If many strangers die all at once, as in the tragedy of the tsunami or the Rwanda massacre or a war like the one in Iraq, it is a moral problem, to be dealt with through politics or philosophy. The death of a single good person, announced on the radio or in the newspapers, presents a different kind of problem. What can be done?
To teach or speak or write against the grain and still be heard beyond the confines of the agreeable may be as good a definition as any of a heroic life. A person can internalize such thoughtful heroes without ever having read one of their books or listened to their speeches. To have opposed the Vietnam War or to speak out now against the villainy in Iraq is to have inherited the character of Seymour Melman, just as understanding the effects of globalization is to be in some way as politically pertinent as Richard J. Barnet. Merely to have lived at the same time as Susan Sontag is to have admired her, although sometimes in the form of an argument with her ideas, but there was no way to live quite so discerning a life without her. In sum, our heroes are us, which is why the death of a hero confounds an admirer.
The old philosophers may have understood death as a part of life and let it go at that. Freud defined death in two categories: your death and my death. The first category makes perfect sense. It is nature’s magic trick. Now you see it, now you don’t. Gone. Departed. Vanished. The survivors are spectators at the magic show.
“My death” cannot be dealt with so easily. What Freud called my death means the world (from our point of view) comes to an end. Unimaginable, he said; my death cannot even be dreamed. There are no spectators, there is no way to distance oneself from one’s own death. The passing of a hero does not occasion the end of the world, but since the hero, like Barnet or Melman or Sontag, lives within you or me in our own time, our own generation, we cannot be mere spectators at the magic show. When the hero dies it is both “my death” and not “my death”; the end of the world and not the end of the world.
What to do? Are we helpless, caught in the impossible silence of the excluded middle?
Many centuries ago, in the long darkness of the Alaskan winter, a solution was devised by the Yupiit Eskimos, the metaphysicians of the ancient common house. They said that when one among them dies, it is the beginning of a sweet, infinite journey on a beautiful underground river. But there is danger along the way. The departed person’s kayak can get caught in one of the vicious currents and be trapped forever in one of the eddy pools near the riverbanks. The traveler has no power to guide the kayak. Only those who remain behind can keep the kayak in the center of the river, safe from the dangerous currents and eddies. They do this by the words they speak and the thoughts they hold about the one who has left the common house. In this way, for more than 10,000 years the Yupiit have avoided the end of the world. It is what we wish and what the heroes of our common house merit now.