Monday, January 18, 2010

Lessons from "The Last Lecture"

“Every man dies; not every man really lives.”
—William Wallace, Braveheart

Last week, while my kids were browsing the library shelves, I picked up a copy of The Last Lecture, by Randy Pausch, at my friend Amy’s recommendation. I’d seen the book before and had been intrigued, but I’d avoided checking it out because it hit a little close to home—written by a forty-something father of three who was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and given only months to live. (My own father died in his forties of a heart attack, leaving behind three children and a grieving widow.)

But what Randy Pausch had that my father did not have was the gift of saying good-bye. After his diagnosis, Randy was asked to give a lecture at Carnegie Mellon University, where he was a tenured computer science professor. The lecture—entitled “Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams”—wasn’t about dying; it was about overcoming obstacles and living with all your might. (If you haven’t yet seen the lecture, it’s worth watching on the book's website.)

Pausch’s lecture was posted on YouTube and became such a hit that in the few months he had left before succumbing to cancer, he teamed up with Jeffrey Zaslow to turn it into a book. Now, this isn’t an astounding, life-altering book, nor does it provide mesmerizing secrets about the meaning of life. This is, instead, a father imparting his wisdom, his childhood stories, his experiences and lessons learned, to the three young children who will grow up without him. It’s the kind of thing we all wish we could leave behind for our own children, filled with common-sense wisdom and a glimpse into a life well lived.

Though I enjoyed so many of Randy’s stories in this book, one that stood out to me was “Pouring Soda in the Backseat.” Recalling a day he spent with his sister’s children (before he married and had kids of his own), he writes, in part:

Once, about a dozen years ago, when Chris was seven years old and Laura was nine, I picked them up in my brand-new Volkswagen Cabrio convertible. “Be careful in your Uncle Randy’s new car,” my sister told them. “Wipe your feet before you get in it. Don’t mess anything up. Don’t get it dirty.”
            I listened to her, and thought, as only a bachelor uncle can: “That’s just the sort of admonition that sets kids up for failure. Of course they’d eventually get my car dirty. Kids can’t help it.” So I made things easy. While my sister was outlining the rules, I slowly and deliberately opened a can of soda, turned it over, and poured it on the cloth seats in the back of the convertible. My message: People are more important than things. A car, even a pristine gem like my new convertible, was just a thing.

I love that story, along with other adventures Randy describes with his niece and nephew, including such things as asking, “Why do pancakes have to be round?” and making “an unintentional Roschach test” out of the batter (which reminds me of my own dad, who delighted in shaping pancake batter into our names and various cartoon characters).

But the main reason I like the soda-in-the-convertible story is that I’m so much like Randy’s sister. Her mantra is my own: keep it clean; don’t mess it up. A perfectionist from birth, I was the type of kid who color-coded my school subject folders (English is green, math is red, science is blue…) and I’d stay after class to reason with my high school teachers to get a 98 (gasp! the horror!) restored to a 100. I carefully selected my college and seminary courses to ensure I’d keep my 4.0 GPA, and I even used to keep a can of Pledge at work to polish my desk at the end of the day (honest!), which was of course the source of merciless (and good-natured) teasing from my publishing colleagues.

All of this, you see, was before I got married… and then had three kids.

Life changes exponentially—and indelibly—when that happens.

One of the things I love about my husband, Brett, is his ability to see the big picture much more clearly than I can. I get so lost in the details—Is it clean? Is it orderly?—that I lose sight of something much more important—Is it fun? Is it memorable? . . . and most importantly, Does it communicate love?

A couple of years ago, just days after we moved into our new-to-us home in Sendera Ranch, our then fourteen-month-old son gleefully “christened” our home by pouring coffee all over our bedroom carpet. (You can read about that adventure here.)

Thankfully, things like crayon on the walls, forgotten fast-food cups in the back of the minivan, and coffee spilled on the carpet aren’t heart-stopping events for me anymore. I know that a little paint and a steam vac can fix most things—and what can’t be fixed (like, for example, the fork indentions on our dining table) become memories. They simply fold into this beautiful mess of life that God has given me.

But I wish I had learned this lesson long ago. I wish in our early years of marriage, and back when the kids were babies, I hadn’t been so busy obsessing over the details that I missed the fact that dishes in the sink, scratches on the table, coffee stains, and exploded juice cups are just part of the adventure of marriage and raising three amazing treasures from God. I spent far too much of my life worried about keeping things in order . . . instead of making sure my loved ones know that they are infinitely more valuable to me than any car—or carpet.

That’s why I love The Last Lecture. Because like Randy, I want my kids to learn from my mistakes. I want them to know, right now while they’re young, that you don’t have to be perfect. That it’s okay to make a B or C on a report card. It’s okay to spill your juice on the carpet. It’s okay to try... and fail.

And above all, I’d want them to know that people are more important than things. That my husband and children are infinitely more important to me than any house or car or thing.

And no matter how many more days God gives me on this earth, I want to enjoy each of them to the fullest with my loved ones in this crazy, dented, scuffed-up, stained life ... covered and cleansed by God's amazing grace.

Thank you, Randy, for that reminder.

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