In the very last days of 2016, one of my favorite people in the world took his own life. It hit me very hard. Not only because of how I loved him and miss him, but because I failed to notice how unhappy he was. And because of the striking similarities between our life situations at that time.
The thing I most enjoyed about Bruce was his dorky sense of humor. He told groanworthy dad jokes. He made such corny puns they probably should have been illegal. It was a humor completely free from superciliousness or malice. On the contrary, he was always ready to look silly or nerdy if it had a chance of making people laugh. And he was a kind, empathetic, compassionate, wise person whose calm advice helped me through many of my own difficult patches.
Despite how often we talked, I had no inkling of the extent of Bruce’s worries and troubles. I tend not to ask people personal questions; I wait for them to volunteer confidences and, in the meantime, I can overwhelm them with my own stories and ramblings. I’m wary of interrogating people, of bombarding them with enquiries which they may find awkward or intrusive. Since his death, I’ve decided it’s worth the risk. I’ve vowed to talk a little less and listen a little more because maybe if I had questioned and probed, I would have discovered the truth. And perhaps there was some comfort I could have offered him, had I known how badly it was needed.
Our situations were similar in many ways. We were the same age, both had troubled family relationships (Bruce with his mother; mine — strikingly similar — with my much older half-sister). We were both former academics. We both made imprudent financial decisions and bad life choices and ended up trying to scrape together a precarious living freelancing. But, in my case, although I have struggled with depression and its ugly companion demons, regret and self-reproach, all my life, I’ve never known suicidal despair. I’ve always had hope; there’s always been happiness, too.
In the vast universe, there is a chance that this may be the only planet to host sentient life. And, for a very brief instant, between two endless expanses of nothingness, we are here, alive. It’s a miracle we should never take for granted. Against astronomical odds, we’re sealed in the book of life and the plot can twist at any moment. The story is not over until you close the book on the last page.
I wish I had conveyed that more strongly to Bruce. So I’m doing so now.
Bruce left a letter for his friends which was widely circulated. In it, he confessed that he felt a very keen sense of failure, financially and professionally. His money was running out. He knew that he had many friends who would have helped him stay afloat, but he didn’t want to receive charity. But, despite all that, he was aware of a deeper truth: that his life had been rich in friendship and he had made many people happy. Even in death, he was comforted by the certainty that he had been loved.
There are many things which enrich our lives immeasurably which are not financially lucrative. We should reward and support them whenever we can. And we must redefine how we see success and failure. Art, writing, music, dance will generally not earn you any awards, will rarely bring fame or fortune or social status. Pursue a life outside of normal career structures and you’ll find it seldom comes with incentives, perks or luxuries and you will probably spend many sleepless nights, anxious about next month’s rent.
But I believe this: the most worthwhile thing we can do is to make others happy. The most intense bliss we can find lies in the consciousness of shared happiness, of increasing the sum total of joy in the world, of sharing that joy with other human beings. Our worth lies in how much we can contribute — but that contribution need not take the form of money. Bruce enriched my life immeasurably. No one who makes others happy is a loser in my book: their bank balance and their CV are irrelevant to that. As George Eliot once said “What do we live for, if not to make life less difficult for each other?”
I don’t believe there is an afterlife or a fluffy cloud filled heaven awaiting us. We must be each other’s afterlife. We must be each other’s heaven.
R.I.P. Bruce, 1968-2016.
It was a pleasure and a privilege.