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[Chalice] On Living Finally: [Chalice]
Thoughts on "The Last Lecture" and Jacques Derrida's Last Interview

Listen to a recording of "On Living Finally"
37:11 minutes - 14.9 MB - On Living Finally .mp3 file.

Presented November 30, 2008, by Rev. Dr. Rob Manning

There is too much to possibly think about right now: the internet phenomenon of Randy Pausch's last lecture and his death, and the last interview and death of Jacques Derrida, and, if we desire to return home to more familiar ground, there is also the Unitarian minister Forrest Church and his grappling with his own death. There is also of course the terrible terrorist (of course never knowing exactly what we mean when we echo this word) attacks in Mumbai that caused so much death and mourning and that have received so much media attention, and the death of this one simple unknown man working so early in the morning at a Wal-Mart in New York City, whose death has received so little media attention. And all of these people and events that compel us in many different ways to think about death-which of course is never separated or separable from thinking about life--happen during this crazy American holiday season when we have to think first, and quickly, about gratitude, about what we have to be thankful for, and then change, all of a sudden, to the time of celebration, of new life, the birth of Jesus and of all holy babies, as we speed toward Christmas.

There is too much to speak about, and perhaps the best thing to do would simply be to slow down and give our minds and hearts time to contemplate each of these things in turn. That would probably be better for all of us than a talk like this one that thinks all of these things at the same time.

With all this to think about, where to begin? With your indulgence, I will begin with the personal, even the confessional. It has been a great sadness for me personally since Derrida's death to think of myself as a survivor beyond the death of Derrida this soon. This word, this concept, to survive, to live after, is such an important concept in the work of Derrida as he himself lived after so many of the great thinkers of the 20th century: Heidegger, Foucault, Levinas, Deleuze, to name only a few. Human existence, says Derrida, is surviving, being shaped and affected by the lives of others and also by losing them, surviving them, living on after them, with them in some real ways but also in ways just as real living on without them. "Survival is an originary concept that constitutes the very structure of what we call existence, Daseun," says Derrida in his last interview. This is why our human life is shot through with what Derrida, surviving Freud, calls "originary mourning." So much of what humans have to do in life is do the work of mourning, the work of living after, surviving.

I met and talked to Derrida a few times, and sometimes we talked about surviving and the work of mourning. We knew one thing we had in common is that we were both survivors of Levinas. Levinas is probably the most important religious philosopher of the second half of the 20th century; I wrote my dissertation about him and went to see him in Paris in 1989, and Levinas was not only Derrida's teacher but also his very close friend. Derrida and I talked about being affected by and living after Levinas. When I met Levinas he was already a very old man, and I was just a kid. I knew before too long we would be surviving Levinas, but with Derrida this was very different. Derrida was not only of a younger generation, but he was also one of those people who looked and acted a lot younger than he was. I always thought this intellectual giant would be with us for a long time, that we would be able for years to come to read him, and to be able to think alongside him. Derrida was a supreme intellectual; no matter what he was thinking and writing about, he always helped you think about it more carefully and more profoundly. I do feel a loss at having to think after and without Derrida. Because of his pancreatic cancer we all have to be survivors of Derrida before we want to, before we thought we would have to be.

To understand our human life as always marked by mourning, as human living as always living after, as surviving, this is just one of the ways Derrida teaches us to think. Of course for Derrida, to understand this was also to understand what it means for him and for us to live after, to survive Freud, for whom death and mourning become very central concerns later in his work. To live after Freud in a more intelligent way, to survive Freud so as to think in a more profound way all that we have to think-like the death drive, mourning, the self destructiveness of cultures, war, post-traumatic stress disorder, terrorism, as well as that desire within us that wants to name what terrifies us-this is what it is to survive Freud and since 2004 also to survive Derrida, to live after.

In his last interview this is how Derrida describes human life. We live as survivors, living after those we love, those who have taught us, those whom we mourn, until it is our turn to leave and to leave behind loved ones. Derrida's writing, it is often said, is absolutely impossible to understand, yet we, all of us here this morning, all of us in our congregation, not only understand this, but we know that this is precisely our own situation. We can think right now of parents, other relatives, friends who have left us. We think of all the members of this church whom we have survived. I know on January 20th, especially on that day, I will be thinking as you will too about the members of this church and of your families who would have loved to survive long enough to see the country turn in such a promising direction. Our celebrations will also be punctuated by a sadness, the pain of surviving, which we all have, up until the very moment when it is our turn to leave. That is exactly the position Forrest Church, the Unitarian minister of All Souls' Church in NewYork, finds himself in. He has been the minister of this church for 30 years. He explains in his book Love and Death that for 30 years he has worked with and comforted the families in the church as they have lost family members, and now the dying one is him. He refers to his theology he has preached as a balm, and he even says now it is time he sees if the balm he has been bringing to his parishioners in mourning works for him. Earlier in the book he gives an example of his theology as a balm. He's with a young couple who is mourning the sudden death of their 8-week old daughter. He feels the ministerial need to reassure and comfort them so he tells them: "You know, in God's eyes, Sally's life is just as precious as your life or mine. Whether 8 weeks in duration or 80 years, viewed in light of eternity the length of one life is indistinguishable from that of any other. What really matters is that she taught you something about how fragile life is, and how much we need one another. Even in dying, Sally touched and changed her little corner of the universe."

Now Forrest Church without doubt is a real Unitarian minister. His theology is a balm delivery system. He brings the balm, says the words that are supposed to ease the pain of mourning, of living after, of survival. Put yourself in the horrible situation of the young couple. Is this what you want your minister to say? Maybe it is just me, maybe it is because I am not a real Unitarian minister, but I don't really see myself as a balm delivery system. Nor do I think the great majority of our people here in our church want a minister and a theology as a balm delivery system. If we had a couple who had suffered the loss of a baby and our congregation heard me say that to them, I suspect most people wouldn't be very happy with me. And I wouldn't be happy with myself, either. Theology as a balm delivering answer is not really what we do here in this church.

But to me, that doesn't mean we should do without or banish all God language or even all afterlife language. To me, and not everyone here would agree with me, God is a possibility, and if God is a possibility then anything is a possibility. The minister's job, as I see it, is certainly not to close down or narrow possibilities, and I myself am comfortable with God language without feeling the need at all to bring it in all situations as an answer. To me, God as a possibility, perhaps as the possibility of the impossible, is different than God as an answer and theology as a balm delivery system.

Every minister, the seminary trained ones and the ones who came in through the back door, understands from personal experience the desire to be a balm delivery system and the desire other people have for the minister to be a balm delivery system. Nothing is more natural or understandable-in the mist of our human life of mourning, of having to live after, of survival-than these theological desires. I have to admit that one of the many reasons why I have always loved my congregation and loved being the minister is that I have only very rarely been placed in the position of expecting to be a balm delivery system.

The truth is that nearly everyone in our church who has gone from being a survivor to being the one this time to leave the world has departed without the apparent need for theology as a balm delivery system. The people in our congregation tend not to be all that worried or preoccupied about whether there is a heaven or an after life or whether they will live forever. We tend to love life, this life right here, and it is so hard to leave this life, to leave others behind, to make them survivors, even though life as we live it and know it together is so incredibly hard because it has so much living after, so much surviving, so much work of mourning.

Even though, despite all that, we tend to love this life, affirm this life, even if it be purely temporary. We many not desire theological balms, but we do say along with Derrida as he left the world that surviving, living after, even with all its pain is still an unconditional affirmation of life and that we prefer living to death. I think we really would say along with Derrida that surviving, despite all the pain of living after, is not simply that which remains, but "is the most intense life possible."

Survival is the most intense life possible. This of course leads us to Professor Randy Pausch. Anyone who has seen the last lecture on the internet would know, or at least guess, that with this phrase of Derrida's "survival is not simply that which remains but the most intense life possible," Professor Pausch finally makes his appearance here. You could easily give his last lecture the title: How to live an intense life! How could this lecture of over an hour by a professor few people had ever heard of before become a media sensation, be viewed by millions of people over the internet? That his lecture became a media sensation and has been viewed over the internet by more than 6 million people is remarkable, stunning. Why did this happen? Did it happen because this brilliant mind confronting and battling his own demise at the hands, again, of pancreatic cancer answers the question of God and the afterlife? You would almost expect that given the sensation this lecture caused, but no. The sensation is due rather to Professor Pausch himself, who talks not about God, death, or the afterlife, but rather talks about, more than talks about but exhibits his extraordinary passion for life, for learning, work, teaching, loving, for other people, for having fun. "Never underestimate the importance of having fun," he tells us, as he assures us that he is going to have as much fun as he possibly can for as long as he can.

Professor Pausch starts his lecture by explaining that he has pancreatic cancer and knows he doesn't have much time to live and by saying that he is not going to talk about 2 things. He is not going to talk about leaving his wife and 3 kids, because he cannot talk about it publicly. And he is not going to talk about religion and spirituality. He talks about life, about dreams, passions, about making positive things happen in your own life and in other people's lives. He doesn't want anyone to feel sorry for him and says he feels fine. He even does push ups on stage to show everyone that at least right now he's fine. Professor Pausch in his lecture charms us, wins us over, amazes us with the lessons he teaches about life, about having passions and directions and taking chances and pursuing your dreams and making things happen and living life to the full. But even more, he amazes with himself, with his one personal energy, dynamism, wit, intelligence, vibrancy. If you haven't seen the last lecture, watch it over You-Tube. You will understand immediately why this lecture seen by so many millions of people makes him the poster child not of death or of a certain disease but of life. He is the poster child for the intense life lived to the fullest, though not the longest.

His lecture is so life affirming and positive that of course now the internet is loaded with comments saying that such a positive, life affirming guy even in the face of what he had to face must have been a Christian, or at least a God-believing, religious man, a spiritual guy. His lecture itself offers no confirmation of this view. He says religion is one thing he is not going to talk about. He does say he has had a death bed conversion, but then explains that by saying he had recently bought a Macintosh! Of course the truth is, as Doug Muder said last week, Randy Pausch was a Unitarian, a member of a Unitarian Church in Pittsburgh. Does that mean that he was such a positive, life affirming guy because he was religious, a God believer? Are we supposed to be able to deduce that simply by knowing that he was a Unitarian? Can we know anything about his "faith life", if we really want to put it that way, by the fact that he was a Unitarian?

Whether he believed in any divine reality as he left this world or not, Randy Pausch was an amazing credit to our Unitarian family and an amazing credit to our human family. His lecture too is amazing and life affirming and we should all listen to what it says about living the most intense life possible. But as Derrida always taught, we must always listen also to what a text doesn't say. Professor Pausch tells us that though he is going to talk about very important life lessons in his lecture, the most important things, concerning his wife and kids, he is not going to talk about because he simply can't. Yes, his lecture is positive and life affirming, amazingly so, but we should still listen to what he simply could not talk about, the pain of leaving, of losing, of leaving behind, and of knowing that his wife and three kids will have to live as survivors, with the pain of living on after he is gone. He doesn't talk about this. He mentions right at the end of his lecture that the lecture is not really for his audience but is for his 3 kids. He wants them more than anyone else to embrace his passion for living even in the face of having to live without him. It is almost as if he is affirming to his kids what Derrida said before he died, that this business of surviving, of living after, even with all its pain, "is not simply that which remains, but is the most intense life possible."

©2008 Rev. Dr. Rob Manning

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article:
Manning, Rev. Dr. Rob. 2008. On Living Finally: Thoughts on "The Last Lecture" and Jacques Derrida's Last Interview, /talks/20081130.shtml (accessed July 7, 2020).

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