Insights October 2012

The Truth Can Set You Free

Randy Pausch


I recently got pulled over for speeding not far from my new home in Virginia. I hadn’t been paying attention, and I had drifted a few miles an hour over the speed limit.

“Can I see you license and registration?” the police officer asked me. I pulled both out for him, and he saw my Pittsburgh address on my Pennsylvania driver’s license.

“What are you doing here?” he asked. “You with the military?”

“No, I’m not,” I said. I explained that I had just moved to Virginia, and I hadn’t had time to re-register yet.

“So what brings you here?”

He had asked a direct question. Without thinking very hard, I gave him a direct answer. “Well, officer,” I said, “since you’ve asked, I have terminal cancer. I have just months to live. We’ve moved down here to be close to my wife’s family.”

The officer cocked his head and squinted at me. “So you’ve got cancer,” he said flatly. He was trying to figure me out. Was I really dying? Was I lying? He took a long look at me. “You know, for a guy who has only a few months to live, you sure look good.”

He was obviously thinking: “Either this guy is pulling one big fat line on me, or he’s telling the truth. And I have no way of Knowing.” This wasn’t an easy encounter for him because he was trying to do the near-impossible. He was trying to question my integrity without directly calling me a liar. And so he had forced me to prove that I was being honest. How would I do that?

“Well, officer, I know that I look pretty healthy. It’s really ironic. I look great on the outside, but the tumors are on the inside.” And then, I don’t know what possessed me, but I just did it. I pulled up my shirt, revealing the surgical scars.

The cop looked at my scars. He looked in my eyes. I could see on his face: He now knew he was talking to a dying man. And if by some chance I was the most brazen con man he’d ever stopped, well, he wasn’t taking this any further. He handed me back my license. “Do me a favor,” he said, “Slow down from now on.”

The awful truth had set me free. As he trotted back to his police car, I had a realization. I have never been one of those gorgeous blondes who could bat her eyelashes and get out of tickets. I drove home under the speed limit, and I was smiling like a beauty queen. 

About the Author(s)

This is a true account by Randy Pausch, Professor, Carnegie Mellon. One of many essays collected in the national bestseller “The Last lecture.


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