Ultimate Concern

Most men worry about their own bellies, and other people's souls, when we all ought to be worried about our own souls, and other people's bellies. -- Rabbi Israel Salanter 1810-1883

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Last Lecture

July 25, 2008

Randy Pausch died today. I was doing the morning headline browse when I saw his name in an obiturial context. He was a professor at Carnegie-Mellon, in CS. Real tech geek kinda guy. So what’s an RS person doing in CS realms? I first came across him during my research for my senior undergrad thesis. My project was, among other things, an examination of the virtual realities created by religion and technological virtual realities in cyberspace. Pausch did groundbreaking work in VR, and broke interdisciplinary ground by finding ways to get Science to talk to other disciplines in order to produce new work.

I followed the link that alerted me to his demise, and treated myself to about an hour and a half of Professor Pausch over my morning coffee. My left brain tried to tell me that wasn’t a good use of my time. Turns out, Lefty was wrong today.

It’s a long video, but the value of high thought to words ratios is abundant in this clip. It’s from a lecture series called “The Last Lecture,” the idea being that if you knew you were dying, what would your last lecture be? He nailed it. And he didn’t have to pretend or imagine he was dying. It’s an amazing lecture, and through the miracle of modern technology, you can give yourself a treat by watching it here.

On my plate today, said Lefty, is the composition of my CV. That’s a big challenge for me; I feel deficient at two primary constituents of a CV: selling self, and writing down accomplishments. I wasn’t exactly looking at that to-do element with relish. Then I watched the lecture. I’m still in the same boat skill-wise, but my determination has been renewed.

There’s several places where Pausch’s work lines up with mine. He created some amazing VR interfaces, and used the medium to help others actualize their dreams. With the emergence of social networking and multi-user online virtual interfaces, VR presents a medium for education and common ground that we’ve not yet seen. The end-user applications of this technology are still in their infancy, but that is not an indication of their potential. Through VR, I’ve attended interfaith conferences online that I’d not have had access to otherwise. VR is one medium that can be used to help create religious literacy in some wildly engaging ways.

Pausch’s bottom line is that the way in which one lives is manifest in one’s life. When I saw the part where he was discussing his academic journey and he said that he “tanked his GRE’s,” I gasped--aloud. It was a heartfelt sound of dismay, disbelief and a note of personal alarm, echoing my own fears bout taking the GRE (which I’m al scheduled and paid up to do on August 15, 2008). Tenured prof at Carnegie-Mellon? Amazing educator and innovator? A man whose work found his way into my senior thesis? TANKED his GRE’s?? There may be hope for me yet.

I have a dream. It’s a Ph.D. in RS with an intent to teach. I don’t know much more about my dream than that. I know it’s my path. I know it’s where I excel. I know I love academia (despite the many warnings, hazards and risks of selling out or hyperconforming. I fought it for years—as in about 30 of them). I’ve noticed that as one ages one gets tired of, as my Nana of blessed memory put it, ‘fiddle-farting’ around. I finally know what I’m meant for. I finally know what my purpose in life is: it’s to help others become more religiously literate in order for them to realize themselves fully and in so doing create a more peaceful, less-conflicted world. And that sort of language makes me cringe. So altruistic! So lofty! It just sounds foofoo to me.

But it’s true. I must do this. It’s the thing I can’t not do.

Randy Pausch may be dead, but his ability to inspire others has not died with him. He leaves a legacy of diligence and fun behind, for the likes of me to savor and embed. I don’t want to be Randy Paush, but god willin’ and’ the wind’s, right, I can be like him in that I insist on having fun, helping others matters greatly to me, and I hope to leave the world a different [better?] place than it was when I got here.

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