The Last Lecture [And On Being The Sum Of Our Experiences]

While I tend to read a lot of books, for some reason, I tend not to review (hardly) any of them on the Black Iris. It might have something to do with the difficult task of summing up a book in several lines, that took several hours, stretched across several days to read/experience. Also I have difficultly writing something that doesn’t read like a book report I may have written in the 7th grade.

So I’m going to try and write something different.

My sister gave me a book for my birthday a few weeks ago and it was one of my main readings throughout June. It’s called “The Last Lecture” and it seems to be one of those bestsellers. Think “Tuesdays With Morrie”. The book essentially involves a dying man who gives the world his final thoughts on the experience of life, and after reading such a (true) life story, you are supposed to be inspired enough to follow that advice or at least remember it. In this case, the book is about and written by Randy Pausch, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) who is, as you read this, in the process of dying from cancer. CMU organizes these series of lectures where academics are asked to give a “last lecture”; imparting in a final talk their advice and take on the world and life. So it’s only befitting that Pausch, who is actually ironically dying, be asked to impart his advice less than a year ago.

The book is based on the lecture which you can watch on YouTube, although it does go into more detail about things he didn’t talk about during the lecture such as his wife and family.

The advice is something I hesitate to label as cliche, such as “live your childhood dreams”, “brick walls are there for you to overcome them”, “always bring something to the table”, and “your critics are the ones telling you that they still love you and care”.

It’s really advice we already know. We’ve probably read it in a number of books, to say nothing of hearing it from our parents and peers.

Yet, I think there’s something about the human race that really enjoys, I mean genuinely enjoys reading the experiences of others. Whether we are searching for true advice, true self-reflection or true inspiration is something I’m not sure of. But nevertheless, we read. We watch. We listen.

For me, the life experiences of others is a reminder, all be it temporary. It’s a reminder of how one lives his or her life right now, in this moment. And then of course we forget. Or at least I do. I end up ignoring or perhaps shelving everything everyone has ever told me about life.

My father is infamously known for giving great and accurate advice. In fact, he has never told me something in the form of a prediction that didn’t turn out to be a reality. So much so that in my teen years, my rebellious phase was based on taking the road he suggested I not take, just so I could prove him wrong – only to be proven wrong myself. Metaphorically speaking, if my father told me the oven top was hot, I would nevertheless put my hand on it just to prove him wrong. And I don’t regret that. I don’t regret the moments when I was burned. In fact, I still do that now from time to time with the full awareness that I will get burned – that he will end up being right, but I want the experience nevertheless.

My intent here is not to delve into some existential analysis or to even impart my own advice, as I’ve just turned 25 so I’m no where near the realms of qualification for such a task. But this much I do know: we are indeed the sum of our experiences. In one of my favorite films of all time, Waking Life, (which is all about existentialism) American poet, Timothy “Speed” Levitch, goes into his own philosophical rant at one point and says something that has always stuck with me, which you can watch here.

Thomas Mann wrote that he would rather participate in life than write a hundred stories. Giacometti was once run down by a car, and he recalled falling into a lucid faint, a sudden exhilaration as he realized at last, something was happening to him. An assumption develops that you cannot understand life and live life simultaneously. I do not agree entirely. Which is to say I do not exactly disagree. I would say that life understood is life lived.


So perhaps there are parallels to draw from this. Perhaps understanding life and living life need to go hand in hand. Which makes me wonder our need to read or even listen to the experiences of others. You could sit with the wisest person in the world who would impart hours upon hours of wisdom upon you, and it might all sink in for the time being, but how beneficial or how applicable is that when it comes to actually living life?

If everyone’s experiences differ and thus everyone’s life is different, are we searching for commonalities? Are we searching for shared experiences that make us feel not-so-alone?

It’s no surprise that some of the bestselling books today are autobiographies and chicken soup for the soul-type books that attempt to detail the intricacies of the experiences of others. And yes, they are entertaining. I’ve admittedly been watching TED Talks lectures these days online and some of these lives lived are indeed fascinating, if not inspiring. But I like to think that I have the ability to distance myself from the experiences of others; recognizing them as not my own. And a lot of people don’t seem to want to do that. Oprah-book club fanatics practically insist on worshiping anyone imparting any kind of advice.

Here we are in Jordan, in the Middle East, and there are actual water-cooler conversations about the redneck-in-a-suit advice Dr. Phil gave on TV yesterday.


We’re human. We love advice. We love guidance. Most of us. Deep down. But there are limits. You know when you’re a kid and you’re trying to solve a math problem and someone, perhaps a teacher, is on the verge of telling you the answer and you scream out “NO! NO! DON’T TELL ME!”? That childhood moment is something we need to remember more often. Because I think somewhere along the line we’ve gotten used to just flipping to the back of the book for the answers. To be able to Google something for an immediate response. To know all the answers.

And in that moment, the experience is lost.

I really don’t want to lead a life based on cliche advice; the sum of a life whittled down to key phrases that suit our transient memory spans. And I hate spoilers. I hate it when someone gives away the answer to the question I wake up everyday to attempt to solve. And I hate it when someone gives away the ending, because then there’s really no adventure. There’s really no way of finding out just what you are made of. The experience is lost in that moment.

So that’s something I like to remember.


  • Salam,

    I saw this man on Oprah and I saw a tad of his commencement speech from this season. He does have some profound things to say. I agree that most of it has been said before, but as with most things, either folks are not usually listening or have forgotten. I think we all need a reminder to keep living in the moment and to live life to the fullest. It is a message that people of all faiths need to hear and remember. None of us know how long we have left. It makes us think twice about the meaningless things we do and the times we yell at those we love for very little reason. InshAllah we will keep trying to remember.

  • I think we all have the tendancy to look for answers, but the funny thing is that at the end we only embrace those convincing to us… Or maybe that’s just my stubborn mind! And I dont think there are spoilers! Even if you read or hear an answer for a fundemental question in your life, you will not be able to understand or relate to this answer unless you experience it… it might stay in the back of your mind if you find it interesting and when you experience it… you will feel… Oh that makes sense now!! the “AHA” feeling! but life certainly cannot be read in books… neither do answers exist anywhere except in living… I dont think we are in search for answers through life as much as we are in search for questions…. That’s why we tend to question answers as well…

  • I remember the Randy dude from Oprah.

    Your personal analysis on the desire/need to read about other’s experiences is interesting. In addition to things you stated, for me personally I know that I get comfort out of it-out of knowing that other people have to go through essentially the same things. I get satisfaction, contentment, reassurance….whatever… from knowing people have to make the same decisions and go through the same life defining moments. Consciously it’s not really about getting advice. For me that comfort serves as inspiration for me to rise up and take control and make my own decisions. First I just need the reassurance of knowing what’s happening to me is normal. Make sense?

    “Are we searching for shared experiences that make us feel not-so-alone?”
    My answer is Yes.

    Ok I won’t lie! I have read self help/relationship books for the purpose of guidance but I usually find myself internally arguing with what the author is saying or just not believing it. I like reading the scenarios more than the actual advice part; however I am now reading “don’t sweat the small stuff” and I find myself more open to the author’s thoughts, maybe it’s because it’s simplified.
    I’m trying to accept living life without understanding it, it just takes way too much energy to try to make sense of everything-and life’s complicated as it is. I know that God created me, I know why (or I think I do), oo khalas! However I still find myself compulsively trying to figure things out ( math was always my strongest subject)..but I wouldn’t say it’s so much out of adventure and excitement as much as it is out of being jaded and not trusting of what’s presented before me.

  • Interesting post …. Hope this is not too irrelevant, but I was attending a conference last week on art, therapy and migration in the UK and in one of the talks, the professor started talking about the therapeutic capacity of ‘telling our story’. She said that we never tell our story, whether our entire life story or bits and episodes of it, until we have managed to grasp it, learn from it, and be prepared to acknowledge it. In that sense, telling our story is a way of “reclaiming our past”; it is no longer something that happened to us, it becomes our destiny, our fate reclaimed. Then she went on to say that if asked to tell our story at different stages in our lives, then we would tell it differently each time. We would leave different episodes out and focus on others more, as we learn who we are, and more importantly, who we want to be. In that sense, telling our stories is also a way of “claiming our future”.

    What I am trying to say is, maybe what Pausch is doing is trying to is claim his future, and define his legacy. The book isn’t primarily meant for us, even if it is published to be bought. It really is for him, for him claiming a future where he will not be present, but which the readers can define.

    I would say the same of people our age who discuss ‘Dr. Phil’ topics you so clearly find detestable; in telling their stories they are reclaiming their past experiences, their understandings of themselves and their societies, and also laying claim to their future and what they want it to be. You may be invited to read, listen and comment on their stories, but the purpose primarily is not to influence the reader, or answer the readers questions, but rather, to ascertain a life narrative thus far, and claim a future still untold.

  • Remember that such books are best sellers in the USA where many people seriously need such advise. You have a support system that comes from parents and close family as well as genuine friends. Most Americans hardly have such a system and thus in need of such books. As for learning how to lead your life etc., I have learnt amazing things from Americans. It did not happen from books! It was simply from living among them!

  • Nas,
    The book and posters were actually given in tandem. The book was not to give you advice on your birthday, but rather to remind you of your mortality. It has been a grueling year for you and the family and I have seen you struggle against the wind that drives you and break barriers erected to keep you back in this one year. The book was to remind you that you are mortal. That all mortals have dreams. That all dreams are fleeting unless you hold on for dear life and resist the urge to just let go of the kite tail and crash to the ground. You above all people know that the life you lead now is not what you dreamt of. (Dare I remind you of the back packing through Europe, the Orient Express in the spring, the climb up Kilimanjaro, the creation of a comic book the likes of which would be the envy of MARVEL?) I am in no way saying that you have not set other dreams and cast off those dreamt as a child, but some of them are too good to throw to the waste side. Some of them need to be taken out of your memory, dusted off and held up for further scrutiny. Some of them ARE possible.

    The Toulouse-Lautrec posters are a reminder of what can be achieved when the human spirit moves us out of the corporeal bodies God gave us and we are allowed to create. Toulouse, may have come from an aristocratic family, but he grew up poor, his legs stopped growing when he was 14 because he bad broken both and they never healed, he lived with adversity and struggle all of his 37 years on this earth and yet he created 737 canvases, 275 watercolors, 363 prints and posters, and 5,084 drawings. He died dirt poor, but he died doing what he loved. We are blessed if we can say the same.

  • I saw a show on Rnady Pausch and his family, it was so impressive which made me think of reading the book but I’m not sure yet I don’t think I will.

    The most touching part was the very last line in his lecture, when he says that the whole lecture was really for his kids… gash3ar badany

  • Dude, I know this might be the last thing you want to hear, but here is an advice, “do not underestimate a cliché advice until you live the experience behind it”. Understanding words is completely different than living them! So at least, and for now, try to practically stimulate the experience in your mind, then after that criticize it! I can give you endless examples of situations where I utterly have declined to take an advice or even a saying/ proverb, simply because a lot of people repeat it, just to find myself at the end an idiot who was trying to explain to himself nothing but common sense! What a waste of time and effort it is to attempt to prove how right/ wrong a simple fact as 1+1=2!!

Your Two Piasters: