Life, Death and Meaning: As I Lay Dying

As I Lay Dying

Tania Allen

BLS 360 – Life, Death and Meaning

Morrie Schwartz and Vivian Bearing, the focal points to Mitch Albom’s Tuesdays With Morrie and Margaret Edson’s W;t, are both dying, the victims of terrible diseases. Each deals with the knowledge that they are dying, and with the process of dying, in a different manner. We are presented in the novel and in the play with the story of how each of them deals with death, with mortality, and with acceptance and denial.  Both Morrie and Vivian are professors, learned individuals with impressive backgrounds, which is why I believe their stories have been told in such an exposed manner. The contrast of their own acceptance – or lack of it – offers two very different views on death and dying, and what it means to die, and to really live.

Albom’s former teacher, Morrie Schwartz, learns at an already advanced age that he has ALS, which is also known as Lou Gherig’s disease. My husband’s aunt developed the same disease some time not long after he and I were married, and I watched her decline from a brilliant, vibrant woman to a soul trapped in the useless husk of her own body. Reading this novel was difficult for me because I was close to Kathy, closer to her than I am to most of that side of my husband’s family, and it was painful to watch her steady decline, as painful as I feel certain it was for Mitch to watch his teacher and mentor steadily and rapidly fall victim to the disease.

In reading the novel however it became clear that Morrie developed an impressive acceptance of his condition. He knew that he was dying, he understood what that meant, but also understood that he had been given time to set his affairs in order and he chose to do just that, rather than worrying over what he wasn’t going to get to do. Throughout the novel Albom shares some of Morrie’s thoughts on life and death, aphorisms such as “Dying is only one thing to be sad over … living unhappily is something else”[1] and “The most important thing in life is to learn how to give out love and let it come in”[2] and “once you learn how to die you learn how to live”[3]. Morrie came to terms with the fact that the disease would take his life, and he took what time he had left to really examine his life, to decide if he had lived a life that had meaning.

I would have to say that Morrie would indeed say that he led a meaningful life. In looking back at the things he had done, he seemed to have no regrets, none that lingered anyway. He believed he was successful as a husband, as a father, as a teacher, and it is clear that in that last aspect of his life he truly found meaning. Even his chosen epitaph “A Teacher to the Last” expresses that in the end, Morrie found meaning in the knowledge that he had passed on his legacy to others, that he had meant something to someone else. This is an important aspect to a meaningful life: whether or not anything mattered to you, and whether or not you mattered to anyone.

Vivian, the woman with an aggressive form of ovarian cancer in Margaret Edson’s play, is in many ways Morrie’s opposite. She barricades herself from the horror of what is happening to her in an intellectual manner, clinging to analyses and vocabulary as a way of protecting herself from the horror. “My only defense is the acquisition of vocabulary.” Vivian says[4], and it shows in the scenes of the play in which she addresses the audience. She describes what is happening to her with an almost clinical detachment, which is very different from the detachment that Morrie speaks of in Albom’s novel. Hers is affected, a coping mechanism; his is a way of living.

Through the play we see very different sides of Vivian. We see her as a respected and feared teacher, and as a terrified woman dying a painful death at the metaphorical hands of an insidious disease. We see her reveling in understanding as she explores the meaning of a complex and complicated poet, and floundering in loss as she struggles to come to terms with her own choices. In looking back at her life, and in particular how she interacted with others, I think that Vivian began have regrets. As she is faced with the reality that she is not going to live, she decide that “now is the time for .. kindness”[5]. Morrie, on the other hand, always lived his life with that philosophy, which I think made accepting the inevitable end that much easier for him.

Which of the two has the ‘right idea’ about death? I would have to say, honestly, that Morrie Schwartz does. Vivian faces her disease with the illusion most people in her position would cling to, that the aggressive treatment will cure her of the deadly cancer spreading rapidly through her body.  But Morrie understands that there is no treatment that will cure him, and he takes the time he is given to reflect, and surrounds himself with people who love him, people who can and will give him joy in his final months. Morrie also uses the time to reflect on what is really important, on while it means to truly live, while Vivian finds herself fearful and with regrets over the way she lived her life.

Something Morrie touches on that we do not see in Vivian is a belief, or perhaps simply a faith that there is something more than just the end of life. Only at the end of the play, when we see Vivian walking into the light, is there any indication that she believes in something beyond death, whereas Morrie speaks of reincarnation, hinting at a belief that there must be something more than this life. This resonates a good deal with my own beliefs, with my own ideas regarding life and death. In this also, I feel that Morrie has a greater understanding of the process of dying, and perhaps even a better understanding of what it means to die.

Reading both the novel and the play were a struggle for me, not because the concepts were difficult to grasp, but because the reality of going through the process of dying is a hard thing to focus on. I like to think that when it comes time for me to move on I would accept it in much the same way as Morrie Schwartz, and less like Vivian Bearing. I would like to believe that I would approach dying as a rite of passage not unlike childhood, adolescence, becoming an adult, which is how it seemed that Morrie approached it. It was a process for him, whereas Vivian saw it as a barrier, a hurdle to be overcome. Reading both Tuesdays With Morrie and W;t provided me with the opportunity to examine what I think death is, and to think about the differences between death and dying. Dying is what scares me the most. Death is merely the cessation of life, and is by itself nothing to be afraid of.  Dying, on the other hand, is a frightening prospect, but I would like to think that I would approach it with the grace and seeming composure that Morrie Schwartz showed. I also think that Morrie’s comments about living are the most important parts of Albom’s novel. Through it he teaches us not only how to accept the process of dying, but shows us how to truly live a meaningful life, through giving and receiving love, and seeking happiness in ourselves, and expresses something that I already felt was true: that there is no single definition for a meaningful life, that meaning comes from the individual.

[1] Tuesdays With Morrie Mitch Albom p 35

[2] Tuesdays With Morrie Mitch Albom p 52

[3] Tuesdays With Morrie Mitch Albom p 82

[4] W;t Margaret Edson p 44

[5] W;t Margaret Edson p 69


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