Friday, October 24, 2008

The Last Lecture: Randy Pausch, The Beauty of Life, and Romans 8:28

Last week, a good friend lent me a copy of Randy Pausch’s best-selling book, The Last Lecture. Pausch (who died in July) was a computer science professor who in his mid-forties was diagnosed with terminal cancer. After the failure of all treatment options, Pausch was given only 3-6 months to live. He was invited by his university, Carnegie-Mellon, to give his “last lecture,” a tradition where outgoing profs expound on the wisdom gained in their lives and what they’d like to pass on. The father or three young children, Pausch saw this as an opportunity to leave a message and a legacy to them, and gave the lecture. His book is an expansion of the lecture, telling his life story and passing on what he learned through it. I had heard good things about the book, but I’ll admit that I was a little apprehensive about reading it. I had visions of an overly smarmy 200-page long Hallmark card. Those fears were shattered as I got into the book, and found myself tremendously moved by one of the best books I’ve read in the last few years.

One thing that instantly jumps out from the book is Pausch’s personality. Within the first few pages, I had the unshakeable thought, “I like this guy.” As I waded deeper into the book, that very quickly morphed into, “I want to be like this guy.” This was a man who understood what was important in life. This was a guy who loved his wife and kids, wasn’t afraid to follow his dreams, and lived every day with a joy and a purpose. From his reflections about his parents and his childhood to his recounting of his bachelor days to his beautiful discussions of being a husband and father, this is a man with a story to tell – terminal cancer or not. One anecdote sticks out to me that seemed to sum up his personality. He talks of his bachelor days, when he would be the “fun uncle” to his nephews. He had just bought a snazzy new convertible and was preparing to take them for a ride as his sister hounded the boys to be careful not to mess up Uncle Randy’s new car. Wanting to communicate that there are more important things in life than stuff, he cracked open a can of Coke and poured it all over the back seat as the boys watched in amazement. Pausch talks about how a few days later, one of the boys got sick and threw up in the back seat. Needless to say, he didn’t feel scared that Uncle Randy would be mad at him for ruining his new car.

Countless situations like that paint a picture of a man who didn’t waste his time worrying about what everybody thought of him. He lived his life, and he lived it well. I found myself reflecting on my own life, and how much I take for granted – my wife, my daughter, my family. Whether my life ends at 45 or 95, I want to be able to look back and know that I lived it well, that I truly focused on the things that are really important. This is a book I can recommend wholeheartedly to any and everyone. It’s a fantastic memoir from a man who truly has a story worth telling.

That brings me to one final reflection. One cannot read a story like this without asking the “why” question. Why would God take a man like that in the prime of life, with a wife and kids who need him? (Interestingly enough, though Pausch reflects briefly on his faith and his church, the “why” question never comes up) Adding to the irony is the fact that I spent time yesterday in a blog debate about how a loving God can be in sovereign control of a world filled with suffering. I had to ask the question – how can Romans 8:28 apply to Randy Pausch? Surely, his wife and kids grieve his loss with a sadness that I can’t even imagine. I don’t want to downplay that in the least. But consider this – I’ve repeatedly said that this is a man with a story worth telling. However, if it weren’t for his cancer, his story would never be told. After all, the man was a computer science professor at Carnegie-Mellon. Computer science professors at Carnegie-Mellon don’t write NYT best-selling memoirs. Randy Pausch, because of his suffering, was able to impact millions of lives, including mine, with his own. I am so thankful that God allowed me to see his life story, for there is much in it that I want to emulate. Does it take away the suffering? No – but it is a glimpse into the gracious and sovereign hand of God who works all things together for good.

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