End of year reflections seem to come down to Best Of/Worst Of lists. It’s a quick and dirty way to look back at the changes we’ve been through, the highs and lows, accomplishments and losses.
Most of the lists are superficial, but the kind of list I’m always drawn to are the people who have died during the year. It’s funny how we phrase it “people we’ve lost,” as if they belonged to us personally. In a way, I suppose they do. For me, they are part of what inspires me. And I’m most drawn to those people who lived quietly but contributed mightily. It’s powerful to reflect on what people have done (and do) with their lives. But what I find most inspiring is what people do in spite of their lives: in spite of personal challenges, oppression, discrimination, etc.
Below are three people whose lives touched me in this way, and who died recently. Some of them were friends, some people I have only read about. But they all insisted on bringing themselves into the fray, following their passion against some serious odds.
Chris Walton, a friend who recently passed away in a freak accident when a shop awning collapsed as he was Christmas shopping. Chris, spurred on by a depression he couldn’t shake, decided to go all in, and created the most awarded environmental development in the world. I was privileged to know Chris and to have my seminar hosted in his development just this past November, just over a month before he died.
Rita Levi-Montalcini, a Nobel Prize winning Italian Jewish biologist, and a friend of my Aunt’s, a fellow scientist, died yesterday, at the age of 103. At a press conference on her 100th birthday she said, “At 100, I have a mind that is superior — thanks to experience — then when I was 20.” I love that. Levi-Montalcini, born in 1909, overcame many social obstacles to follow her passion: her father’s objection that women shouldn’t study, Italy’s fascist regime which barred Jews from universities and many professions, and the Nazi occupation during which she had to go underground. She worked tirelessly her whole life, conducting research on cells, and discovered nerve growth factor, the first substance known to regulate the growth of cells, and which led to her receipt of the Nobel Prize. After she retired, she continued to write and research and teach, and founded the Levi-Montalcini Foundation to grant scholarships and promote educational programs worldwide, particularly for women in Africa.
And last, Senator Daniel Inouye, from Hawaii who died this month. Inouye was the second longest serving senator in U.S. History, and the first Japanese-American to be elected to Congress. He was a senator since 1963, and hadn’t lost an election in 58 years as an elected official. Inouye was also a highly decorated WW II Veteran whose incredible acts of valor were featured in Ken Burns’ documentary, The War, But what strikes me most about Inouye is that as a Japanese American, he joined the Army immediately after Pearl Harbor, even as Japanese Americans were being interned by the U.S. Government. He defied incredible prejudice and discrimination in order to serve the country that was discriminating against him. He must have been serving, in the words of Rorty, a dream country, one that didn’t yet exist, but one he was determined to help achieve.
And many more who defied discrimination to give our world their gifts: Russel Means, Maurice Sendak, Etta James, Ravi Shankar, and names we may not know, but who, despite the odds, touched the world in indelible ways.