Category Archives: died

Memorials and the healing of the spirit

I was at New England Yearly Meeting over the weekend.

While there, I had my first chance to see the AFSC’s Eyes Wide Open exhibit, or a piece of it. They have a collection of military boots of the soldiers killed in Iraq, in addition to a memorial to the Iraqi civilian casualties. The number of boots has become large enough that the boots no longer travel as an exhibit together but now appear in regional form, and I saw the boots from the New England soldiers.

Each boot listed the soldier’s name, military rank, age, hometown and state. Some of the boots had notes written by the families, or an American flag stuck in a boot. One had a teddy bear. Another, a member of an Eastern religion, had a little shrine to the soldier’s god. Some boots were pristine. Others muddied and scarred. It was a somber reminder of the horrible costs of a war that we never had to wage that has disproportionately taken the lives of “volunteers” with fewer other economic options. I took in the boots in prayerful silence and the shame for national bellicosity that has condemned so many innocent Americans and Iraqis to die.

One of the NEYM participants spoke later in a meeting for worship of a recent visit to Virginia Tech (Viriginia Polytechnic Institute), site of the horrible massacre in April 2007 by a student, Seung-Hui Cho, who took 32 lives and wounded many others before taking his own. The campus in Blacksburg, VA, sits close to a quarry and many of the buildings are made with hokum stone from that quarry.

The speaker told how she learned that in the days following the Va. Tech tragedy, mysteriously overnight a makeshift memorial appeared with 32 hokum stones in a semi-circle, with a ribbon for the name of each person who died in the shooting spree. Then a few days later, a 33rd hokum stone appeared with a ribbon for the perpetrator, Cho Seung Hui. There ensued some debate among the Va. Tech community about whether the perpetrator should have a stone at the memorial or not. Some argued that the stones should be only for innocent victims and ultimately the 33rd stone was taken away. The speaker and others discussed the Quaker view that there is that of God in every person, Cho included, and how this could have been a time for still deeper healing. Another wondered where the mother or father of Cho can now go to mourn for the loss of her son and the tragedy.

Va Tech makeshift memorial (on right of photo)

Va Tech makeshift memorial (on right of photo)

I recalled Randy Pausch’s view that everyone has their good side, but it takes longer to emerge in some people than others. (Incidentally, Randy didn’t make much of his religion but was a Unitarian Universalist who came to this faith as a member of the First Unitarian Church of Pittsburgh; I don’t know, for example, whether he believed in God.) In any event, the NEYM experience and the Va. Tech memorial debate evoked a narrative that played out among comments in this blog surrounding Randy Pausch. De Selby (whom I have never met) was very critical of Randy Pausch in blog comments, claiming that Randy was not sick and was using his claim of pancreatic cancer to sell millions of books. At some point I cut off debate between De Selby and supporters of Randy since it no longer seemed constructive. De Selby asked why I was no longer posting his rants; I said I disagreed with his views, knew Randy and that Randy was a decent person, but that he was entitled to his anger and his views. I urged De Selby to channel his energy into leading his life in way that he thought was inspirational if he felt Randy wasn’t. There were many nasty posts of blog readers against De Selby which I chose not to post since it seemed unconstructive. Then Randy died. Some readers posted nasty blog comments mocking De Selby for his earlier views that Randy’s cancer was a fraud. I didn’t post those but I did post the blog comments of a few who gently asked whether De Selby wished to comment now and another who said alas De Selby’s claims of a fraud apparently had not been true. De Selby took this opening to apologize for his comments and noted that they came from having had family members who died from cancer who appeared far sicker than Randy. He thought Randy (who looked in good health) was just using cancer to get publicity. A circle of support opened around De Selby after his admission of wrong to show how he was proving Randy’s point that people do show their good side if you wait long enough. I don’t know what De Selby will go on to do, but I hope it will be worthy of Randy. You can read the original post here and the comments here.

These incidents made me reflect on when death and memorials are healing and when they are embittering. I’m reminded of the wise words of a cousin who said that she wanted the death of a loved one to be a point of growth, not the beginning of a drawing in, a calcifying depression and a disengagement from others.

Faith is the bird that that feels the light and sings

When the dawn is still dark.

— Rabindranath Tagore

My 8 Life Lessons from Randy Pausch

Randy Pausch sadly died on July 25, 2008 after leading a brief but powerful life. I think the legacy of Randy Pausch is for me in his life lessons:

I’ve supplied 8, you can supply you own in comments…

In no particular order, here they are:

1) As much as we’re suckered by advertising to believe that happiness comes from the right soda or shaving cream or car, Randy taught us of the much greater enduring importance of human ties.

2) Children feeling loved by adults is WAY more important than any unintentional damage done to an object, as Randy’s story about minimizing the damage done to his new convertible when his nephew Chris threw up in it on the way back from an amusement park. As Randy said: “I don’t care how much joy you get out of owning a shiny new thing; it’s not as good I felt from making sure that an 8 year old didn’t have to feel guilty for having the flu.” It’s a lesson that as a parent is all too easy to forget.

3) Letting kids’ dreams live. I recently returned home to see a pretty treehouse newly covered with bright green, yellow and blue paint that my children had decided “looked better”. I held back my anger and remembered Randy’s story about the importance of his parents letting him paint his walls of his room with whatever formulas or design he wanted. I’m expecting amazing dividends over the longer term; who cares about house resale value (especially in today’s market)….

4) Persistence and hard work: parents today are too quick to reward output (“what a nice drawing”) and not nearly focused enough on getting children to realize that persistence pays off (“you should be really proud of how hard you worked on that puzzle” or “proud of how long you stuck with X”). Randy’s message that brick walls aren’t there to keep us from our dreams but to separate those who REALLY want a dream from those who only wanted it a bit (who then give up). I see the brick walls as encouraging greater persistence. One of the experiences that taught me the most about what I can achieve was wanting to give up while climbing a 5.7 pitch wall (my first climb) on Outward Bound. The instructor insisted that I couldn’t back down from where I was and had to continue climbing; at the moment I wanted to throttle him (not that I would have) but my feelings of anger had turned into a huge bear hug by the time I made it to the top.

5) Finding the Light in others: as a Quaker, I strongly identify with Randy’s message that everyone has a good side, but it just takes longer to find it in some than others. A lesson that as much as I strongly believe it, takes amazing patience to realize in one’s life. But when it finally does come, it’s like a blade of grass or a flower emerging from a crack in the asphalt.

6) Irrepressible optimism and lack of bitterness: down to the end, Randy was ever optimistic, as energetic as could be expected. A close friend had cancer recently and refused to get negative because she pointed out that the negative energy was like a cancer of its own. [Some of this is spelled out in the documentary What the #$*! Do We Know!?]

7) The value of failure: this reminds me of Joseph Campbell’s “Dig where you stumble; there you will find gold”. Our society values success so much that it’s hard not to view failure as, well, a failure. Moreover, history is viewed through the lens of the successors, and that plus Hollywood (which values simplistic stories) seems to make every successful idea or relationship seem like it was pre-destined. In real life, so many great ideas or strong relationships or successful people were forged on the anvil of prior failure which then became experience. The key is not whether you fail or not initially, but learning from that failure and getting beyond it.

8) Living with the child-like wonder. As a parent, one is often tempted to think that I have the wisdom that my children will sometime gain, or to be frustrated that they don’t yet have this wisdom. But how powerful it can be to turn that around and say they have the child-like wonder, some of which I have lost, and to use that as a constant reminder of how much they have to teach us. Whether it be the love of being in a sprinkler, or creating an imaginary city in the forest using nature, or the thrill at seeing an unusual bug, or such empathy that they are in tears about whether a protagonist in a story who is in trouble will ultimately be okay, or living so much in the moment that they lose track of the world around them…

How does the “voice of Randy” change what you do?

Randy Pausch, alas, has died

Randy with wife Jai and children

Randy with wife Jai and children

It was announced today by Diane Sawyer on GMA (July 25, 2008) that Randy Pausch succumbed to pancreatic cancer earlier this morning at home in Virginia. While he didn’t live that long in years (47), his life was a luminescent falling star that touched so many of his students, watchers and readers of the “Last Lecture.”

We wish Jai, and their young children (Dylan, Logan and Chloe) well on coping with this enormous loss and hope that millions of us can show the ultimate power of Randy’s life by translating his life lessons into our own lives.

RIP, Randy. I’m sure you’re already inspring the angels in worlds beyond and I’m thinking of the lucky newborn who gets to inherit your soul.

As Randy himself put it in remarks to CMU graduates recently and demonstrated through his life, “[W]e don’t beat the [Grim] Reaper by living longer. We beat the Reaper by living well.”

Here’s what I see Randy’s legacy as being in my own life. For more of Randy’s life wisdom visit here, for inspiring quotes of Randy’s visit here. See the CNN story of his passing here and see ABC News story of his death.

The family requests that donations on his behalf be directed to the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network, 2141 Rosecrans Ave., Suite 7000, El Segundo, Calif. 90245, or to Carnegie Mellon’s Randy Pausch Memorial Fund, which primarily supports the university’s continued work on the Alice project (that Randy started through CMU’s computer science department).

See Randy’s comments to the CMU graduates in June.

And spurred by Randy Pausch, the NY Times Well blog had a contest on advice for children with these winning pieces of advice.  And Randy explained in this WSJ piece how to say goodbye which has some wonderful videos.

Randy Pausch’s passing away and legacy

Many people wish to know inspiring Randy Pausch’s current medical condition. Alas he passed away last night at home in Virginia early on July 25, 2008 from pancreatic cancer at the age of 47.  Here are the 8 ways I see him influencing my life (his legacy).

I wrote about his amazing Carnegie Mellon University “Last Lecture” earlier (which has been viewed by more than 6,000,000 Americans. I also wrote how he has lived to fulfill his last unfulfilled dream of playing with a professional football team. [Randy was the head teaching assistant when I was a teaching assistant in an introductory computer class at Brown University some years back.]

He lived a bright life to the end, he went back in June to give a charge to the graduating seniors at his beloved Carnegie Mellon University. Randy who called himself an “accidental celebrity” and says there are not many of these for pancreatic cancer since people don’t survive long enough for there to be a Michael J. Fox, mustered the energy, in March, 2008, to testify powerfully and movingly before Congress on pancreatic cancer research.

Pausch noted that no progress has been made on pancreatic cancer research in the last 30 years and there is now a far better chance of living with AIDS than pancreatic cancer. Randy noted that pancreatic cancer is the fourth leading cause of cancer deaths, a disease which strikes innocent victims: Randy exercised, ate right, didn’t smoke, didn’t drink, but still contracted this disease. Randy Pausch thinks we can protect ourselves from this disease but not without dramatically increased funding for research. The disease is genetic and he goes to sleep at night fearing whether kids (ages 2-9) have this genetic marker, although he hoped with dramatically increased funding for pancreatic cancer research that by the time any of his kids get this disease (which usually strikes later in life), doctors will know how to cure it through genetic treatment.

See notable quotes from Randy here and his life wisdom here.

Note: Randy’s book The Last Lecture (Hyperion Press) was released (April 8, 2008), co-written with WSJ reporter Jeff Zaslow. See Randy’s video about the book and preview of interview with Diane Sawyer of ABC News special about the book (airing April 10, 2008).