The Fourth Tuesday: We Talk about Death

Morrie tells Mitch that everyone is aware that they will eventually die, though no one actually believes it. Mitch notes that Morrie is in a business-like mood on this Tuesday, as he scribbles notes in his now undecipherable handwriting. In Detroit, the newspaper strikes continue, and Mitch remains out of work. Once again, he notes the disgustingly violent news stories he has heard and read about, namely the O.J. Simpson murder trial. In Morrie's office, however, news events are inconsequential, and they focus on more meaningful subjects.

Morrie is now somewhat dependent on an oxygen machine to breathe. Mitch asks him how one can be prepared to die. Morrie responds with a Buddhist philosophy that every day, one must ask the bird on his shoulder if that day is the day he will die. Morrie adopts values and parables from many different religions; described by Mitch as a "religious mutt," Morrie had been born into Judaism, but turned agnostic during his teen years. Morrie reveals that it is only once a person knows how to die that he can then know how to live. He repeats this idea for reinforcement, and Mitch asks him if he had considered death before contracting ALS. Morrie responds that he had not thought very much about death before his illness; in fact, he had once vowed to a friend that he would be "the healthiest old man" his friend had ever met.

The men talk about why facing the reality of death is so difficult for most people. Morrie says that realizing the imminence of death is realizing what is essential, thus you see your life in an entirely different light. Morrie also tells Mitch that if he accepts death, he may not be as ambitious as he is now, as he will see that he must spend time on what is meaningful to him, and not working to make money. Morrie urges Mitch to consider further "spiritual development," and concedes that he is not exactly sure what that phrase means, though he is certain that people are too involved in material goods and their own egotism. Morrie notes that he appreciates what he sees from his window, though he is unable to go outside and enjoy it.

Morrie continues to receive letters from the viewers who had seen his interview with Ted Koppel on "Nightline." He dictates responses to his friends and family, and one afternoon while he is with his sons, Rob and Jon, responds to a note from a woman named Nancy who had lost her mother to ALS and says she sympathizes with Morrie for his suffering. Morrie dictates a kind reply, saying that he hopes she can find "healing power" in grieving as he has. Another woman, Jane, had written Morrie a letter in which she named him a prophet. He thanks her graciously, though he does not agree that he is of such revered status. In another letter, a man from England asks Morrie for help in contacting his dead mother. There is also a four-page letter from a former graduate student who, after graduating, experienced a murder-suicide and three still-born births. Her mother had died of ALS, and she fears that she will also develop the disease. Morrie is unsure of how to answer her. Rob suggests they simply tell her thank you for having written such a long letter. It is clear that Morrie is happy to have his sons with him.

Mitch thinks it is significant that Morrie is suffering from a disease named after an athlete, Lou Gehrig. Morrie urges Mitch to do his imitation of Gehrig giving his farewell speech in which he says that he is the "luckiest man in the world." Morrie, however doesn't feel quite the same way.


The O.J. Simpson murder trial is an issue which appears repeatedly throughout the book. Mitch uses the trial as a tool to portray the popular, media-saturated culture as a source of meaninglessness, as he does when he sees the murderous potential on the faces of the people at the airport, or reads about murder and other crimes in the newspaper. These crimes that taint the popular culture are used, in large part, to contrast the good of Morrie's self-created culture against the evil of the mainstream social culture, whose values are entrenched in meaningless and wasteful endeavors, such as watching television and reading tabloid gossip. Why, then, if Morrie loathes the media and the popular culture, does he agree to do multiple interviews with Ted Koppel for "Nightline"? Because only "Nightline" can provide him with the means to reach millions of people, so that he may share his story and influence their lives with his life lessons. It seems that Morrie must use the popular culture he condemns as a vehicle to spread his philosophy of a self-created culture.

Mitch refers to Morrie as a "religious mutt" because he has created his own religion from a variety of different religious philosophies. The Buddhist philosophy Morrie shares about asking the bird on his shoulder if today is the day he will die serves as a metaphor for his awareness that he may die at any moment. The bird itself is symbolic of Morrie's consciousness that his death is fast approaching, and his readiness to accept it when it does arrive. His lesson, however, pertains more to Mitch than to himself. In telling the parable, he wants Mitch to realize that this bird is on everyone's shoulder at every moment of their lives, despite how young or old they may be. When he tells Mitch that one must know how to die before one can know how to live, he means that one must accept the possibility of one's own death before he can truly appreciate what he has on earth, as the sobering awareness that one day, it will all be out of reach, prompts the urge to appreciate and value what one can have only for a limited period of time, and to use every moment of that time doing something that one will not regret when the bird sings its last note.

When Morrie tells Mitch that he may not be as professionally ambitious as he is if he were aware and accepting of his own death, he is continuing with his idea of time as a precious, irreplaceable gift. What Morrie means by this is not that Mitch should be lazy, but that he should reassess his priorities. He assumes that if Mitch were to truly and completely realize that his will someday die, he would surely rearrange his values system and realize that dedicating his time to love, family, and friends is far more important than spending his life at work, earning money that does not fulfill him. Mitch feels a void in his life which he stuffs with dollar bills, believing that material wealth his what he wants and needs. But Morrie sees through Mitch's superficial desire, and knows that the only salve for Mitch's emotional void is love and friendship.