Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Randy Pausch's Distributed Funeral

Let's get a few things out of the way quickly:

  • I've known of , the Carnegie Melon University professor who died this week, since his famous speech became a viral video on YouTube.
  • I have seen the speech. Several times, including once last week, in fact.
  • His death is, indeed, a major loss for his family, his friends and colleagues, and for the many fans who have been inspired by his work and words.
I am having trouble with how so many people seemed so moved, some even to tears, about a speech (and, by extension, a man) who while combating a disease that would eventually take his life, extolled the virtues of perseverance.

There, I said it. I've struggled with this post for some time, originally starting it in January, and picking it up again after Mr. Pausch's death. I recognize a lot of people are going to find problems with my opening statement, and I hope to present my position in a rational manner.

I believe it is wonderful that so many people would gain encouragement, indeed strength, from Randy's speech. What shocked me, however, was reading how many people were moved to tears over it. I saw it, I identified with the messages of living your dreams and never giving up, but that did not leave me in an emotional state. How could it? I don't know the man beyond a 70-some odd minute speech. What kind of emotional attachment could I make in what WIRED magazine best described as interact[ing] with Randy through a little box embedded in a webpage. Yes, the man had gift for speaking, for teaching, for making the listeners perceive he was speaking only to them, but that doesn't mean he was!

WIRED's piece goes on to discuss a phenomenon of a distributed funeral wherein it is common for people post comments in the first-person to the family of the deceased, as in this comment speaking to Randy's wife:
I am real sorry for your loss Jai.
Who is to say if the poster of this personal sympathy knew Mrs. Pausch? I'll wager she didn't, as the sheer number of people touched by Randy's message made him a sensation. Be that as it may, what inspires people to speak in this manner as if they are long-time acquaintances, as has been done in dozens of other places, to a complete stranger? Is it something missing in their life?

I mean no malice to Mr. Pausch or his family; a person dieing of a chronic, debilitating disease is nothing anyone wishes.

I am just having problem understanding how so many people find it normal to get emotional over the death of someone they never met.

To be moved so much emotionally in this sort of instance strikes me as odd, as if these people have never suffered any loss or severe distress ever before in their own lives, they believe they have to act a certain way when things happened to others.

This was discussed around the office, in fact, and people couldn't understand how I could not comprehend their vivid sadness over Mr. Pausch's death.

It isn't that I could not comprehend it, but perhaps I believe that in spite of his passing, ending a career of a very intelligent, witty, and caring man, I see the benefit to his family; they have lived with his death sentence for almost a year, and have witnessed their hero slowly dying.

I know and understand well, for example, the emotional and physical struggles people who live with parents in declining health go through. My MBH and her sister experienced this, and as a child I saw my father go through it with his mother. Perhaps it is because I've had these experiences in my life that I am somehow comparatively unfazed by the deaths of stars. Maybe I can't relate to the people I don't know, because I've done so with the people I do know.

Even as a kid growing up in NYC, I could not fathom why thousands stood outside of the Dakota on the news of 's murder, any more than I could comprehend people standing in line for other celebrities. What is the point?

This is probably not a popular position, and I am inclined to believe I may get flamed for it.

Life is too short, in my mind, to spend time wringing your hands in such a manner. Be saddened when people you admire or love die, but be sure your response is appropriate in comparison to how close you were with the deceased.

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