Every day we slaughter our finest impulses. That is why we get a heartache when we read those lines written by the hand of a master and recognize them as our own, as the tender shoots which we stifled because we lacked the faith to believe in our own powers, our own criterion of truth and beauty. Every man, when he gets quiet, when he becomes desperately honest with himself, is capable of uttering profound truths. We all derive from the same source. There is no mystery about the origin of things. We are all part of creation, all kings, all poets, all musicians; we have only to open up, only to discover what is already there.
– Henry Miller, “Sexus”
Aaron Swartz was a kind of Zelig for me. He first appeared when I was reading the documentation for the RSS standard. He appeared again when I was learning about Creative Commons. When I became half-involved in the Open Government work, he appeared there, too. I’d always assumed he was my age, and considerably smarter.
Then I learned how old he was. This made me jealous, which is embarrassing. It’s always like this for me. The accomplishments of a prodigy drew my own accomplishments into an excruciating contrast. Unlike Fitzgerald, I can’t look on this bright and passionate young man and think of my old, best dreams. I’m more like Henry Miller. I get heartache when I see the work of a master, because it makes me feel impotent.
As soon as I learned how young he was, I became critical of his writing. His attitude towards capitalism and corporations turned, immediately, from insightful and passionate to naïve. I never told anyone because I knew it was silly. I knew I had created this artificial distance to diminish my own sense of failure. He was a reminder of my vain need for child genius, that the opportunity has long since passed me by, and I could only comfort myself by making him a caricature, and that made me ashamed.
When I heard that he had taken his own life, all of that went away. Just like the cliché, he went from being a (ridiculous, imagined) rival to the object of all my sympathy. The world for him must have been cold, desperate, and lonely. I’ve felt that way, too. I’ve felt alienated, I’ve been too passionate about things, I’ve done things I’m proud of, and I’ve felt helpless to my fate. So I cried when I heard Aaron died. It was a tragedy in its own right, and I felt petty and foolish, and found instant kinship with this wonderful, inspiring man. I wish could take it all back. Sorry, Aaron.
A few days later, it was the anniversary of Jodie Lane’s death in 2004. She fell on an electrified sidewalk in my neighborhood, trying to help her dogs. We never met, but I helped run the Tompkins Square Dog Run at the time, and our community was angry. It was senseless. It broke my heart to think of her parents and her boyfriend. The experience completely changed me. It led me to move to Washington, and followed me to Austin, where her father lived. So Jodie’s been with me ever since, in a way.
Jodie’s death gave me moral certainty. I’d never felt that before. I described it at the time as “being on rails.” We marched to the ConEd headquarters in protest. We didn’t know the first thing about protesting, but it seemed obvious at the time. We commented on legislation, though we had no idea how that worked. We were clueless about the New York state public utility laws, but got them reformed anyway. It was messy and ad hoc and improvised, and we were hopelessly naïve about being manipulated by unions and politicians. Still, it was the right thing to do and I think it was really successful.
So I look back on my experience after Jodie’s death, and how strong it made me feel. I look on Aaron’s death, and how helpless it made me feel. It’s hard not to compare them. What Jodie’s death taught me, and what I had forgotten until Aaron’s death, was that we are all, together, doing this work.
The world is cold and lonely. We’re all living the same difficult, confusing life. I can dwell on my jealousies and inadequacies and fictional rivalries, fumble around in my own self-interest, and whatever small comfort that provides is dwarfed by the distance it puts between me and the world. It’s easier to work together, to share the burden. When we do that, we create meaning and purpose. Aaron knew this. I should have learned this after Jodie’s death. We can work together to make our communities a little better, and that’s a tacit recognition of our shared humanity. The world becomes a little less cold and a little less lonely because it’s something we’re making together.