The void of losing someone you don’t know

I didn’t know Aaron Swartz personally. We never spoke, not in person nor by email.

Yet, his suicide today has left a big hole in the world for me.

I found my own sadness baffling. I didn’t know the guy. Why did I, deep down, feel such a void in the world?

The reason was: I felt a rare connection to Aaron because of his thoughts and actions. An invisible connection that only existed at the intellectual level, not a social one, through his writing, technology, politics, and his willingness to show humanness.

His writing and thoughts connected with me, especially his Raw Nerve series on how to become better at being human. His writing showed me that other people were thinking about the same things I was, in terms of the “backstory” of being human, the inner. I felt like I was on the same wavelength with another human that was thinking and devoting time to these inner pursuits.

His code and contributions to software were inspiring, in Python, RSS, and elsewhere. Relentlessly making progress and thinking about the macro game of software and technology. Same wavelength.

His JSTOR incident? Not exactly the same wavelength. But fighting for progressive policies in government, liberating information in science and law, using the closer-to-democracy tool of the Internet to do that? Absolutely.

His writings on depression showed that, like all of us, he was human, and, like all of us, he suffered. But few of us show vulnerability and humanity. Many of us hide behind facades of “how are you?” “great!”, smiling photos, and upbeat Facebook statuses, preferring not to talk about what really goes on inside our heads.

Here’s a guy who I felt a deep connection to, because we were on the same wavelength – through openly showing humanity, a devotion to improving oneself, using technology for change, and changing the macro political environment. There aren’t a lot of people that I feel a multi-faceted intellectual connection with, but Aaron was one of them.

And despite not knowing him at all, his death left me feeling a void in the world. Because the world lost a brilliant person, but also because the world lost someone whose ideas I believed so much in, whose ability to put those thoughts into action was admirable, whose willingness to show vulnerability and humanness was something I feel like the world desperately needs more of.

But good often comes from bad. And the good, in this case, is the realization that we should aim to connect with more people, on a deeper wavelength. We should all be working relentlessly to put our feelings into words and into action, and not be afraid to show that, yes, we are actually human, and yes, we do have things we really believe in but haven’t yet acted upon, and we do have moments where we feel on top of the world and also the moments where we feel absolutely hopeless.

And we should all be working to make the most of our time in the world, to make sure we don’t squander our most limited resource, and instead maximize it, to connect to and affect more lives in this world.

We might not all be socially connected, but the work that we do connects us as a community. And our collective work makes history.

Thanks, Aaron.

  • jcap49

    You have put into words precisely what I’ve been thinking and feeling. Thank you Mark.

  • Michael Roberts

    Yes. Exactly. That’s exactly my take-away as well. I can’t meet Swartz now, and in 26 years he did about ten times as much as I have in 46, but by God starting today I can carry on his work of being a better human.

  • Colin

    Thank you.

  • Exactly what I’ve been feeling. Never met him, but this morning’s news knocked the wind out of me. May he inspire us to pick up where he left off.

  • vannenc

    Thank you mark for explaining what most of us feel today about this tragic news.

  • Really well put, thanks.

  • Mindy

    I felt the same sense of loss when my favorite author, Carolyn Heilbrun, chose to end her life. I never met her and I doubted I would ever have that chance, but when she died, that chance went away for good. But I still have some of her books to keep me company, and at least my part of the world is better off because of her. She worked in a very different arena from Aaron’s, but she was as inspiring in her field as he is in his.

  • I’ll hinge off your “good often comes from bad” in this way: As
    with other instances of (apparent) tragedy and loss, there’s bound to
    be a hidden benefit. And that’s another reason why jumping at
    conclusions and rushing to judgments makes no sense. When a person of
    sweetness and importance departs our temporal world he or she is not
    really absent, but is JUST GETTING STARTED.

  • There are many of us in the same path, looking for changing ourselves and changing the world.

    Great post, I’ve been feeling in the same way. Thanks, Mark.