Three American lives, each very different from the other but embodying different parts of the classic arc of triumph and despair, present themselves to us this week.
The first, Lance Armstrong, is at first glance classic tragedy. The hero strives, reaches, arrives, overreaches, and falls; both his rise and his fall are driven by something inherent within him. For Armstrong, it seems to have been the need to use his magnificent athleticism to be faster, stronger, and always to win. When you look more closely, however, you see not nobility but nastiness, self-righteousness, and betrayal. He is not heroic.
Aaron Swartz, z’l, also was an American classic, a young man of extraordinary talent, charisma, and passion. His accomplishments are astounding, although, unfortunately, for those of us who are completely at home with our electronic devices and can bend them to our will but have no idea how they actually work, it is hard to understand them fully, much less explain them. His work, though, particularly with developing RSS, helped shape the Internet as we know it.
Swartz was an activist and his passion was for free information; it is possible to have no opinion on exactly how right he was in his demands to see that he was hounded unbearably because of them. He was 26 years old and facing the possibility of decades in prison.
He suffered from depression, and in the end his demons got him. He killed himself. He struggled heroically, he accomplished more in his short life than most of us would were we given four or five lifetimes, and in the end he lost.
Among the many lessons to be learned from his life is the deadly power of depression; how hard it is to climb out of its black slippery underground lair, and how important it is to recognize it.
Swartz was Jewish; we do not value him more for that but we do mourn him particularly because of it.
For those of us old enough to remember her story, Katie Beers’ triumphant re-emergence perhaps is not surprising although it is entirely miraculous.
When she was 9 years old, Beers (let’s call her Katie; she was a child) was imprisoned by a family friend (so-called family, so-called friend) in a bunker he had built just for her. Before that, her life had been the stuff of Victorian nightmare; her mother a malevolent monster, her grandmother worse, her world squalid, sharp-edged, and unforgiving. When she was discovered and rescued, she emerged from her pit seemingly both sane and centered. She was adopted by a family who protected her privacy and loved her; now, married, a mother, apparently still sane and centered, she has come forward again to tell the next installment of her story.
Katie Beers is not Jewish, but her story, with its arc from degradation to the pit to redemption and love, reverberates for us. It is in some ways the quintessential Jewish story.