Morrie borrowed freely from all religions. He was born
Jewish, but became an agnostic when he was a teenager, partly
because of all that had happened to him as a child. He
enjoyed some of the philosophies of Buddhism and Christianity, and
he still felt at home, culturally, in Judaism. He was a
religious mutt, which made him even more open to the students he
taught over the years. And the things he was saying in his
final months on earth seemed to transcend all religious
differences. Death has a way of doing that.
"The truth is, Mitch," he said, "once you learn
how to die, you learn how to live."
"I'm going to say it again," he said.
"Once you learn how to die, you learn how to
live." He smiled, and I realized what he was
doing. He was making sure I absorbed this point, without
embarrassing me by asking. It was part of what made him a
Why is it so hard to think about dying? I asked.
"Because," Morrie continued, "most of us all
walk around as if we're sleepwalking. We really don't
experience the world fully, because we're half-asleep, doing
things we automatically think we have to do."
And facing death changes all that?
"Oh, yes. You strip away all that stuff and you
focus on the essentials. When you realize you are going to
die, you see everything much differently."
He sighed. "Learn how to die and you learn how to
I noticed that he quivered now when he moved his hands.
His glasses hung around his neck, and when he lifted them to his
eyes, they slid around his temples, as if he were trying to put
them on someone else in the dark. I reached over to help
guide them onto his ears.
"Thank you," Morrie whispered. He smiled when
my hand brushed up against his head. The slightest human
contact was immediate joy.
"Mitch. Can I tell you something?"
Of course, I said.
"You might not like it."
"Well, the truth is, if you really listen to that bird on
your shoulder, if you accept that you can die at any time--then
you might not be as ambitious as you are."
I forced a small grin.
"The things you spend so much time on--all this work you
do--might not seem as important. You might have to make room
for some more spiritual things."
"You hate that word, don't you? 'Spiritual.'
You think it's touchy-feely stuff."
Well, I said.
He tried a wink, a bad try, and I broke down and laughed.
"Mitch," he said, laughing along, "even I don't
know what 'spiritual development' really means. But I do
know we're deficient in some way. We are too involved in
materialistic things, and they don't satisfy us. The loving
relationships we have, the universe around us, we take these
things for granted."
He nodded toward the window with the sunshine streaming
in. "You see that? You can go out there, outside,
any time. You can run up and down the block and go
crazy. I can't do that. I can't go out. I can't
run. I can't be out there without fear of getting
sick. But you know what? I appreciate that
window more than you do."
"Yes. I look out that window every day. I
notice the change in the trees, how strong the wind is
blowing. It's as if I can see time actually passing though
that windowpane. Because I know my time is almost done, I am
drawn to nature like I'm seeing it for the first time."
He stopped, and for a moment we both just looked out the
window. I tried to see what he saw. I tried to see
time and seasons, my life passing in slow motion. Morrie
dropped his head slightly and curled it toward his shoulder.
"Is it today, little bird?" he asked. "Is