“There will never be another like him.”
This has been said a great deal lately, with the anniversary of JFK’s death, with the passing of Nelson Mandela. The cultural bathwater has been a thickly salted with reminiscences.
Some teachers where I work talked about what JFK’s assassination meant, how—half a century later—they still felt a loss. To me, who can be callous to these things, it seemed as if there was a melancholy and passive game of “What If?” being played in the faculty break room. I heard many things that JFK might have done, had he lived. I was told that I’m the wrong generation to understand that loss of innocence, of inspiration, how it was as if a light went out.
Of course, I don’t fully understand, but what the hell?
First, I’m rather certain that the bombings of September 11, 2001 and the ensuing ten years of war caused something like innocence to break in me, and my generation. If not, then we have the melting planet, the violent income inequality, global corporate dominance and government-for-hire to finish off anything so Bambi-eyed as innocence. I don’t mourn my innocence—it looks a lot like ignorance in hindsight. And, besides, innocence is not the same as hope or joy or perspective or happiness or knowledge or action. Thus far, nothing has threatened the lifetime loss of those qualities. Losing innocence, really, brings all the others to the fore.
Second, if you are inspired—by anything—get up and do what it calls you towards. It is not enough to elect leaders who will make you feel warm and fuzzy and hopeful and inspired. Good ones, this is their job, of course. But our work is to answer that inspiration with labor, with whatever talents and passions we possess. We must make the world we want. It is in the making that inspiration remains alive and gloriously adaptive to whatever unfolds through our inspired efforts. We must allow ourselves this power, this responsibility. It is scary and we do not know how, but the loss of an inspiring figure cannot be the end of the dreams, of the actions, of the fights. We are here, and life is short. Make it better. Many of those Lost Innocents of Kennedy elected Reagan and begat the rat-race consumption of modern society, which seems like a poor answer to what you can do for your country, your world.
The loss of light I feel softer towards. We love the people who stand and inspire us towards being our better selves. When they go, never with quite enough warning or enough time to thank them, to get one final speech or word of wisdom, to explain the impact of their life on your own, the world feels a little less without their presence in it. When Seamus Heaney died this summer, I felt as if there were a little less poetry in the world. With Nelson Mandela’s death, I feel a little as if we’re missing a rare voice of moral authority, of both fighting and forgiving. I keenly feel we need more, not less of these, qualities on this planet.
Because of that, because we miss the light of yesterdays’ heroes and demigods and saints and poets, let’s turn the light back on! Never mind the dead going gently into a good night—I’m more concerned about we the living going passively into a good day. I am frightened of over-aired view that there will be no more giants to walk the Earth, that justice and the fierce radicalism of common sense, that inspiration to make the world better and more beautiful have died with the bodies of these, really, mere mortals. Made of the same stuff as each of us. That thought… I feel the weight of all my hopes, and also the thin, goading wing of inspiration.
We are more like our heroes than we can imagine, if we have the courage to live on.