LIFE LESSONS January 25, 2009

posted Apr 14, 2009, 11:34 AM by Mike Allen

I think most of us here remember learning the scientific method in school.  First, you observe the data.  Second, you form a hypothesis based on what you’ve seen.  Then you can test your hypothesis by conducting an experiment to collect more data.  If you find that repeated tests and observations confirm your hypothesis, you know you’ve got a good hypothesis that will reliably describe reality as we know it and predict future reality based on what we’ve known.  If new data disconfirms your hypothesis, you know that you need to adjust your hypothesis to fit reality.  You may even need to abandon your old theory and formulate a new one. 

        Let’s say your hypothesis is:  the sanctuary of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Columbia will hold a maximum of 180 seats.  Let’s say someone comes along who decides to test that hypothesis,  like Barry Ahrendt.  He gets out his tape measure and takes some measurements and draws some charts on grid paper and concludes that the sanctuary of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Columbia will hold more than 180 seats.  He hypothesizes that it will hold 250 seats, the exact number of new chairs we purchased.  To test the old and new hypotheses, he conducts an experiment:  he arranges the new chairs in the sanctuary, and viola, he disconfirms the old theory and confirms his hypothesis, thereby creating a paradigm shift in the way we sit in our seats in the sanctuary of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Columbia.

        Few in this room are professional scientists, but all of us are amateur scientists.  We live our lives by a version of the scientific method.  Based on the data, our experiences of life, we formulate a philosophy of life to live by, our truth.  Based on the facts of our lives as we have lived them, we conclude what is worthwhile, what gives life -- my life -- purpose, what makes my time meaningful, what makes life good.  We may not articulate our philosophy of life or even be aware of it (in fact, I suspect that most people aren’t), but all of us do live out some philosophy of life.  Emerson said that “that which dominates our imagination and our thoughts will determine our lives and character.”  It “will out,” he observed. 

        So we go along living out our philosophy of life as pretty as you please until we have a crisis.  A new source of data is presented – a death, a divorce, a downsizing – which causes you to revise your theory about life.  What do you know, the early bird doesn’t always get the worm!  Sometimes it goes to the bird with the right connections.  Or it turns out that it’s not always every man for himself.  Some people are willing to look past themselves and offer some kindness. 

        In religious circles we might call it a crisis of faith or a conversion experience.  “I grew up with a Baptist or Catholic or Jewish philosophy of life, then I went to college and took psychology, sociology, anthropology, and philosophy courses which disconfirmed the old theories.  So now I’m a Unitarian Universalist.”

        Fundamentalists are people who cling to an old hypothesis and ignore the facts, especially facts that disconfirm their hypothesis.  In fact, it seems to me that Fundamentalists cling even tighter when the facts are contrary to their truth.  Fundamentalism in any religion and in any area of life (not just religion) is not about faith but fear.  It is a fear of letting go of what is known and opening oneself to change.

        Another way of saying that we are all scientists is to say that we are all students, and the semester lasts a lifetime.  Life is always presenting us with lessons, and if you don’t learn your lesson today, life will give you another test tomorrow.  Haven’t you known people who couldn’t seem to learn their lessons?  Like the woman who keeps dating and marrying alcoholic men.  Or the man who is perpetually alone because his temper keeps driving people away.  And when we finally learn our lesson, we graduate and life will present us with a new lesson.      I think this is the way people who are attentive to their spiritual growth tend to view life, and that’s one of the major reasons I’m a Unitarian Universalist.  We are people who tend to see life as a university and ourselves as students.  In many religions, you graduate when you are baptized or go through confirmation, and there are no more tests or lessons because you have learned all the answers by the time you’re twelve.  The rest of life is recess.  There’s something very appealing about that.

        We Unitarian Universalists don’t have an authoritative book or dogma or official or tradition.  Our authority is our experience.  We base our truth on what we have learned from our experiences of life – our own personal experience and our shared experience, past and present.  In fact, our wisdom is wiser when we do share our experiences with each other, which is why I guess we have so much discussion and dialogue in UU congregations. 

        In this vein, I want to share with you some of the lessons learned by a remarkable life, Randy Pausch, whom some of you may know, thanks to YouTube.  Randy was a 47-year-old professor of computer science at Carnegie Mellon University, which, like a lot of colleges, asks a professor each year to give a “last lecture,” a chance to impart one’s wisdom to one’s students as if it were your last chance.  In Randy Pausch’s case, it literally was.  A few weeks after being invited to give the last lecture, Randy was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, which, as many of you know, is one of the most lethal cancers.  Knowing he had only a few months to live, Randy decided to go through with his lecture, mainly as a lasting gift to his three children, Chloe, Logan, and Dylan, ages 1, 3, and 6.  In Randy’s words, “I wanted to put myself in a bottle that would one day wash up on the beach for my children.”  If you haven’t seen the video of Randy’s bottle, I strongly urge you to go to YouTube and do so.  You will not see someone who is depressed or full of self-pity, but someone who is facing his death squarely in the eyes and is eager to leave his children the lessons he has learned in his all too brief a life. 

        Lesson # 1 – Always have fun.  Randy says that he came to a realization that is best captured by two Winnie-the-Pooh characters.  Am I a fun-loving Tigger or a sad-sack Eeyore?  He decided early on that he would be a Tigger.  For instance, for his last Halloween, he dressed up with his kids as the Incredibles.  He put a photo of them on his website and explained that chemo had not affected his superpowers.

        I think I learned this lesson through the backdoor.  My father was a brooding, unhappy man who believed that life was unfair and felt the whole world was out to get him.  He held grudges and remembered and replayed every slight that life dealt him.  He was miserable, and he made everyone around him miserable.  I think early on, I resolved that I did not want to be like him.  So in an obverse way, he taught me by example to be a Tigger. 

        Lesson # 2 – Dream Big.  Randy Pausch was my age during the summer of 1969, when men first walked on the moon, 8-years-old.  He was at camp, and the campers were brought to the main house to watch the historic moment on TV.  But the astronauts were taking a while and it was getting late, so the counselors sent Randy and the other campers to their tents to sleep, and they missed the first moon walk.  Randy was peeved.  He thought, “My species has gotten off our planet and is in a new world for the first time, and you people think bedtime matters?”  When he got home, his dad gave him a photo that he had taken of their TV screen the second Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon.  At the time of his last lecture, Randy still had that photo.

        His advice is to give yourself permission to dream, and he says to encourage especially your kids’ dreams.  “Once in a while, that might even mean letting them stay up past their bedtimes,” he says.

        Lesson # 3 – Ask for what you want.  Randy relates that on a trip to Disney World, his dad and he were at the monorail with his son Dylan, then 4.  Dylan wanted to sit in the nose-cone with the driver, and his father thought it would be a kick, too.  “Too bad they don’t let regular people sit there,” his dad said. 

        “Actually, I’ve learned there’s a trick to getting to sit up front,” Randy said.  “Do you want to see it?”  Randy walked over to the attendant and said, “Excuse me.  Could we please sit in the front car?”

        “Certainly,” the attendant said.  He led them to the nose-cone.  It was one of the only times he ever saw his dad flabbergasted.  “I said there was a trick,” Randy told him.  “I didn’t say it was a hard trick.”

        Randy’s advice is to ask for what you want.  More often than you would suspect, you will receive it.

        This has been a hard lesson for me to learn.  I was taught that asking for what you need and what you want is selfish.  It’s ok to be assertive when it comes to someone else’s cares and concerns, but not your own.  So I’ve had to remind myself over and over again that just as my needs and wants are no more important than anyone else’s, neither are they any less important.  For me, it’s been a growing realization of my self-worth. 

        Lesson # 4 – Dare to take a risk.  In a virtual reality course Randy taught, he encouraged his students to attempt hard things and not worry about failing.  At the end of the semester, he presented a stuffed penguin – “The First Penguin Award” – to the team that took the biggest gamble while not meeting its goals.  The award came from the idea that when penguins jump in water that might have predators, well, one of them has to be the first penguin.  In essence, it was a prize for “glorious failure.”

        Says Randy, “Experience is what you get when you don’t get what you wanted, and it can be the most valuable thing you have to offer.”

        This has been a hard lesson for me to learn, too.  One of the worst things you could do in my family was fail.  If you fail, you might appear foolish and people might laugh at you.  It’s better to play it safe.  Stay on the well-worn path.  Stay with what you know.  Don’t order that strawberry cheesecake ice cream.  You might be disappointed.  Stick with vanilla.  You can’t go wrong with vanilla.  So whenever I have had to take a risk in my life, even a reasonable, well calculated risk -- like leaving the Christian ministry and becoming a student again or leaving psychology and becoming a minister again -- I’ve always had to give myself a good push.  What I’m learning is that failure will not kill me.  In fact, failure has been my best teacher.  Not only that, I’m learning to embrace failure because failing means that I’m taking a risk and taking a risk means that I’m growing.

        Lesson # 5 – Make time for what matters.  Randy shares that when he and his wife Jai went on their honeymoon, his boss demanded that people be able to reach him.  So Randy recorded this greeting on his voice mail:  “Hi, this is Randy.  I waited until I was 39 to get married, so my wife and I are going away for a month.  I hope you don’t have a problem with that, but my boss does.  Apparently, I have to be reachable.”  He then gave the names of Jai’s parents and the city where they lived.  “If you call directory assistance, you can get their phone number.  And then, if you can convince my in-laws that your emergency merits interrupting their only daughter’s honeymoon, they have our number.”  Randy and Jai didn’t get any calls.

        Randy reminds us that “Time is all you have.  And you may find one day that you have less than you think.” 

        The worst thing you could do in my family next to appearing to be selfish and next to appearing to be a failure was to appear to be lazy.  You couldn’t sleep late.  You couldn’t just sit.  You had to be busy.  My folks came from hard-working tobacco farmers.  They left the farm behind, but they didn’t leave behind a farmer’s work ethic.  They worked all the time, and they didn’t know how to play, again, I think because they were afraid of looking foolish and of being laughed at.  Their only recreation was eating. 

        I have inherited their work ethic, which is largely a good thing, I think, but I still have a hard time just relaxing and making time for what really matters.  I can’t imagine anyone on their deathbed confessing, “I wish I had spent more time at the office.”  My work matters to me and I suspect that your work matters to you, as well, but you and I know that what matters most are our relationships with the most important people in our lives. 

        That’s why I think it’s important that we do what we did last Sunday – making time to celebrate our accomplishments and expressing our gratitude for each other.  I think it’s important that we not pass over these holy times but that we savor the good gifts that life gives us because as Randy became keenly conscious of, our time is a precious, limited resource.

        Lesson # 6 – Let kids be themselves.  Randy observes that as a professor, he has seen how destructive it can be for parents to have specific dreams for their children.  “My job,” he says, “is to help my kids foster a joy for life and develop the tools to fulfill their own wishes.  My wishes for them are very exact and, given that I won’t be there, I want to be clear:  Kids, don’t try to figure out what I wanted you to become.  I want you to become what you want to become.  And I want you to feel as if I am there with you, whatever path you choose.” 

        I am fortunate that my parents did not try to live their unfulfilled dreams through me or pressure me to take a certain direction in life.  I know that they have not always agreed with my life choices or even understood them, but they have always tried to be supportive. 

        After giving his last lecture in September 2007, Randy Pausch expected to go home and quietly spend his remaining time with his family.  He never imagined that his lecture would be viewed by millions online.  The response was overwhelming.  Randy used his unexpected fame to advocate for pancreatic cancer research, including testifying before Congress. 

        He has had loads of fun, too.  In his lecture, he told of two childhood dreams:  playing in the NFL and being Captain Kirk on Star Trek.  Strangers who viewed his last lecture fulfilled those wishes.  He was invited to scrimmage with the Pittsburgh Steelers, and he got to say a line in a new Star Trek film.  

        Randy lived longer than expected.  He died this past July.  During his remaining months, he spent more time with his children, trying to do unforgettable things with them – like swimming with dolphins – so they would have concrete memories of their father and of his love for them.

        Before dying, Randy said that he was honored to know that his lecture would live on and that people have found it beneficial.  “Honestly, though,” he added, “the talk was for my kids, and it gives me comfort to know that they will one day watch it.”

        In fine UU fashion, I want to give you a chance to share just one lesson that life has taught you.