Wednesday, January 04, 2017
We made it into 2017, everyone!
There’s been a lot of talk about how 2016 was kind of the worst year ever. And I know that’s purely subjective. There were definitely years in human history that were worse, and there were definitely really awesome things about 2016. I think the insanity of the U.S. election sort of colored everything else that happened—we were all seeing the world through these terrible red/blue-tinted glasses that made everything ELSE feel terrible. (I don’t think red/blue-tinted glasses are always terrible, but they sure felt that way this year.) There’s something to be said for a positive attitude, but even I have to admit that 2016 was a rough year.
But I want to talk specifically about the celebrity deaths of 2016. And why it’s 100% valid to mourn them in whatever way you need to.
During this past week, I overheard a conversation that went something like this:
“I’m really sad about Carrie Fisher.”
“But you didn’t know Carrie Fisher.”
“But I’m still going to miss her.”
“But you didn’t know her!”
The general sentiment is that it doesn’t make sense to mourn the deaths of celebrities we don’t know. Other arguments against mourning celebrity deaths include the fact that we should be mourning the deaths of soldiers/civilians/children/animals/etc, that you’re just mourning because everyone else is and you’re not even a real fan, or that their contributions weren’t valuable.
I’m calling BS. On all of that.
Of course most of us didn’t personally know Carrie Fisher. Most of us don’t personally know any of the celebrities whose deaths we are mourning. But many of these people invited us in to know them by living a public life, or by creating works of music and writing. I know that a public life and a private life are often two very different things. But the public life can still be inspiring.
Regarding the deaths of soldiers and civilians and children and the many other thousands of humans that have died this year: OF COURSE THAT SUCKS. Death just sucks. It’s an unavoidable part of the human experience, but it still sucks. Each life lost should be mourned. But I think the difference is that my own personal life wasn’t as deeply or directly affected by the deaths of many of those others. Yes, I understand that a soldier giving up their life in the line of duty often helps maintain the freedom I sometimes take for granted. And I am grateful for the sacrifices made on my behalf. I ache for the families of those who have lost loved ones to war, to cancer, to poverty, to disease. I ache for that loss of life. But my mourning the death of a celebrity doesn’t have to diminish the meaning of someone else’s death.
And I don’t know how to say this without sounding like a horrible person, but the truth is that Edward Albee’s life and work personally and directly affected my life in a different way than the death of a nameless soldier. I mourn the loss of Edward Albee more than the loss of other strangers simply because I know exactly how he changed my life. I will feel it more personally and more often. It’s more measurable.
If we were to truly mourn every death, we’d all end up in padded rooms somewhere. It’s too much to process that much loss. The human psyche can only take so much. I think sometimes the sorrow we feel for celebrity deaths also includes sorrow for all of the nameless…like we channel some of the despair of the world into the black armbands we wear for the singers and actors and writers who leave us.
And the whole “you’re just mourning because everyone else is and you weren’t really a fan” thing? IT DOESN’T MATTER. Let people mourn, even if you think they’re faking. Let people connect over stuff. Your sorrow doesn’t have to be more legitimate than anyone else’s—this is not a competition. I didn't know much about Prince before he died. But I was deeply inspired by everything I learned about him in the aftermath of his death, and it made me sad we won't have more of him.
As for whether or not the contributions of a celebrity are valuable, that’s in the eye of the beholder. There were some celebrity deaths this year that didn’t affect me very deeply. But there were others that did. I think each human being brings something utterly unique to this earth, and sometimes their contributions get to be widely shared. And when those contributions are meaningful to you or me, their loss is something to mourn. I’m still sad about Ray Bradbury—there will never be another like him. There will never be another story written by that man, in his voice, from his imagination. That’s a loss I still ache to think of, and it’s been almost five years. His dedication and imagination have been a huge part of why I’ve done NaNoWriMo, why I’m doing an MFA in Creative Writing. His books and stories allowed me to escape when I needed to. I know I didn’t personally know Ray Bradbury, and I know he didn’t sacrifice his life for my freedom. But I mourn the fact that the world, and my own life, will no longer read new words penned by his hand.
Many of the celebrity deaths I have mourned this year have left lasting contributions. And I can thank them for those things even as I mourn the fact that they have left us—that there’s a cap on what they brought to the world. So I mourn them.
David Bowie and Prince, thank you for rejecting toxic masculinity. Thank you for being fiercely yourselves, for blazing trails in music. Bowie, thank you for your prolific and ever-shifting career. Prince, thank you for your musical mastery and for being a delightful and enigmatic human.
Alan Rickman and Gene Wilder, thank you for the honesty and humor with which you approached your work. Thank you for Galaxy Quest and Willy Wonka and Severus Snape and Young Frankenstein. Thank you for your passion and dedication.
John Glenn, thank you for being brave enough to put on that suit, climb into that metal contraption and allow yourself to be shot into space. Almost infinite horizons have opened to the entire human race because of your work.
Harper Lee, thank you for “To Kill A Mockingbird,” and the simple lessons it has taught for generations. And thank you, too, for “Go Set A Watchman,” and the harsher, more complicated lessons it teaches. I hope we learn that it’s not as simple as Atticus made it seem.
Edward Albee, thank you for giving so much to the world of theatre—for your fierce and life-changing words. Leonard Cohen, thank you for the music. Debbie Reynolds, you have inspired generations of singers and dancers. I spent hours in my garage and in dance studios and in my living room, learning the steps you danced on that silver screen. You were the lucky star for so many.
And Carrie Fisher. You intelligent, talented, brave, funny, honest woman. Thank you for showing the world that a woman can be both a princess and a war general. Thank you for teaching Hollywood to make the women smarter. Thank you for your honesty in dealing with mental illness and addiction. Thank you for reminding us that good looks are happy accidents of time and genetics and nothing more. Thank you for not giving any f***s.
And there are others that I felt pangs about, even if their lives weren’t inspiring to me in the same ways. Kenny Baker. Muhammed Ali. Elie Wiesel. Ron Glass.
(Ugh, it was awful to make this list.)
I am so so so grateful that I get to live in a world where the works of talented and brave and smart individuals can be spread far and wide. I'm grateful for the lives these men and women led, and I am better for what they brought into the world. So mourn them with me, if you need to. Or don't, if you don't need to. But know that it's perfectly valid to be sad that their lives are over.