Every spring our seniors set out to answer a ponderous question, which they conclude by writing a senior thesis and defending it before the faculty. Even the most eloquent theses contain only the beginnings of an answer that will hopefully be contemplated for a long time to come. So, it may be of interest to see how one seventeen-year old boy at a school far from ours attempted to answer this question knowing that he would not enjoy a long life in which to contemplate it.
Sam Berns died this past Friday at the age of seventeen. He had been diagnosed with a premature aging disease called progeria at age two. The disease caused a host of problems for Sam including heart and kidney problems, hair loss, scleroderma, prominent scalp veins, musculoskeletal degeneration, stiff joints, hip dislocations, and other problems we typically associate with the very elderly.
The media made much of Sam for being the “real life Benjamin Button.” Sam was more than a media sensation though, and the media managed to do what they so rarely do, which is to shed light on a life worthy of examination. When Sam was fourteen, HBO filmed a documentary entitled “Life According to Sam” after having heard him speak about his disease on NPR. Later, at a TEDx conference, Sam laid out “My Philosophy for a Happy Life.” It lacked any references to great literature or classical texts or obscure etymologies; it took considerably less than forty-five minutes to deliver and the views he articulated were personal rather than abstracted or academic; and, he was not expected to defend them to anyone in attendance, yet what he said does amount to an answer to how to lead the good life. Sam noted that he tried to live by three rules:
- Be OK with what you ultimately can’t do, because there is so much you CAN do
- Surround yourself with people you want to be around
- Keep moving forward
This seems remarkable since so many who are given so much more time mange to do so much less with it. Sam did more than die. He lived, and more than lived, but showed those closest to him how to live better. Sam and his life are a kind of exhortation; his death, while a tragedy, is also an opportunity for reflection on the types of lives we are living and how they measure up to the kinds of life we could live if only we could be our better selves long enough to realize it. We are thoroughly modern in that we demand it be acknowledged that there are many ways to live well, and we will not countenance anyone telling us the best way to live. Most would agree, however, that there are many ways to make less of a life.
To admire Sam’s optimism is not to deny that there is wrong and evil among us, but to open our eyes and realize that there is also goodness and charity. We can either amplify the good or multiply the bad. The choice, not only of the type of lives we will live, but of the type of lives others around us are likely to enjoy as a result of us, is for us to determine. Education is too often silent about this, but a classical education covers rather more ground and shows quite clearly how low we may crawl and to what heights we may aspire. The themes of human nature, the evil we can do and the good we can bring, have repeated themselves for at least as long as man has recorded his history. We do not have to become a tyrant on the scale of Stalin to make the world worse. Evil has more modest beginnings, bringing things like gossip and slander within reach of every person who will but extend a hand or wag a tongue. Such gateway malice is the hobby of minds deracinated of any venerable purpose. Earl Wilson once noted that gossip “is when you hear something you like about someone you don’t.” So it is, and it begins lowly enough, but does progressively more damage as it matures into a harder and more obstreperous creature until even those who participate in its creation cannot rightly tell where it will end or what it will do. The cause of each person’s passing it on is generally the same – ennui, an intellect destitute of anything pleasurable of its own or capable of sustaining serious thoughts, regards, concerns, or considerations. Like Persephone, such individuals eat the food of the dead and doom themselves to remaining the habitués of such dreary places; unlike Persephone, they lack any regal glory and are instead commonplace to the point of becoming living clichés.
It is not enough to pretend our way along – to be kind for the sake of appearances. Hypocrisies lived outwardly are mirrored internally, and are toxic whether discovered or not. Our conduct towards ourselves as well as others, must be genuine. We must do more than simply abjure pettiness and gossip, we must put something better in their place. We must determine what we will dedicate ourselves to, and hopefully we choose something loftier and nobler than the petty amusements of the moral underclass. We must care for one another, and truly – not simply as a means to our own salvation. Treating others as a means to our ends is akin to what Montesquieu said of slavery: its practice erodes not only the slave’s humanity, but the master’s as well. As Sam’s life demonstrated, it is not exclusively those closest to us who will be effected by our conduct. As Oscar Wilde coyly put it, “One can always be kind to people about whom one cares nothing.” That is an unflattering truth about people generally since rules of civility and manners become not tutorials in lived ethics, but feints and foils for getting along sociably. It as though we must live as Alfred Delp described the Advent from Tegel Prison in 1944 shortly before his execution. “Advent is a time of being deeply shaken,” wrote Delp, “so that man will wake up to himself. The prerequisite for a fulfilled Advent is a renunciation of the arrogant gestures and tempting dreams with which, and in which, man is always deceiving himself.”
There is much that is good about what our students are achieving, yet they remain susceptible to being overwhelmed by the ease with which they can take to things that can be their own undoing. Sam’s death is an opportunity, his life an example, and his story a demonstration of how much one life can matter on account of its adversity, good cheer, and compassion. The question of what to make of our lives is an enormous one, and a good school will do what it can to shake its students free of their deceptions and check their descent into pettiness in order to reveal nobler purposes and ambitions. It is a lesson to be taught to students, but which we hope in teaching, will also convey lessons to those who clutch their best interests most closely to heart.
Sam Berns (1997-2014)
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