Nearly 30 Years After His Death, Morrie Schwartz Offers New Life Lessons
From the subject of 'Tuesdays with Morrie,' the discovery of a manuscript on aging creatively leads to a new book 'The Wisdom of Morrie'
How many of us could absorb the crushing news of a terminal illness like ALS — Lou Gehrig's disease — and then use the last eight months of our life to teach lessons on living as death closes in?
That's what struck me when I first read Jack Thomas' 1995 story in the Boston Globe about the retired Brandeis University sociology professor Morrie Schwartz. Rather than withdrawing from life after his devastating diagnosis, Morrie actually blossomed, writing 75 aphorisms on death and dying and then putting his teaching skills into overdrive.
Thomas asked Morrie how his obit might read. He paused and said "Morrie Schwartz, 79 years old, died yesterday," paused again and said, "to the end of his life, he was a teacher."
Was he ever. To anyone who would listen. One on one with friends. Small groups of his students. And then as an ALS patient, on bigger and bigger stages to bigger and bigger audiences.
He paused and said "Morrie Schwartz, 79 years old, died yesterday," paused again and said, "to the end of his life, he was a teacher."
The spotlight on Morrie began with the Globe's Thomas. Then, in three interviews with Ted Koppel on "Nightline," as ALS took an increasing toll on him between March and October 1995, Morrie was philosophical ("Maybe the distance between life and death isn't as great as you think"), self-assured ("I think I have some things to offer the world") and yet, vulnerable — Morrie wasn't ashamed on national television to disclose his increasing dependency on others. His greatest fear was that he would need help to wipe himself after going to the bathroom.
And it was during these final eight months that Morrie's former student, journalist Mitch Albom, reconnected with his favorite professor, visiting every Tuesday until he died. Each week, he would record Morrie's observations and aphorisms for a book that he hoped would pay Morrie's considerable medical bills.
A Global Hit
But publisher after publisher rejected the book proposal. Then, just before Morrie died, Albom was able to share the good news — the book finally had a publisher, though Morrie wouldn't live to read a word of it.
Millions of others would. When "Tuesdays with Morrie" was published in 1997, it wasn't an instant hit, but word of mouth turned Albom's book into one of the bestselling memoirs in the history of publishing. And it turned Morrie Schwartz, who had become something of a national figure in his last year of life, into a global presence that continues to this day.
Albom's book spent years on the New York Times bestseller list and was translated into dozens of languages. It spawned a play of the same name that has been staged all over this country and in many corners of the globe, including China, Australia, Poland, Japan and South Africa. Death is one of the great levelers among the rich and poor. No one escapes it.
The Unexpected Discovery
As improbable as the Morrie saga is, he was saving one more surprise for us. More than 27 years after his death, "The Wisdom of Morrie," a book on aging that Morrie wrote between 1988 and 1992, will be published on Tuesday, April 18.
It was Morrie's youngest son, Rob Schwartz, who accidentally rediscovered the manuscript in a drawer in his father's study in the early 2000s. Rob would become the family-appointed editor who would get the book ready for publication. Years earlier, serendipitously, Rob briefly returned home from Asia in the summer of 1989 just as his dad was doing early work on the book. Father and son brainstormed and batted ideas back and forth that Rob says "set him up beautifully to eventually work on this project."
Just before Rob returned home that summer, Morrie previewed the book on a local Boston cable access program. Rob recently unearthed the tape of his dad describing what he hoped this book would be: "It's a book for older people — 60 and over, retired, who can use the next 20 or 30 years of life in a very productive and creative way. [In retirement] there are no bosses, no schedule. There's no 8 to 5 or 9 to 5, you can make a creative life for yourself, rather than think your life is over. I would say it's just beginning."
The subtitle of "The Wisdom of Morrie" is "Living and Aging Creatively & Joyfully." And Rob says, "Dad felt that in order to enjoy life at any stage, but certainly when you're elderly, you need to be creative and connect with people around you. Human connection was a huge theme of my father's life."
Ahead of His Time
"I think Morrie was certainly ahead of his time in that the first writings about successful aging or aging well came out [in the late 1980's]. Morrie was in that cohort of people who were starting to talk positively about aging," says Laura Carstensen, the founding director of Stanford's Center on Longevity.
"The one place where I disagree with him in the book is when he argues we have to be prepared to become dependent because everybody who gets older is going to need some help." Carstensen says that view reflects "a failure to appreciate the interdependence we all have throughout our lives…to think that's only an aging thing is probably inaccurate."
"Some of us also wish to contribute to the future and be remembered in it in a particular way to influence the shape it takes and the values that prevail."
Rob says his dad was not at all interested in aging until later in his life, that he always thought of himself as a young person. He would go dancing, and Rob recalls "from his mid to late 50's to early 70's, was probably the most active period of his life."
Morrie writes in the book how he had internalized ageist feelings. "And that's why the topic is so powerful to him because he knows how people internalize these ideas that old is bad and useless and you might as well go off somewhere and die," says Rob.
In the afterword to "The Wisdom of Aging," Rob said his dad decided to write this book because he was "bothered by the fact that elderly people internalized these feelings of being useless and lived out their final years in quiet pathos. He was determined to reach other people and offer an avenue to make the twilight the most incandescent light in people's lives."
Carstensen says, "There is a lot of evidence that older people are actually more satisfied with their lives than younger people are. And in better mental health, they're less lonely, more content, more satisfied, have a stronger sense of who they are compared to younger people. I still think because I work in this area, I'm always chagrined that my work often makes headlines — Older people are doing well! Can you believe it? And so, I think that isn't common knowledge, but I do think more and more people are recognizing that, emotionally speaking, older ages are much better than younger ages and this is especially true today because of the mental health crisis we see in people who are relatively young."
One passage in the final chapter eerily forecasts the legacy Morrie would leave behind: "Many of us in later life," Morrie wrote, "would like to reach into the future, make some mark in it, live on in it, and leave a legacy after we are gone as a way of fulfilling our potential. For most of us, our children and grandchildren constitute our greatest contribution to the future. Some of us also wish to contribute to the future and be remembered in it in a particular way to influence the shape it takes and the values that prevail."
"Dad sounds very prescient in foreseeing the impact that he's going to have in the world," Rob says. "To have the gigantic impact that he's had on the country and the world, I don't think he could have imagined, or he would have consciously thought that was going to happen."