Randy Pausch’s last lecture links morality and purpose

\"Brick walls are there for a reason,\" wrote the late Dr. Randy Pausch, author of the best-selling book, \"The Last Lecture.\"
August 14, 2008

Randy Pausch Last Lecture: Living your childhood dreams

“Brick walls are there for a reason,” wrote the late Dr. Randy Pausch, author of the best-selling book, “The Last Lecture.” A computer scientist and former professor at theUniversity of Virginia and Carnegie Mellon, Pausch argued that brick walls are not there to keep us out. If anything, “brick walls are there to give us a chance to show how badly we want something.”

On July 25, Pausch died of pancreatic cancer, having left this world much too early and leaving behind a wife and three young children. He was 47.

Having just finished his book, what struck me about him was not so much his tragic, premature death, but rather his vitality and his sense of perspective. Published before his death, his best-selling book is sweeping the nation, largely because it is an affirmation of life an affirmation of the here and now. It has become a popular literary wake-up call.

Titled, “The Last Lecture,” Pausch shares a number of personal anecdotes and insights throughout his 206-page book. The work is an outgrowth of a public lecture given by select faculty at Carnegie Mellon. The format of the talk invites a teacher each year to share his or her reflections on life with colleagues and students in an open forum. Pausch’s “The Last Lecture” was particularly poignant, given his terminal medical condition.

Apropos to our community’s upcoming celebration of the Days of Awe and, in particular, Yom Kippur, Pausch designates a chapter heading in his book: “A Bad Apology Is Worse Than No Apology.” In his words, “Apologies are not pass/fail.” Or, as he writes: “Any performance lower than an A really doesn’t cut it.”

I’m not in full agreement with him on this rarely are things all or nothing in life but that not withstanding, he does list three things, to which I agree, that must be included by the person who wronged the other for it to be an appropriate apology:

  1. What I did was wrong.
  2. I feel badly that I hurt you.
  3. How do I make this better?

Eight-hundred years earlier, Moses Maimonides offered the following insight into what constitutes a true repentant. In his legal work, Mishneh Torah (Hilchei Teshuvah 2:1), Maimonides suggests a good indicator of a truly apologetic person is one, who when faced with a similar situation, does not behave in the same manner. The feelings might still be there, but the behavior is different, improved, virtuous.

Like the Days of Awe that will soon be upon us, Pausch’s “The Last Lecture” reminds us all of life’s brevity. Like Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, Pausch’s book asks us to ask ourselves: What matters most in life? How can I live a more purpose-filled existence? How can I fortify my faith without becoming excessive? How can I live more in the moment, appreciating all that I have?

In that way, Pausch was a teacher’s teacher. Through his book and recorded lecture, he continues to teach all of us to pause and look within.

But as inspiring as his book is and as vital as his life was, we Jews need look no further than our religious tradition when fashioning our own “Last Lecture.” Though our tradition may not be a best seller, throughout time, it remains forever ageless, undiminished by popular trends, God-filled and when taken seriously, life-transforming.

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