My heroes keep dying.
I’ve lost two this year. Terry Pratchett. Oliver Sacks. A few years ago I lost Steve Jobs. We all did. The year before, we all lost Tony Judt, even if we didn’t all know who he was. That’s the thing about heroes, they take a little light out of the world with them when they go.
What is a hero? I don’t have a monopoly on definitions, but by my reckoning a hero is someone who makes us feel better about the world just for the knowledge that they are in it. It’s comforting to think that somewhere out there, someone has a good reply to the chaotic and meandering struggle that is human existence, and they are living it good and hard with everything they’ve got.
Perhaps it’s comforting in part because if someone else clearly has it figured out, there’s less pressure on us. So when a hero is ripped from the world, what remains? Little comfort. Less light. More pressure.
It’s a sobering thought that the great lights of the older generation keep going out. I suppose it’s like moving up to ticking a new age box on a form. We keep moving through them until eventually there’s no boxes left between us and the end of the page and the realisation that oh fuck, we’re it.
Am I it?
This is certainly a feeling I’ve been experiencing lately, with creeping and discomfiting conviction. I know that people watch my life in just the way I watch others. We all do it, I suppose, and it’s not just about heroes. There are people in all our lives who exist almost entirely for us as a warning to others. For every beacon to light the way, there’s an iceberg to steer clear of.
The point is – what we say, and what we do, has power. We never know who might be paying attention. (Incidentally, I read a good novel lately – The Elegance of the Hedgehog – that stages this insight with slowly unfolding sympathy.)
It’s an idea that lodged with me early. I knew a girl in primary school who sat next to me at lunch. One day she asked why I don’t eat meat (I have been vegetarian all my life) and I replied with something along the lines that I didn’t see why something else needed to die so that I could eat. She never talked to me again after that. It wasn’t until much later that I found out this was because she had gone home and announced that she was now vegetarian and her mother, having gotten to the bottom of it, had forbidden her from associating with me as a bad influence.
I am aware that to certain people I am a kind of hero, because they have told me so. This is in many ways a flattering thought, but also a worrying one. Don’t they know I have no idea what I’m doing? That I have no more answers than they do? Knowing you are someone’s hero is a scary prospect. But perhaps not as scary as not knowing. How many other people have me as their hero without me realising it? What if I slip up? Or worse, what if I’m someone’s iceberg?
A thought - do the heroes in my life know that they are my heroes? Have I ever told them? Do I tell them enough?
It’s been said that life is a struggle against death that all of us must eventually lose, and therefore what matters is what we do with that knowledge.1
Many may find this an uncheery thought. I find it an essential one. Knowing how the story ends makes it all the more important that what happens in the middle is worth telling.
My heroes are my heroes in large part because they are unfailingly both wide-eyed and wide awake. The four I’ve mentioned all lived their lives to the full, even as they were dying. And when they knew they were finally losing their struggle for good, what did they do with that knowledge?
Oliver Sacks wrote about it in his trademark style, just as he had always done, so that others could share with him something of the wonder and frailty of human experience. Terry Pratchett kept writing his books that dared people to imagine possibilities other than those that seem inevitable, while campaigning tirelessly and articulately about his illness and the dignity of dying well. Steve Jobs, in his last days, kept trying to do one more thing, until the day he no longer could. And Tony Judt dictated his last works – a collective warning and call to action for a new generation – while paralysed by ALS.
My heroes have gotten me through rough days and dark nights more than once. As they walk one by one into the long night, someone needs to pick up where they left off.
We need heroes who remind us that things can be otherwise than they are, and to awaken the power within us to make them so. We need heroes who make us feel better about the world, and inspire us to love rather than fear. To blow away the cobwebs of cynicism that are no more than fragile ideals bruised and bathed too long in bitterness, and to show us how to live outside the limits we too often set for ourselves.
Am I it?
If not me, then who? If not now, then when?
I have a good job, a good income, a good resume, a good partner, a good set of stamps in my passport, good letters after my name and a good set of words in my vocabulary, and none of these things were true eight years ago, which is the last time I really took stock of my life in a big way. That has been a good story. But like in any performance industry – and what is life if not the most important performance you’ll ever give – the question always just around the corner is ‘yes, but what have you done lately’?
I am fortunate enough to have almost all of my life ticking over quite nicely at present, and I’ve been enjoying that for six months or so now, as it has been a good while since I’ve been able to say that with sincerity. And the standard of today’s ticking is much better than it was then. But let’s face it, anyone who knows me – and it’s hard to imagine anyone else reading this at this point – will know that just ticking over nicely was never going to be enough.
Time, as always, is getting on. I’ll be 33 next year. I know people who never got to make it that far. Others had managed to do quite a bit by the time they got to 33. Like that Jesus guy, for instance.
I need a project. Not that I’m in any particular rush to be onto something else anytime soon, but it’s never too early to be thinking about what’s next.
There’s the PhD, of course. That’s supposed to be ‘next’. But things have changed a little on that front since last we spoke (about which more another time). In short, I’m beginning to wonder if the PhD is next because it should be or simply because it seems inevitable that it must be. Few things in life are truly inevitable – it seems important to be clear about which ones.
In the last six months, new options have become available and old facts have changed. And as Keynes said, ‘when the facts change, I change my mind – what do you do, sir?’
I’ve been running for so long now just to catch up that it’s been a long time since I ran just to see how fast I could go. It’d be a shame if a long time became too long. It’s high time I embarked upon something brazenly ambitious and naively optimistic, just to see what happens when I do. Last time I threw all my momentum into something like that I made a lot of mistakes and ended up bankrupt. (Like Ernest Hemingway, I went bankrupt in two ways – gradually, then suddenly.) But it was also a lot of fun. With all my hard-won experience I’m confident that this time, at the very least, the mistakes I make will be different ones.
So what’s the project?
I’ve no idea, actually. Not yet. But it will have something to do with the same things it always does. Education. Technology. Politics. And others, perhaps. I need to take stock of what I’ve learned and the road I’ve travelled so far to know where it goes next. I had fun doing a bit of that earlier this year on my travels by writing this journal, and my plan is basically to do some more thinking out loud until things become clearer. You’re welcome to join me for that, if you like – believe me, I’m just as keen to see what I come up with as you are! And I’ll say here and now that I’ll have some sort of project pretty much figured out by my 33rd birthday in March 2016, because there’s nothing like a public promise to deliver a swift kick up the arse.
Just ticking over nicely is never going to be enough for some people, though of course the sort of relentless insouciance I’m pursuing isn’t for everyone. But perhaps there’s something comforting in the thought that someone out there is giving it a red hot go.
If you’re out there, feel free to sing along.
1 Homer. The Iliad of Homer. Edited by Richard Martin, Translated by Richmond Lattimore, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011, 17.