Mitch Albom

 

Tuesdays With Morrie

 

This is a really nice book, despite being based around the dying months of a lovely guy with an awful disease. I can see why it has sold so many copies.

 

To this point I expect I might be attracting helpful votes on amazon – but I think I’m about to reverse the trend. Before I do, I should stipulate that Morrie comes across as a genuinely warm and wonderful individual, and Mitch Albom is only trying to offer a good and encouraging thing in this book. Hats off to Morrie for keeping so vital and positive throughout his life and last days, and I totally understand Mitch’s yearning for a role model, and his excitement about rediscovering Morrie.

 

So why the hesitation? There’s no way I can write this without sounding (even being) condescending (I wonder why I’m so defensive in this review). But –  for all that it’s a true story and the suffering, and courage and affection through suffering is real – Morrie came across to me as more a tops bloke than a guru. All these profound topics are there, but this is philosophy ‘lite’. It feels like the vague inklings most of us have to be less materialistic and more engaged in community, without really facing the difficulties of how this is realised. I mean, sure, if Mitch had no idea that living totally for your job, money and status was a dead end, well, great to have someone challenge this. But for anyone of the millions who already have realised that their identity is best realised beyond this, ‘Tuesdays’ didn’t really challenge or aid. It’s not as simple as, “Oh, money isn’t everything.” I think a lot of us get this, but still have to live, and there’s no real grappling with a constant dilemma of mine, balancing the obligations of not living off others with the soul-destroying nature of much of the workplace: you may not be driven by futile ambition, but you probably still have to go to work. It is significant to me that for all the talk of living simply, Morrie and his wife both worked as full time professionals and had the money, for example, to afford the very expensive care that he received to the end. I’m not saying for a moment that it was wrong for them to work, or to enjoy their work (good luck to them), or to have a nice house and to pay for the medical care. Not for a moment. But I do find it hard to see the particularly different perspective being offered by this largely conventional middle class couple.

 

And I suppose that’s part of the appeal (I’m ducking now): this offers all the comfort of thinking you’re being spiritual and running against the crowd – without any need to actually change your behaviour in any way. Albom does write very self-consciously as if he’s offering important profundities, even if the very layout of the book presumes a pre-teen attention span, and the naive tendency to goggle at obvious techniques like the common half-sentence bombshells Albom frequently plants:

…I had the coldest realisation that time was running out.

           And I had to do something. (p. 59)

[Dramatic chord, and end of chapter]

And then only a couple of pages later:

…We all need teachers in our lives.

And mine was sitting right in front of me.”

Perhaps my radar (or chip on my shoulder) is more particularly attuned to this because of the widespread reaction I see to my personal guru (Jesus) in churches, and in my own life. Christ actually did throw out hugely demanding and inspiring challenges (just try loving your enemy – as he did – as more than a platitude. Hey, even just loving your neighbour as yourself), and the occasional oddball Christian I see who genuinely does live by some of them simply doesn’t have an everyday life with a patina of self-reassuring spirituality on top. Their ideal last day would contain something more than some morning exercise, nice meals, catching up with friends, and having a dance. Sure Albom’s point was that Morrie, to his credit, was often living his ideal life, and not caught up with pining for more, or with regret. But this is also such an invitation to pat yourself on the back if you might have the odd Saturday just like that: wow, maybe you really are a profoundly spiritual person after all.

 

Is there anything wrong with some of the values of ‘Tuesdays’? Not really. But I suppose I was looking for someone really counter-cultural, more meaty, in a way that Morrie wasn’t. Actually, maybe not so much Morrie (very impressive that he got so involved with some of his patients beyond the merely clinical to genuine compassionate action) as Mitch, and, by extension, his readers. The book also reminded me of ‘Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance’: for all the hippy ideas thrown around, how many people have actually been significantly changed through reading either of these books? Maybe they have been, I don’t know, but I suspect the change is more in feeling comfortable than in acting more compassionately and courageously. It’s a feelgood book, as opposed to a book that extends you. It’s even feelgood about death:

As long as we can love each other, and remember the feeling of love we had, we can die without ever really going away. All the love you created is still there. All the memories are still there. You live on – in the hearts of everyone you have touched and nurtured while you were here.

Sorry, but this is twee. Right, my child, my mother, whoever, someone I love is suddenly killed. But that’s OK – they haven’t really gone away – the love and memories are still there. Phew, I thought that might be a tragedy, but no harm done really.

 

It so fits for me that Oprah produced a movie of the book – she tells you what you want to hear. Nice, but not prophetic. If I’m after a guru I’ve got to feel called to something better – maybe difficult, but pure and worthwhile. I want to shun the endorsement of complacency that subtly underpins what I saw in the well-intentioned ‘Tuesdays’.

 

April 2010