Mitch Albom’s Tuesdays With Morrie
Well, not really. I’m being hyperbolic.
I wrote in my Instagram’s post that “revisiting a book is always a good idea to know how much you’ve changed… or not, and whether a book is a great work that transcends time and changes… or not.”
And “Tuesdays With Morrie” is not. So not.
So not great, not even good, that it made me wonder, why did I even cry my heart out years ago? Like getting some kind of enlightment or epiphany. Mine even has these colourful post-its of quoted lines that I thought were brilliant and hit all the right spots. Ugh.
Now that it’s almost twenty years later, I get another enlightenment… this book is a crap.
I re-read ‘Tuesdays’ because I was planning to watch “Sabtu Bersama Bapak”, which I thought was probably ‘heavily inspired’ by this book. Well, it’s a yes and no. ‘Tuesdays’ was published in 1997 and I consider it as part of the Inspirational Lit wave that hit the popular culture in the mid-90s along with “Chicken Soup For The Soul” series and “The Oprah Winfrey Show”. In fact, Oprah did later produce the TV film adaptation of ‘Tuesdays’, and Albom’s other book, “For One More Day” which was directed by the same director of another Albom’s book-turned-into-movie, “The Five People You Meet In Heaven”
Though it seems like ‘Tuesdays’ tried to disintegrate itself from the self-help genre, for me it failed to do so. It criticised the self-help books that flooded America’s book market by saying:
“Of course, there were a million self-help books on these subjects, and plenty of cable TV shows, and $90-per-hour consultation sessions. America had become a Persian bazaar of self-help.” (p.65)
I suspect Albom was talking about the ‘Chicken Soup’ series. Self-help, inspirational, motivational, whatever their jargon is, they all have the same effect on me. Left me feeling uninspired and demotivated.
I don’t know whether it was Albom’s conscious decision not to include other topics in this book that were probably mentioned by Morrie during their Tuesday sessions or it just happened to be that it was all there is to it about Morrie. If it’s the first, then I feel sorry for Morrie for being presented in such a way. If it’s the latter, then it’s really…
Morrie Schwartz was a professor in Sociology at Brandeis University, and Albom was one of his students. Studying Sociology apparently didn’t make either Morrie or Albom have a thorough and profound view of the world, at least not in this book. They just exchanged their white privilege’s ignorance covered in the so-called meaningful aphorisms.
The problems probably lie within Morrie and Albom’s backgrounds, and they seemed to heavily influence the way Morrie and Albom think. Of course it wouldn’t be fair to stereotype both Morrie and Albom, but they seem to be the almost perfect archetypes of their generations. Morrie was born in 1916, which made him part of the so-called G.I Generation or Greatest Generation. But let’s just call them the World War II Generation, the other less familiar term. Greatest sounds… well, too much. His father, Charlie Schwartz, was a Russian immigrant who left Russia to escape the Russian Army. Little Morrie lived in poverty. His father was constantly out of job, and because of the Depression, Morrie’s father found even less work in his fur business.
The experience of seeing people work in his father’s fur factory (his father was a labourer) made him make a vow that “he would never do any work that exploited someone else, and he would never allow himself to make money off the sweat of others” (p.78). This seems to be one of the World War II Generation’s values, “We before Me”. A value that in the years to come seemed to have no place in their über-capitalistic land of dreams.
The more I read about it (this generation division) the more I see ‘Tuesdays’, well Morrie’s aphorisms in this case, as a criticism towards the Boomers and their materialistic lifestyle and values. But unfortunately Morrie failed to see through these and recognising that the biggest contribution to their consumerism and hedonism are not only that they were being spoiled by their parents, but also thanks to their own economic and social systems, capitalism.
Though the 60s and 70s saw the rise of the counterculture of the 1960s, the civil rights movement, and the “second-wave” feminist cause (which later was also criticised for whitewashing), in which all the Boomers were the key players, but in the next coming years the Boomers evolved into a self-absorbed “Me Generation”. Everything is about “me, me, me”. Their ultimate goal is happiness. My happiness. Happiness, which was once just one of the emotions in the human emotion spectrum, has now become the holy and the only purpose of life. The purpose of life that, if you’re smart (and greedy) enough, can turn you into a multibillionaire by milking every drop of it.
Before going any further, perhaps this article by Simon Sinek in Salon can give a glimpse of World War II Generation and the Baby Boomer’s relationship:
“The Greatest Generation, raised during the Great Depression and wartime rationing, wanted to ensure that their children did not suffer or miss out on their youth as they did. This is good. This is what all parents want — for their children to avoid their hardships and prosper. And so that’s how the Boomers were raised — to believe that they shouldn’t have to go without. Which, as a philosophy, is perfectly fine and reasonable. But given the size of the generation and the abundance of resources that surrounded them, the philosophy got a little distorted. When you consider the rising wealth and affluence of their childhood, combined (for good reasons) with a cynicism toward government in the 1970s, followed by the boom years of the 1980s and 1990s, it’s easy to see how the Boomers earned their reputation as the Me Generation. Me before We.”
Now, Morrie criticised what this generation had become, which Albom represented being “.. so wrapped up with egotistical things, career, family, having enough money, meeting the mortgage, getting a new car, fixing the radiator when it breaks – we’re involved in trillions of little acts just to keep going…” (p. 64-65). Hence the “Love wins. Love always wins” (p. 40) type of aphorisms.
The problem is, it doesn’t.
If love always wins, we don’t have wars anymore. No discrimination, no violence, no blood, just none of those things. None. But it doesn’t.
Morrie probably wanted to relive the ‘We before Me’ values. A balance of hard work, a sense of being a part of a society and also love. The one thing that probably his generation was really deprived of, having lived in a constant struggle, but also the one thing that Boomers throw into the sea of divorces. So that’s what he emphasised most. Love.
Unfortunately, he passed on these ideas to the already self-absorbed and self-obsessed generation. As Brakow theorised, “One reason the Boomers were so spoiled, Brokaw theorizes, was their parents’ understandable desire to compensate for their own deprivation.” So they seemed to skip the ‘We’ part and went straight ahead to the ‘Love’ part. ‘Me + Love’ = self-love = positive psychology. A new breed of ignorance.
Now to my understanding, based on these backgrounds, Morrie was not likely to be an ignorant person. But somehow, he was too in a way. This ignorance came in the form of Morrie’s wise advice when asked by Albom “how can you be prepared to die?” His answer was,
“Do what the Buddhists do. Every day, have a little bird on your shoulder that asks, ‘Is today the day? Am I ready? Am I doing all I need to do? Am I being the person I want to be?” (p.81)
Huh? What the… ?!
The 90s (the period where the sessions took place) saw the booming of American Buddhism. Stephen Prothero, a professor of Religion, in his article “Buddhist Boomer” wrote,
“American converts are taking a 2,500-year-old faith and making it over in their own image — self-absorbed.”
He then went on saying,
“Boomer Buddhism, by contrast, is all too often shallow and small. It soothes rather than upsets, smoothing out the palpable friction between Buddhist practice and the banalities of contemporary American life, cajoling even the Dalai Lama to direct his great mind to small American preoccupations like “The Art of Happiness.”
This is actually ironic and pitiful since Morrie is a professor in sociology, the study of social behavior or society, including its origins, development, organisation, networks, and institutions. Yet he fell for this banality. So, I’m not sure whether this is Morrie’s or Albom’s conscious choice.
These picture-perfect ideals in delulu land also makes them lose the ability to see the bigger picture. Tom Brakow, who coined the term “Greatest Generation” recalled that at their time, “Whatever else was happening in our family or neighborhood, there was something greater connecting all of us, in large ways and small.”
I also need to remind myself that Morrie came from a generation that used to classify the African-Americans as second-class citizens. Brakow wrote “The majority of black Americans were still living in the states of the former Confederacy, and they remained second-class citizens, or worse, in practice and law. Negro men were drafted and placed in segregated military units even as America prepared to fight a fascist regime that had as a core belief the inherent superiority of the Aryan people.”
Again, I’m not sure whether this was purely Albom’s or partly Morrie’s, because one story in this book is racially biased and the choice of words feels like coming from white privilege’s arrogance.
“One time, a group of black students took over Ford Hall on the Brandeis campus, draping it in a banner that read MALCOLM X UNIVERSITY. For Hall had chemistry labs, and some administration officials worried that these radicals were making bombs in the basement. Morrie knew better. He saw right to the core of the problem, which was human being wanting to feel that they mattered.” (p.112)
If this book is out today in times of the #BlackLivesMatter movement, I’m almost sure that this would be criticised as racist. I suspect that that’s mostly Albom’s, since he also constantly talked about OJ Simpson’s case again in the background.
“I heard the door to Morrie’s study close. I stared at the TV set. Everyone in the world is watching this thing, I told myself. Then, from the other room, I heard the ruffling of Morrie’s being lifted from his chair and I smiled. As “the Trial of the Century” reached its dramatic conclusion, my old professor was sitting on the toilet.” (p. 158)
Mmm… no, we were not and no, it was not, you egocentric sheltered American Boomer. The world does not, nor will it ever be revolved just around your great nation!
Now, how did all of these very white American-centric problems, and very first world problems too, resonate with readers like me who came from the so-called third-world countries? I suspect that it has to do with the US cultural imperialism propaganda. It’s almost definite that when it comes to popular culture, people who live through the 80s and 90s in their adolescent years (the Gen X-ers), especially the urban middle-class kids and teenagers, can only remember mostly America’s popular culture products, and a little bit of British’s and Australia’s. Other than that, they are very minimal or almost non-existent.
“The secret of the success of North American cultural penetration of the Third World is its capacity to fashion fantasies to escape from misery, that the very system of economic and military domination generates. The essential ingredients of the new cultural imperialism is the fusion of commercialism-sexuality-conservatism each presented as idealized expressions of private needs, of individual self-realization. To some Third World people immersed in everyday dead end jobs, struggles for everyday survival, in the midst of squalor and degradation, the fantasies of North American media, like the evangelist, portray “something better”, a hope in a future better life — or at least the vicarious pleasure of watching others enjoying it.”
So it’s no surprise if the propaganda seemed to find its effective weapon in Inspirational Lit, which wave reached its height between 1993-1998, because the genre promises a better and happier life. Your personal and individual better and happier life, because it aimed to ‘dismantle’ the sense of ‘We’-ness. The same value that was not only highly valued by the World War II Generation, but also the same core value of socialism, the economic and social systems that American capitalism has fought to dismiss for decades.
“One of the great deceptions of our times is the notion of ‘internationalization’ of ideas, markets and movements. It has become fashionable to evoke terms like “globalization” or “internationalization” to justify attacks on any or all forms of solidarity, community, and/or social values. Under the guise of “internationalism”, Europe and the U.S. have become dominant exporters of cultural forms most conducive to depoliticizing and trivializing everyday existence. The images of individual mobility, the “self-make person”, the emphasis on “self-centered existence” (mass produced and distributed by the U.S. mass media industry) now have become major instruments in dominating the Third World.”
Not until the spectacular failure of capitalism, more Americans are embracing the idea of socialism.
It’s almost twenty years later. I have disassociated myself with the privileged middle-class.
Because I am not.
Nor I am white.
Nor I am part of the first-world.
Nor I have benefited from the system.
So this book has become meaningless for me. A waste of an ideally revolutionary youth.
*Original post was published here*