This month our thoughts turn to holiday traditions, especially the tradition of giving gifts to those we care about and to those in need. Most of us don’t have to look far to find someone whose needs are greater than our own. At the end of the day, we count our blessings, taking stock of our good or bad fortunes, which most of us measure in health and happiness.
Perhaps the most important gift we enjoy—and one that we may take for granted—is our time in this life. Perhaps you’ve seen the movie “The Bucket List,” which portrays an unusual friendship between billionaire hospital owner Edward Cole (played by Jack Nicholson) and car mechanic Carter Chambers (Morgan Freeman). The two men leave their terminal cancer treatment behind to travel the globe and pursue the items on their “bucket list”—things they want to do before they “kick the bucket.” Although the movie chronicles their somewhat outlandish adventures, it’s more about their journey of friendship, emotional support, and hearts bound by the common experience of terminal illness.
In “Live Like You Were Dying,” Tim McGraw sings of a forty-something man who learns he has a terminal condition. Trying to be a better person after learning his days were numbered, he “loved deeper, spoke sweeter, and gave forgiveness he’d been denying.” If only it were as easy as that song or the “Bucket List” suggests!
I have found no words more powerful than those of Carnegie Mellon University computer science professor Randy Pausch. After being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and told he had just months to live, he accepted an invitation to prepare what would become his “last lecture.” He knew he wanted his message to address his greatest concern—how to teach his three young children (ages 5, 2, and 1) what they would need to know over the next 20 years. He wanted to help them deal with life’s challenges and make sure they knew the importance of family and how much their father had loved them. He also wanted to impart his joy of life. The simple words of this lecture, which he titled “Really achieving your childhood dreams” and delivered in September 2007, impart lessons for everyone. In it, he revealed his six dreams and described how he set out to achieve them, admitting where he fell short. He stressed the value of having such dreams and of identifying the lesson in each endeavor. He wrote his last lecture for his children, but it was clear that in his work as a professor, he not only had benefited from others who helped him achieve his dreams but had shared those lessons with his students, helping them succeed. The lecture was later turned into a book titled The Last Lecture.
Pausch had always been a teacher. Among the more poignant lessons he discussed in his last lecture was about learning how to judge yourself—being more self-reflective and accepting feedback from others to find out what you can improve. Another lesson was that being smart isn’t enough; people need to help one another feel happy to be together, whether at work or in the classroom. He also shared an expression he learned: “Experience is what you get when you didn’t get what you wanted.”
Pausch reminded students to work hard at everything, tell the truth all the time, not be afraid to ask questions, and let others help you if you want something bad enough; in other words, never give up. And, of course, have fun each day until the day you die. Simple lessons, but ones we dare not forget.
Pausch died at age 47—too early, by most of our standards. His words gave me pause to think about how I might answer the question, “What would you do if you learned you had only a few months to live?” For me, his book is special because his advice can help anyone overcome hurdles in life—what he calls brick walls. But most of all, it’s special because it reminded me how thankful I am for all the gifts in life I treasure. May you too be moved by his words and enjoy the reflection on your gifts. To view Randy Pausch’s last lecture, visit http://www.cmu.edu/uls/journeys/randy-pausch/index.html.
Pamela F. Cipriano, PhD, RN, FAAN, NEA-BC