going has two possible answers: one comes from an old beer commercial, and the other comes from the Bible. You can decide which one you like best, which one has the most credibility, and which one you will live your life by. And your answer will make all the difference, now and forever. The old beer commercial says, “You only go around once in life, so grab all you can this time around;” and the message of Bible is, “I am but a pilgrim here, passing through on my way to a better home.” (continued…)
Ecclesiastes 12:1…7 — Remember your Creator in the days of your youth, before the days of trouble come and the years approach when you will say, “I find no pleasure in them…” and the dust returns to the ground it came from, and the spirit returns to God who gave it.
Ecclesiastes 12:13 — Now all has been heard; here is the conclusion of the matter: Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the duty of all mankind.
Psalm 23:6 — Surely your goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.
Let our chief goal, O God, be your glory, and to enjoy you forever. Amen. –John Calvin