The void of losing someone you don’t know

On Aaron Swartz

Sunday, March 29, 2015

I didn’t know Aaron Swartz personally. We never spoke, not in person nor by email.

Yet, his suicide today has left a big hole in the world for me.

I found my own sadness baffling. I didn’t know the guy. Why did I, deep down, feel such a void in the world?

The reason was: I felt a rare connection to Aaron because of his thoughts and actions. An invisible connection that only existed at the intellectual level, not a social one, through his writing, technology, politics, and his willingness to show humanness.

His writing and thoughts connected with me, especially his Raw Nerve series on how to become better at being human. His writing showed me that other people were thinking about the same things I was, in terms of the “backstory” of being human, the inner. I felt like I was on the same wavelength with another human that was thinking and devoting time to these inner pursuits.

His code and contributions to software were inspiring, in Python, RSS, and elsewhere. Relentlessly making progress and thinking about the macro game of software and technology. Same wavelength.

His JSTOR incident? Not exactly the same wavelength. But fighting for progressive policies in government, liberating information in science and law, using the closer-to-democracy tool of the Internet to do that? Absolutely.

His writings on depression showed that, like all of us, he was human, and, like all of us, he suffered. But few of us show vulnerability and humanity. Many of us hide behind facades of “how are you?” “great!”, smiling photos, and upbeat Facebook statuses, preferring not to talk about what really goes on inside our heads.

Here’s a guy who I felt a deep connection to, because we were on the same wavelength – through openly showing humanity, a devotion to improving oneself, using technology for change, and changing the macro political environment. There aren’t a lot of people that I feel a multi-faceted intellectual connection with, but Aaron was one of them.

And despite not knowing him at all, his death left me feeling a void in the world. Because the world lost a brilliant person, but also because the world lost someone whose ideas I believed so much in, whose ability to put those thoughts into action was admirable, whose willingness to show vulnerability and humanness was something I feel like the world desperately needs more of.

But good often comes from bad. And the good, in this case, is the realization that we should aim to connect with more people, on a deeper wavelength. We should all be working relentlessly to put our feelings into words and into action, and not be afraid to show that, yes, we are actually human, and yes, we do have things we really believe in but haven’t yet acted upon, and we do have moments where we feel on top of the world and also the moments where we feel absolutely hopeless.

And we should all be working to make the most of our time in the world, to make sure we don’t squander our most limited resource, and instead maximize it, to connect to and affect more lives in this world.

We might not all be socially connected, but the work that we do connects us as a community. And our collective work makes history.

Thanks, Aaron.

By Mark Bao

I write about behavioral science, personal growth, mental models, and strategy.