leaning into it

Aaron Swartz was an extraordinarily dear friend; I have no idea what to say about his suicide. But this is what I did say in my eulogy for him at his funeral yesterday, scribbled out on the flight to Chicago.

Aaron is the first person I’ve loved who has died. I bought this suit at the mall on my way to the airport. Which means this is also my first funeral. And it’s the first time I’ve had to figure out how to remember someone. Since Taren called me with the news, I’ve been compulsively reading blog posts, trying to escape into other people’s thoughts and memories of Aaron. But none of them seem to fit.

When you love someone, when you look up to them, at first you don’t really know what you’re doing and you’re just drawn to them, kind of the way plants are drawn toward light. You grow towards them, toward their ideals, toward what they represent—or at least, what you want them to represent. And then if you’re very, very lucky, eventually—unlike a plant—you arrive, you reach them. And all of a sudden you discover that they’re a whole person, just like you. And after that, it’s more like a dance, each person pushing and pulling on the other. The point is that having a friend, having a hero, loving someone—all these things change you. And I was lucky enough to be touched by Aaron.

I discovered Aaron’s affinity for bland foods at Market in the Square, a twenty-four hour buffet in mid-Cambridge. He got macaroni and cheese. We sat down by the floor-to-ceiling windows in the front and we started to talk. It was eight o’clock at night. We were there to ‘pop each other’s bubbles.’ Or at least, that’s what we called it. Basically, we were there to persuade each other that the work we were doing was misconceived…that if we really wanted to do good in this world, we should be working on something else (probably what the other person was working on). I thought online petitions were ridiculous. He thought cultural change through education impossible. Six hours later, around two in the morning, we called it a night. We were both too tired to make much sense, and Aaron wanted some cheese pizza. He’d eaten three bowls of macaroni and cheese. We’d do this again and again, dozens of times over the years I knew Aaron. We did it less when he moved to New York, and I missed him. But those conversations are my most cherished memories of him.

And as I compulsively refresh twitter and gobble down other people’s memories—a little resentfully, I have to confess: after all, what did they know of my Aaron?—I realized it was this spirit of constant self-examination and self-doubt in the pursuit of justice and rightness which I most wanted remembered. More than freedom of information or RSS and certainly more than JSTOR or whatever—

And it’s exactly that which I am most afraid of losing: Aaron as a role model and influence and inspiration. I’ve already lost Aaron as a friend. But I’m terrified that if I fast-forward thirty years, Aaron will be just another abstract memory, like those high school friends you promise to keep in touch with. I’m terrified that even if I don’t forget him, I’ll stop growing into a person he’d have been proud to count among his friends.

I’ve heard a lot of people talk about Aaron’s “impossibly high standards” and “youthful enthusiasm” and “naive brilliance.” And I can’t help but think that perhaps the whole point of people like Aaron is to show us how low and base and hidebound our expectations are. And I can’t help but think that until I put the type of skin in the game that he did that maybe I shouldn’t mourn him, that maybe it’s even a little vulgar and self-serving.

The French had a phrase, noblesse oblige—which, as I understand it, means “nobility obliges.” It was meant to capture the notion that whoever claims nobility must act nobly, to capture the expectations accompanying membership in the aristocracy. And when I think about Aaron’s legacy, there’s something about that which I keep returning to…his overriding preoccupation with The Right Thing To Do and the way he was carving out an archetype for a new kind of public intellectual: a public intellectual who did things, a public intellectual who was also a public servant. And it’s that legacy, wrapped up in the skinny, hunched, too rarely shorn package of a kindhearted friend which I hope we can all do right by in the years to come.