I will be posting more on Randy Pausch’s “The Last Lecture” in a different post, but before that, I wanted to talk about the context in which his lecture takes place. Taken by itself, the speech is very inspiring and has many thought-provoking ideas. (You can skip the book which is too much process, too little content.) But the fact that Randy Pausch was dying (at the time, he had only a few months left) made the lecture more meaningful and attracted heavy media coverage.
The powerful philosophical idea here is that our life is limited and we should spend it chasing our dreams than waste it in pursuit of material comforts. Somebody about to die has many, many regrets. Seldom do those regrets revolve around not having made enough money. They are usually about broken relationships, shattered ambitions and the squandered time.
The problem I see is that unfortunately, we don’t know how limited our life is. We could die the next minute or live till 100. And this uncertainty means that we cannot make easy choices. If we truly knew that we had 2 weeks to live and no way to escape, we would act entirely different. We would quit our jobs, stop caring about household tasks, call every friend and relative, and visit the most important people and places we want to see. But if we knew we would definitely live to celebrate our 100th birthday, maybe we would worry more about our retirement and health, work longer and spend less.
The same thing applies to our family and friends. If we knew that someone would no longer be with us next year, we would pay them much more attention and love than we do. If we knew that they will always be around, maybe not so much. That happens to be our default thinking, because we hate even the idea of something happening to our dear ones, and so take them for granted.
Life is uncertain and unknowable. At the same time we accord respect to the dying and treat their struggles as heroic, we should also remember that those who are living and have found a way to reconcile their needs with their dreams are also worthy of our respect and gratitude. They are all around us, disguised as parents/children, employees/employers, volunteers, school teachers and so on. They don’t know what the future holds, but they have found a way to contribute.