Professor Randy Pausch, model and mentor

When we hear of the death of the agéd, we comfort ourselves by saying that they have lived their life; when we learn of the death of a child, we take solace in the notion that only the good die young. But what can we say when news comes of a life cut short in its prime, at the pinnacle of success, when past accomplishments portended perhaps greater things to come? And worse, when that individual was a much loved spouse and father, a mentor necessary for playing an integral part in the rearing of three small children.

News of death numbs us at core: how tragic, how unfair, we think. Yet we are helpless to control the timing of our passing. Eventually, death finds each one of us. How then to deal with this inevitability?

Randy Pausch had an answer of sorts to this question: he evaded it entirely, choosing to view each day, each hour of life as a gift, and striving to live it to the full.

In many ways Professor Pausch was an ordinary person: a child with boyhood dreams; a student struggling to climb the ladder in his chosen field; a professor mentoring his students; a husband loving his wife; a father doting on three lovely children. In his ordinariness, he was an anti-hero of sorts: he embraced what life had to offer; he played the cards he had been dealt; and in the end he faced the inevitable with grace. “Experience,” he said, “is what you get when you don’t get what you wanted.” By example he taught us how to live, seizing each day and wringing from it all that it had to offer.

We mark his passing with sadness, but we refuse to mourn him. Instead we hold up his life as an example of one well-lived, and we resolve to get on with the business of living our own.

Henry Thoreau was another American whose work was cut short in his prime. He succumbed to tuberculosis at 44 years of age. In his philosophical treatise Walden, Thoreau wrote: “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”

I think Randy Pausch would have agreed with those words. In my book, both he and Henry Thoreau succeeded in their quest.

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