Wednesday, January 04, 2017

Was 2016 really the "year of death?"

2016 might seem like it was the "year of death," considering all the celebrities and other famous people who shoved off this mortal coil this past year.

Musicians such as David Bowie, Prince, Leonard Cohen, George Michael, Merle Haggard, and Glen Frey. Actors such as Garry Shandling, Gene Wilder, Alan Rickman, Alan Thicke, Carrie Fisher (and her mother, Debbie Reynolds, just one day later). Sports greats such as Muhammad Ali, Gordie Howe and Arnold Palmer. Authors such as Umberto Eco, Elie Wiesel, Harper Lee and Richard Adams; playwrights such as Edward Albee; world leaders such as Shimon Peres, Fidel Castro, Boutros Boutros-Ghali and King Bhumibol Adulyadej of Thailand; news media icons such as Morley Safer and Gwen Ifill; even astronauts such as Edgar Mitchell and John Glenn. 

Even Abe Vigoa and Zsa Zsa Gabor passed away this year, and I thought those two were immortal. Here's a rather lengthy list of celebrities that died in 2016.

This, of course, is in addition to all the non-famous people who have passed away this year. Two friends of mine lost their husbands this year (both of them were in their 40s... yikes!). Lots of lives have been lost to the carnage in places like Mosul, Aleppo and Yemen, or to terrorist attacks in places like Istanbul, Orlando, Nice, Baghdad and Berlin. 

For all the “damn you 2016!” and “2016 strikes again!” posts that have popped up on my Facebook feed every time a celebrity has died this year, I  think most people understand that 2016 did not “cause” any of these deaths. A year is an abstract concept, a measure of time. You could point out that a year is not completely abstract, because it does measure the actual physical phenomenon of one earth orbit around the sun, but its limits (i.e. January 1st to December 31st) are arbitrary constructs, and in any case a "year" is intangible and inanimate. Years do not kill people. 

So why does it seem like 2016 was "The Year of the Reaper?" There are a number of possible reasons for such a perception - and even that can be disputed - but I think it comes down to a socio-cultural quirk. "Celebrity culture," as we know it today, really didn't take off until the 1960s, as color televisions began appearing in every household and as baby boomers began to consume entertainment. That trend accelerated through the 70s and 80s, fueled by an expansion of entertainment outlets (for example, the ascendancy of FM radio and cable television; would Prince, David Bowie and George Michael have been as famous today had MTV not existed?). As these celebrities age, not only are Baby Boomers, but as well Generation X (and even Millennials), losing entertainers they grew up with. This mourning is amplified by social media - namely, Facebook and Twitter - in a viral manner that was not even comprehensible until a few years ago. For that reason, 2017 might not be any better

As Philadelphia columnist Will Bunch notes:
Almost everyone on the list of notable 2016 deaths affected the fundamental way we view what it means to be human, of what is possible in life. And it's important to note that these extraordinary people were the product of an extraordinary time in world history. The half-century that followed World War II -- particularly here in America, the nation of birth for most of the people on this list -- was a time when both affluence, especially for the middle class, and leisure time exploded. Those things offered humans an unparalleled new opportunity to innovate and create -- and the more they did, the more they also questioned the traditional boundaries of race, or gender, or human sexuality that had restrained their forerunners. 
Think back 100 years ago to 1916, and it is all but impossible to imagine a Prince or a Muhammad Ali or a George Michael as we came to know them in the latter 20th Century and beyond. It's also impossible to imagine how much spiritually poorer our lives would have been. We have been so blessed to be alive in an era of so many creative people -- and yet there is still one barrier of human experience that even John Glenn could not blast through. 
Everybody dies. And while it seemed like there were too many high-profile deaths this year, the reality is that these microbursts of sadness were the inevitable consequence of living in a time with so many remarkable people have been alive, inspiring joy and wonder. The truly important "news" about Fisher and Ali and Prince is not the moment that we heard that they died, but the years that we saw how they lived.
That's as good a way of looking at is as any. And while we mourn those we've lost over the last year, we will always be able to enjoy and appreciate what they've created for us. David Bowie and Prince are gone, but their music will always be with us. Gene Wilder has passed but Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory will be watched by generations yet to come. Edward Albee might be no more, but Whose Afraid of Virginia Wolff? will be eternal.

If 2016 really was the "year of death," then it only serves to remind us that we're all going to die, and that we should therefore savor every moment of our short and ephemeral lives.

Happy 2017, everyone. 

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