‘It’s a Limbo’: Grad Students, Frustrated by Harvard’s Response to Bullying Complaint, Petition for Reform
Community Groups Promote Vaccine Awareness Among Cambridge Residents of Color
Students Celebrate Upcoming Harvard-Yale Game at CEB Spirit Week
Harvard Epidemiologist Michael Mina Resigns, Appointed Chief Science Officer at eMed
Harvard Likely to Loosen Campus Covid Restrictions in the Spring, Garber Says
Years ago, I watched an interview with Robin Williams on YouTube, and wrote “Robin Williams is a bag of brilliance” in my journal because I was so amazed by his hilarity. I don’t remember the show, the interviewer, or even what he said that was so good. All I remember is that he was mesmerizing and he gave me this incredible feeling that everything was going to be okay. His art made me feel good. It gave me a sense of freedom.
With the recent tragedies regarding David Bowie, Glenn Frey, and others, death remains a constant of the human condition. We see it over and over again on our news channels and feeds. In listening and scrolling, I’ve wanted to come up with some sort of word, some sort of well-crafted phrase that makes death a little easier to swallow. I want to say that death is “okay” or “normal” or just “the cycle of life.” I want to have that “okay” feeling I got while watching Robin Williams.
But the way we react to death makes it seem like it isn’t okay. We don’t walk into a funeral and say to those grieving “Well, it’s just the cycle of life” or “Hey, don’t cry, it’s normal.” It’s true that death is probably the most normal human event, but there is something in us that says, “this is really, really bad.” The right response often seems to be one of silence and sadness. It can’t be sugarcoated with art or wise words.
Robin Williams once said, “In America, they really do mythologize people when they die.” This statement is hauntingly true. I mythologize him. I think he was perfect. Like we did with David Bowie and Glenn Frey, when someone dies, we have a tendency to forget his or her flaws or failures. We utilize unmitigated superlatives: things like “He was the most gracious person ever…the best and funniest man to ever live,” “He was the best songwriter,” “The most wonderful musician.” We memorialize these people and turn a blind eye to their faults, failures, and sins. We want to remember the good in them.
The superlatives we know are rarely accurate. We don’t have to look at a news article or delve deep into the history of their lives to know that because they were human, they screwed up. They weren’t perfect because nobody is. But when they die, it’s comforting to dwell on the perfect things. Remembering the dead in this unrealistic way reveals something about our relationship to death. Maybe romanticizing those we have lost is our way of recognizing how they were intended to be, how we want them to be, which is alive. We see them as perfect people and this seems help us cope with the blow of death. Like death wasn’t supposed to happen to them because look how funny they were or how musical or how beautiful. Death reminds us that we each have a calling, and life has meaning.
And so the headlines announcing the loss of a public figure make us all stop. Life means something. A couple weeks ago, we all started to mourn and mythologize David Bowie and then Glenn Frey and others who made an impact. We all posted or read the posts on our Facebooks and Instagrams. Some of us just started thinking and writing, trying to make sense of it all. Knowing that it was not okay.
Death is a mystery and a reality. But maybe the only point in trying to understand death is to understand that this life has meaning. Some incredible human beings are no longer with us, but their lives meant something. They meant something to me and I suspect they meant something to anyone who ever engaged with their art or met them. And their lives on this earth, as everyone’s life on this earth, points to something beyond, because death is not okay.
King Solomon said that under the sun, life is meaningless. Not that life is meaningless in and of itself, but meaningless only under the sun. I think he is saying that if life really does matter, there must be something beyond death that gives it meaning. And this is why we mythologize. This is why we make people heroes and gods when they were really just like you or me (minus a Grammy or an Oscar). Death forces us to realize the significance and beauty and preciousness of life, however flawed.
And I know death is not a very sexy topic to discuss. Especially when Ted Cruz and Donald Trump give so much material for editorials it almost hurts. But I think it’s something to think about. To really think about. It’s a constant. It’s the one thing we know about every human. And I don’t think it’s okay.
So let’s go forth, friends, and live with the knowledge that every human life matters. Let us allow that knowledge to take us on a journey where we realize that maybe the brilliance of life doesn’t have to be a fleeting feeling from a YouTube video. Somewhere out there, maybe we can find a forever okay.
Brynn A. Elliott ’18, a Crimson editorial writer, is a philosophy concentrator living in Currier House.
Want to keep up with breaking news? Subscribe to our email newsletter.