Morrie Schwartz on Living a Meaningful Life

If there’s one book that changed my life, it was Mitch Albom’s “Tuesdays with Morrie”.

As far as I remember, it was the first book that reshifted my perspective on living a meaningful life — it’s not getting rich, being famous, and hoarding material possessions.

Tuesdays with Morrie

Our society has conditioned us to follow certain standards of what is a happy and successful life.

Society wants us to earn more. Society tempts us to buy more stuff. Society drives us to become famous. Society keeps us inside the box — following the same old rules.

But we need money. We need shelter. We need certain things in life in order to survive. Absolutely yes.

What I’m trying to say is that having more money and material possessions and being famous don’t guarantee a meaningful life. As Morrie Schwartz admonished about two decades ago.

“The way you get meaning into your life is to devote yourself to loving others, devote yourself to your community around you, and devote yourself to creating something that gives you purpose and meaning.”

Here, I share some of my favorite excerpts from the book. I hope you can learn from it, as I have:

Love

“Love wins, love always wins.”

…“The most important thing in life is to learn how to give out love, and to let it come in.” His voice dropped to a whisper. “Let it come in. We think we don’t deserve love, we think if we let it in we’ll become too soft. But a wise man named Levine said it right. He said, ‘Love is the only rational act.’”

…“There are a few rules I know to be true about love and marriage: If you don’t respect the other person, you’re gonna have a lot of trouble. If you don’t know how to compromise, you’re gonna have a lot of trouble. If you can’t talk openly about what goes on between you, you’re gonna have a lot of trouble. And if you don’t have a common set of values in life, you’re gonna have a lot of trouble. Your values must be alike.”

…“Be compassionate,” Morrie whispered. And take responsibility for each other. If we only learned those lessons, this world would be so much better a place.

…”Love each other or die.”

Change How You See Things

 “Well, I think that day is coming. That one bothers me.” Why? “Because it’s the ultimate sign of dependency. Someone wiping your bottom. But I’m working on it. I’m trying to enjoy the process.” Enjoy it? “Yes. After all, I get to be a baby one more time.” That’s a unique way of looking at it. “Well, I have to look at life uniquely now. Let’s face it. I can’t go shopping, I can’t take care of the bank accounts, I can’t take out the garbage. But I can sit here with my dwindling days and look at what I think is important in life. I have both the time—and the reason—to do that.”

…“It’s only horrible if you see it that way,” Morrie said. “It’s horrible to watch my body slowly wilt away to nothing. But it’s also wonderful because of all the time I get to say good-bye.” He smiled. “Not everyone is so lucky.” I studied him in his chair, unable to stand, to wash, to pull on his pants. Lucky? Did he really say lucky?

…“Everyone knows they’re going to die,” he said again, “but nobody believes it. If we did, we would do things differently.” So we kid ourselves about death, I said. “Yes. But there’s a better approach. To know you’re going to die, and to be prepared for it at any time. That’s better. That way you can actually be more involved in your life while you’re living.” How can you ever be prepared to die? “Do what the Buddhists do. Every day, have a little bird on your shoulder that asks, ‘Is today the day? Am I ready? Am I doing all I need to do? Am I being the person I want to be?’”

Family Matters

“The fact is, there is no foundation, no secure ground, upon which people may stand today if it isn’t the family. It’s become quite clear to me as I’ve been sick. If you don’t have the support and love and caring and concern that you get from a family, you don’t have much at all. Love is so supremely important. As our great poet Auden said, ‘Love each other or perish.’” “Love each other or perish.” I wrote it down. Auden said that? “Love each other or perish,” Morrie said. “It’s good, no? And it’s so true. Without love, we are birds with broken wings. “Say I was divorced, or living alone, or had no children. This disease—what I’m going through—would be so much harder. I’m not sure I could do it. Sure, people would come visit, friends, associates, but it’s not the same as having someone who will not leave. It’s not the same as having someone whom you know has an eye on you, is watching you the whole time. “This is part of what a family is about, not just love, but letting others know there’s someone who is watching out for them. It’s what I missed so much when my mother died—what I call your ‘spiritual security’—knowing that your family will be there watching out for you. Nothing else will give you that. Not money. Not fame.”

Offer Others What You Have

You know what really gives you satisfaction?” What? “Offering others what you have to give.” You sound like a Boy Scout. “I don’t mean money, Mitch. I mean your time. Your concern. Your storytelling. It’s not so hard. There’s a senior center that opened near here. Dozens of elderly people come there every day. If you’re a young man or young woman and you have a skill, you are asked to come and teach it. Say you know computers. You come there and teach them computers. You are very welcome there. And they are very grateful. This is how you start to get respect, by offering something that you have.

“There are plenty of places to do this. You don’t need to have a big talent. There are lonely people in hospitals and shelters who only want some companionship. You play cards with a lonely older man and you find new respect for yourself, because you are needed. “Remember what I said about finding a meaningful life? I wrote it down, but now I can recite it: Devote yourself to loving others, devote yourself to your community around you, and devote yourself to creating something that gives you purpose and meaning.”

Money and Material Possessions Are Not the Goal

 “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.”

…“Wherever I went in my life, I met people wanting to gobble up something new. Gobble up a new car. Gobble up a new piece of property. Gobble up the latest toy. And then they wanted to tell you about it. ‘Guess what I got? Guess what I got?’ “You know how I always interpreted that? These were people so hungry for love that they were accepting substitutes. They were embracing material things and expecting a sort of hug back. But it never works. You can’t substitute material things for love or for gentleness or for tenderness or for a sense of comradeship. “Money is not a substitute for tenderness, and power is not a substitute for tenderness. I can tell you, as I’m sitting here dying, when you most need it, neither money nor power will give you the feeling you’re looking for, no matter how much of them you have.”

Believe What You Feel

“Sometimes you cannot believe what you see, you have to believe what you feel. And if you are ever going to have other people trust you, you must feel that you can trust them, too—even when you’re in the dark. Even when you’re falling.”

Stop Chasing the Wrong Things

“Well, for one thing, the culture we have does not make people feel good about themselves. We’re teaching the wrong things. And you have to be strong enough to say if the culture doesn’t work, don’t buy it. Create your own. Most people can’t do it.”

“So many people walk around with a meaningless life. They seem half-asleep, even when they’re busy doing things they think are important. This is because they’re chasing the wrong things.”

Learn to Detach

“But detachment doesn’t mean you don’t let the experience penetrate you. On the contrary, you let it penetrate you fully. That’s how you are able to leave it.” I’m lost. “Take any emotion—love for a woman, or grief for a loved one, or what I’m going through, fear and pain from a deadly illness. If you hold back on the emotions—if you don’t allow yourself to go all the way through them—you can never get to being detached, you’re too busy being afraid. You’re afraid of the pain, you’re afraid of the grief. You’re afraid of the vulnerability that loving entails. “But by throwing yourself into these emotions, by allowing yourself to dive in, all the way, over your head even, you experience them fully and completely. You know what pain is. You know what love is. You know what grief is. And only then can you say, ‘All right. I have experienced that emotion. I recognize that emotion. Now I need to detach from that emotion for a moment.’”

Be Fully Present

“I believe in being fully present,” Morrie said. “That means you should be with the person you’re with. When I’m talking to you now, Mitch, I try to keep focused only on what is going on between us. I am not thinking about something we said last week. I am not thinking of what’s coming up this Friday. I am not thinking about doing another Koppel show, or about what medications I’m taking. “I am talking to you. I am thinking about you.”

Life is a Series of Pulls Back and Forth

“Life is a series of pulls back and forth. You want to do one thing, but you are bound to do something else. Something hurts you, yet you know it shouldn’t. You take certain things for granted, even when you know you should never take anything for granted. A tension of opposites, like a pull on a rubber band. And most of us live somewhere in the middle.”

Build Your Own Subculture

“Here’s what I mean by building your own little subculture,” Morrie said. “I don’t mean you disregard every rule of your community. I don’t go around naked, for example. I don’t run through red lights. The little things, I can obey. But the big things—how we think, what we value—those you must choose yourself. You can’t let anyone—or any society determine those for you. “Take my condition. The things I am supposed to be embarrassed about now—not being able to walk, not being able to wipe my ass, waking up some mornings wanting to cry—there is nothing innately embarrassing or shaming about them. “It’s the same for women not being thin enough, or men not being rich enough. It’s just what our culture would have you believe. Don’t believe it.”

…“Look, no matter where you live, the biggest defect we human beings have is our shortsightedness. We don’t see what we could be. We should be looking at our potential, stretching ourselves into everything we can become. But if you’re surrounded by people who say ‘I want mine now,’ you end up with a few people with everything and a military to keep the poor ones from rising up and stealing it.”

… “Invest in the human family. Invest in people. Build a little community of those you love and who love you.”

Forgive

“Forgive yourself before you die. Then forgive others.”

…“There is no point in keeping vengeance or stubbornness. These things”—he sighed—”these things I so regret in my life. Pride. Vanity. Why do we do the things we do?”

My Thoughts:

Mitch Albom did a great job documenting the wisdom of his mentor, thank you sir. Here are some of the most important lessons that struck me.

1. We can’t be happy if we only focus on gaining material possessions. Don’t depend your happiness on new gadgets or appliances or clothes or furniture. It’s a trap. Instead do something that gives you purpose and meaning. Build meaningful relationships. Help people in need. Do something for the betterment of the planet (Yes it’s challenging. I’m practicing it).

2. Love is the only rational act. The book rewired my thoughts about finding true love and getting married. Back then, I viewed serious relationships as hindrance to achieving my personal ambitions. Of course it’s not. Falling in love and being loved is the best thing that can happen to every human being. What could go wrong if all people learn to love unconditionally?

3. Change the way you see things. If you’re in Morrie’s position, what would you do? Most people may get depressed and consumed with self-pity. I know it’s hard. But the truth is, we have a choice to see things differently. Dying may be horrible, but for Morrie, it’s wonderful (see the excerpts above).

4. Become the person you want to be. Often, we become very busy living our lives. Work harder. Work more. Achieve more. Travel more. Experience more. Gain more. You get the picture. Nothing’s evil about working harder or trying to achieve more. But if we lose track of what we really want to become as a person, then something’s not right. Evaluate yourself from time to time: “Are you becoming the person you want to be?”

5. Always do great work. Hundreds of people came over to visit Morrie Schwartz. And they all said, “I’ve never had another teacher like you.” Those were his students. Those were the people he touched. Obviously, he wasn’t your typical college professor. He empowered his students to become better people. That’s great work.

6. We’re motivated to live well (every day) once we accept that we may die anytime. I first heard this philosophy from Steve Jobs. Yes he was right. And now from Morrie Schwartz. I realize that most of us lack self-awareness. We spend most of our days on meaningless things or activities we hate. We’ve forgotten that we may die anytime. Try this: As soon as you wake up, ask yourself, “What if I die today?” Thinking that any day could be your last day changes the way you view life.

“Everyone knows they re going to die… but nobody believes it. If we did, we would do things differently.”  — Morrie Schwartz

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Jade Panugan

Some interesting questions about life and human behavior: What if there's no money? Why we often feel the urge to prove that we're right and others are wrong? Why we react to things beyond our control? Why we hate? Why it's hard to be content? I don't have all the answers, do you? Let's chat.