The Truth Behind Randy Pausch's 'Last Lecture'

Over the last few months Randy Pausch captured the attention of much of the world as he had captivated his students for years. Pausch, an extremely popular Carnegie Mellon University professor of computer science, was diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer. While that would be devastating news to anyone, you would expect it to be particularly excruciating for a 46-year-old father of three children (aged 5, 2 and 1).

Given a prognosis of a few months to live, Pausch responded with inspiring, even unnerving optimism. He decided to give his students a real "last lecture"—not a hypothetical "what I would say if I knew I was going to die" lecture, but a lecture from a man who knew he had a very limited time to live.

I doubt anyone could watch Randy Pausch's "last lecture" and not be moved and indeed, changed, by it. Randy was a sort of 21st-century, high-tech Renaissance Man, with multi-faceted interests and a charismatic, engaging personality. One former professorial colleague called him a "force of nature."

Pausch's "last lecture" has been viewed by millions on the Internet and read by hundreds of thousands in its book form. Why did Randy touch so many people? His example illustrated to all of us the transitory, even ephemeral nature of our earthly existence. As he so pointedly reminded us: "Many people have given last speeches without realizing it," citing Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s awe-inspiring speech in Memphis the night before he was assassinated.

Randy Pausch told us to live life— carpe diem —seize the day. Among the many thought-provoking comments in the "last lecture," a couple stand out for me. First, "Never underestimate the importance of having fun. I'm dying and I'm having fun. And I'm going to keep having fun every day because there's no other way to play it." Second, "We can't change the cards we're dealt, just how we play the hand. If I'm not as depressed as you think I should be, I'm sorry to disappoint you."

Such courage in the midst of so much adversity is inspiring. I know it has inspired me, among other things, to take delight in the present, to enjoy "little things" more and to cherish every moment with loved ones.

As Randy's life and lecture remind us so poignantly, none of us can guarantee our next hour, let alone a day of our future existence. As Jesus reminded His disciples in "the parable of the rich fool," the rich man who trusted in his material wealth was a "fool" when he said to himself, "Soul, thou hast much goods laid up for many years; take thine ease, eat, drink, and be merry." Jesus reported God's reply: "Thou fool, this night thy soul shall be required of thee."

In this advanced civilization of ours, where medical technology postpones death more than ever before, it may take a Randy Pausch to remind us of how short our earthly sojourn may be and how realizing that should alter and re-order present priorities. I know it has done so for me.

This column originally published at Casting Stones, a blog hosted by Beliefnet.