Author’s Note: I originally wrote this post a few days after Aaron Swartz’s death. I emailed the draft to a few friends who knew him far better than I (I had only met Aaron on a few occasions - I admired him from afar like many others). They strongly disagreed with the perceived message and suggested that no good could come from publishing the piece. Honestly, I think I was happy to have an excuse to shrink back, to box up this story. I share everything online in fact it is a large part of my career, but never anything that causes my stomach to drop as I hover my mouse over the button reading, “Publish.” I may express opinions that are wrong, I am certainly no expert on this topic, I just have my story…unboxed now. I hope you will do the same.
“How do we celebrate Nick’s life without glorifying how it ended?” That is the succinct and challenging question the brilliant and passionate priest preparing to bury my 17 year old cousin asked. We were huddled in my aunt and uncle’s living room. I was struggling through writing Nick’s eulogy and glad he brought it up so I did not have to.
Not only was Nick a totally lovable and universally beloved high school student, but his parents have devoted their adult lives to serving their community. My aunt even leads a nonprofit that specializes in providing emotional first aid to families when tragedy strikes. That community they had both served for so long was determined to return their compassion, measure for measure.
Father Charles continued, “I just worry that all these impressionable teenagers will see the packed church, the ceremonial color guard from the fire department and all this outpouring of love and praise and take away the wrong message.”
I found myself pondering that conversation again as I read the breadth of coverage about Aaron Swartz these past few months. Mostly, I remembered that moment when a response to the priest’s questions slipped past my lips, just before I could stop it. “He had a choice.”
Nick’s sisters, teenagers at the time, did not agree. How could they? If he had a choice, then he chose to do something that hurt them more deeply than anything they had experienced. Nick was the kind of kid who took the exhortation “Don’t let the sun set on your anger” literally. He would not go to bed without telling a family member he was fighting with that he loved them and wrapping them in one of his famous hugs. No matter how angry he was, he wanted them to know that his love for them outweighed their petty squabble. He certainly was not a person to CHOOSE to cause such deep and lasting pain for those he loved the most.
An hour later, the priest tracked me down taking a moment to myself in the backyard and said, “Jason, what was that you were saying earlier? Why is it important to say that he had a choice?” I explained that any of his friends, family or classmates struggling with suicidal thoughts or depression need to know there is hope. Choice is hope. No matter how much pain they are in, no matter the extenuating circumstances, they have a choice. Their fate is not sealed. That is empowering.
The community of activists from all over the world who gathered on New York’s Lower Eastside to unknowingly have a last drink with Aaron, should be energized to take up Aaron’s causes and challenged by his limitless drive and passion. MIT should examine the meaning and values of their community in light of their refusal to stand up for Aaron’s activism. The government and justice department must reexamine their overzealous application of an outdated criminal code and their terrorizing defendants with the tool of outlandish prison sentences must be stopped. Additionally,all of us who care about positive change should ask if we are doing enough to support hacktivists, occupiers, dreamers and other passionate disruptors who take great risks for their beliefs.
This is all absolutely true and should not be diminished, but we must hold this in balance. It is true that Aaron represents many who are abused by our justice system and institutional cowardice…AND it is true that even with these factors, Aaron had a choice. Those who knew him closely and from afar wish he had made a different one.
The constant and ultimately fruitless question of “why?” leads the survivors of a suicide victim down an endless path of “what if” that brings no peace.
I remembering asking myself, “What if I had come home that Christmas instead of staying in New York?”
I’m sure those who cared for Aaron are asking such questions as well.
“What if the DOJ had accepted a plea bargain or thrown out the case, as they should have?”
“What if we used the tools of activism to fight back in this case before he died?”
We temporarily reconcile our anger and grief by removing the agency of those who die of suicide. But we never will find forgiveness for our faults and theirs. We must find that balance to celebrate life, but not glorify death. We must balance the tension of taking inspiration from a life well-lived, while facing the demons of suicide — the number 2 killer of young men like Aaron and Nick — head on.
In the midst of the raw emotions and desire to make sense of a terrible loss, the sad reality is still present that a hurting person died of suicide, and 104 other people took their own lives that day. We do them and ourselves a disservice if we only tell half the story.
Anger and Forgiveness
I am mad at Nick. I am mad because he did have a choice. I verbally hurl expletives at him when I miss him. Often accompanying my tirade with a text to my uncle along the lines of, “I love Nick, but what a punk!” I’m angry he wasn’t at the Rose Bowl with us two years ago. Pissed off that he missed my wedding and that I’ll never attend his. That anger is freeing and makes me feel connected to him still. I could never have that if I still saw him as a helpless victim of a pre-determined fate.
Two years ago, my uncle found me falling asleep on his couch shortly after picking me up from the airport, per usual. He tossed a blanket my way and calmly asked, “Have you forgiven Nick yet, at least enough to sleep in his room?”
It had been five years since he died. I responded, “Yes.”