He could not deal with people talking about him. It’s taken me some time since he died to get used to talking about him because I was under such strict instructions not to. But he fucked up something really major. He made a really dumb, bad decision. And it’s my right now to ignore all the other things that I thought were dumb, too. Maybe if I hadn’t felt I couldn’t talk about him to other people this wouldn’t have happened. I’m not going to let those preferences that led, in one way or another, to him killing himself guide my life anymore. I reject them.
- Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman, Aaron Swartz’s girlfriend
The New Yorker article on Aaron Swartz is one of the best out there.
I don’t know what it is about Aaron’s story that plays on the emotions as deep as they do, stronger than so many of the other horrible injustices in this world. Perhaps it is the young genius laid to rest so young (he didn’t even make the 27 club). Perhaps it is the injustice of our aptly named justice system. Perhaps it is the death of idealism in the sordid face of reality. Perhaps it is because he wasn’t afraid to live and die as a pure soul. There will always be questions: Is it because he found it incapable of existing in his purest state? Did he choose to depart rather than stick around for the muddy and inordinate details? No one will ever know.
Is suicide an act of cowardice or bravery? The debate rages, but there is something particularly heart-wrenching when such an end is partially the result of a lofty, unattainable idealism. The world is full of corrupting influences, and to keep pure from such devices is a nearly impossible task. Most choose to let this corruption creep into their lives–ever so little at first, but eventually it consumes them. Throughout his life, Aaron had the courage to retain that sort of naive and incorruptible idealism that is the best part of what makes us human.
Montaigne says that you can’t really judge a person until you know how they acted when confronted face-to-face with death. When they killed Che Guevara–a man who Sartre called “the most complete human being of our age”–he supposedly said “Shoot me, you coward! You are only going to kill a man!” In his last moments, he bit his wrists so that he wouldn’t cry out in pain. Death is something we try so hard not to think about consciously, but it’s always there, lurking over our shoulder. Everything we do, the heights of our victories, the sufferings we endure, the lovers we take–secretly, deep down inside, we all realize our own mortality.
There is only one time in my life where I was completely convinced I was going to die. It came upon me quite unexpectedly, and in those final, painful seconds, I kept thinking how disappointed I was with my life– “Wow, this it,” I thought sardonically. I couldn’t help thinking how I’d be letting my family down by leaving so prematurely, and I regretted that I couldn’t tell my mom how much I loved her one last time before I departed. To perish thus seemed disgraceful yet anti-climactic, and it kindled within me a feeling of the most profound yet simultaneously ordinary disappointment — an odd combination that I have never quite encountered since. I realized I would have failed Montaigne’s ultimate test.
I survived, but I learned something valuable about myself through the experience.
Daily life is a grind. It is not glamorous. It is hard. It sucks. But every now and then, you see something beautiful, and it gives you the strength to keep on going. When I reflect on Aaron’s life, what he did, his ideals–it gives me that sort of courage. To keep fighting injustice, and to keep being a good person. It’s so easy to become bitter about one’s life–the person you loved left you, somebody jabbed you in the subway, or you only get two toppings on your Pinkberry when you asked for three. It takes a special kind of person to forget the banal injustices of quotidien life. How do we take a step back and realize how lucky we truly are to be living the way we do? No, we go out into the world and revenge ourselves upon innocent souls–maybe it is an arrogant stare at passersby, maybe it is the hidden political agendas we sow, maybe it is the way we treat those who have no power over us.
Whatever it may be, it is horrible, and it is wrong. It ever so slowly morphs us into sick little creatures that our childhood selves would find unrecognizable. When I sit back and truly think about all the little ways I’ve sold out in my life–all the ways I’ve abandoned the loftiest of my childhood sentiments–it makes me question things. Some days, I am paralyzed by these thoughts, and I waste away the morning and afternoon in useless contemplation on the person I could have been–the person I should be. Sometimes, I find myself wishing I had a tiny fraction of the courage and resolution to be a human being that Aaron had. On reflecting on his disgust at having power over others, he had this to say:
When I go to a library and I see the librarian at her desk reading, I’m afraid to interrupt her, even though she sits there specifically so that she may be interrupted, even though being interrupted for reasons like this by people like me is her very job.
The cliche is that death gives meaning to life. One of the most memorable prose passages I have ever read is Dostoevsky’s account in Brothers about his meditations when he was on Russia’s version of death row in Siberia and was fully convinced that he was going to die:
at the beginning of the journey the condemned man, sitting on his shameful cart, must feel that he has infinite life still before him. The houses recede, the cart moves on- oh, that’s nothing, it’s still far to the turning into the second street and he still looks boldly to right and to left at those thousands of callously curious people with their eyes fixed on him, and he still fancies that he is just such a man as they. But now the turning comes to the next street. Oh, that’s nothing, nothing, there’s still a whole street before him, and however many houses have been passed, he will still think there are many left. And so to the very end, to the very scaffold.
We are all of us that condemned person, deluding ourselves throughout our lives. Most of us live as though we have so many houses and streets before us, and we live this way until we are faced with the brutal reality of The End. If we truly realized the meaning of the scaffold, many of us would live differently. The contemplation of human frailty when confronted with death is difficult, but that consideration ultimately makes us stronger people.
Accepting the fact that one is condemned can be one of the most liberating experiences in life. It makes us realize that the most important things are kindness, humanity and the way we treat those around us, whether kin or stranger. It makes us realize that we can make a positive difference for others, and it makes us think that perhaps there is, in fact, a good reason to be alive.