Learning from Carrie Fisher and the rest of the secular saints we lost in 2016
Early in my training as a Jesuit, I spent three years studying philosophy at Loyola University Chicago. Our Jesuit community included not only students and university faculty and staff but a large house of mostly retired men, many of whom had spent much of their lives working at Loyola.
When these men would pass away, Father Bradley Schaeffer, our provincial, presided at their funerals. And he would always take the opportunity to offer “points”—that is, two or three insights he thought we should take from the life of the person in question.
I’ve been thinking of the concept of points a lot lately, as 2016 continues its horror-movie-like killing spree of international cultural, political and religious icons. This week alone has already seen the deaths of singer George Michael, Watership Down author Richard Adams and actress and author Carrie Fisher.
Their passing follows dozens of others this year, including Gene Wilder, David Bowie, Antonin Scalia, Fidel Castro, Edward Albee, Muhammad Ali, Janet Reno, former Jesuit Superior General Father Peter-Hans Kolvenbach, John McLaughlin, John Glenn, Harper Lee, Elie Wiesel, Bernie Worrell, Florence Henderson, Nancy Reagan, Patty Duke, Arnold Palmer, Gwen Ifill, Leonard Cohen, Mother Angelica, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Pat Summitt, Bishop Joseph Khoury, Kenny Baker, Garry Marshall, Shimon Peres, Merle Haggard, Phife Dawg, Morley Safer, Boutros-Boutros-Ghali, Gordie Howe, Jo Cox, Monte Irvin, Grant Tinker, Joseph Fitzmyer, S.J., Alan Rickman and Prince.
And we still have four more days left in 2016. (Someone please look in on Billy Joel for me.)
In the midst of this avalanche of loss, compounded by so many other troubling and destabilizing events this year, it’s hard to know how to process what we are experiencing.
Some might say a focus on largely Western, celebrity icons issues from a cultural narcissism that ignores the important issues in our world. Like the fact that almost 5,000 migrants died trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea this year, the worst year on record. Or that 5,900 Filipinos have been murdered since July as part of President Rodrigo Duterte’s war on drugs. Or that 2016 was also once again the hottest year ever recorded, and there have been 379 mass shootings in the United States this year, including the worst mass shooting ever, at the Pulse Nightclub in Orlando, Fla., on June 12.
And even that list overlooks entire continents of people.
I agree that we in the West can be at times dangerously self-insulated. But I think it’s a mistake to dismiss our outpourings of sorrow over the deaths of famous people. Our grief is an expression of our gratitude. Whether it be the music of David Bowie, the character of Muhammad Ali or the at-times scathing honesty of Carrie Fisher, these people’s lives and work gave us a glimpse of something meaningful, something that liberated or encouraged us. They are our secular saints, and we cry out because our lives have been touched.
As we mourn their passing, perhaps it would help us to consider the question Father Schaeffer posed, namely, what are the points I want to take away from this person’s work, their life? What is it about them that nourished me, or spoke to me so much that even though I never met them in person (or did and spent the 30 seconds in a hellscape of awkward gushy babble), I still feel their loss as intensely as I would that of a friend?
What was the challenge their life posed to me, the invitation their work offered to my life, the journey that they made me dream of taking?
For instance, Vera Rubin, who proved the existence of dark matter, which we now believe makes up more than 90 percent of the universe, also died yesterday.
There is much about her life worthy of our attention. Professor Rubin was one of the first female astronomers. Princeton University’s astronomy program passed her over because she was a woman. According to N.P.R., when she began her Ph.D. at Georgetown she already had one child and another was on the way.
She once wrote of her experience as a female scientist: “I live and work with three basic assumptions: 1) There is no problem in science that can be solved by a man that cannot be solved by a woman.2) Worldwide, half of all brains are in women.3) We all need permission to do science, but, for reasons that are deeply ingrained in history, this permission is more often given to men than to women."
Professor Rubin also celebrated mystery as a part of the character of the universe, writing: “We have peered into a new world and have seen that it is more mysterious and more complex than we had imagined. Still more mysteries of the universe remain hidden. Their discovery awaits the adventurous scientists of the future. I like it this way."
Watching people who have helped us figure out who we are and how to exist in this crazy, strange universe pass away is painful. Watching what seems like an endless parade of them depart all in one year is ridiculous. Comedian John Oliver’s recent bit on “Last Week Tonight” in which people cuss out 2016—literally—in some ways seems the most rational response.
But as we come to the end of this truly annus horribilis, it might be worth our while to take some time with those for whom we mourn—to listen to their music, read their work or their biographies, watch their films and try to gather up for ourselves some of the graces they gave us. Because they may be gone, but the gifts they offered remain.
Yesterday when I heard about Carrie Fisher I was actually in a movie theater waiting to rewatch “Rogue One.” The room went silent during the last scene, when a digitally younger Fisher turned toward us for the last time. But it struck me as enormously meaningful that her last line onscreen—at least until “Episode VIII” debuts in next December—was a single word: “Hope.”