Friday, May 23, 2003

In memory

Believe in the simple magic of life, in the service in the universe, and the meaning of that waiting, that alertness, that "craning of the neck" in creatures will dawn upon you. Every word would falsify; but look! round about you beings live their life, and to whatever point you turn you come upon being.
-- Martin Buber, I and Thou

Last week my parents and I took my aunt Melva, my mother's sister, down to pick up the ashes of my uncle Bill. The urn was actually a beautiful wooden box bound with wrought iron. We put it on the seat between us and took it back to their home in Denver.

I peeked inside and was somewhat surprised, really, by how small the pile of ashes actually was. Bill Hahn, after all, was a big man -- not just physically, but in every other way.

A few weeks before, Bill had lost his three-month battle with clinical depression. No one can be sure whether or not it was intentional -- more than likely it was, sort of -- but he wandered out, sleep-deprived and delusional, into the middle of a heavily trafficked freeway near his home and was hit by a medium-sized moving truck. He lingered for a couple of weeks and was finally declared brain dead May 6. He was 66.

Life is always full of bitter ironies, but there have been few tougher to swallow in my lifetime than Bill's fate. Because Bill Hahn was a man whose life's work had been dedicated to the life of the mind and understanding how this gift functions; certainly, his own wide-ranging intellect was a vivid example of his subject. And in the end, it was his own mind that betrayed him. In the final weeks of his illness, Bill was not the man he had been throughout his life.

Bill was a geneticist who taught at the University of Colorado's School of Medicine, and I can only guess at his popularity, but it was a huge crowd, upwards of 300, that came out for his memorial service last Monday (and the school is reportedly planning a memorial of its own for him in September). He was also a highly regarded researcher who specialized in the genetics of the brain.

I'm sketchy on the details of Bill's career -- I know he won numerous awards for his work, and at one time there was Nobel talk, though I have no idea if it was warranted -- because frankly, it was always secondary to me anyway. I knew Bill was a great man because he was my uncle, one of those uncles who leave indelible marks on everyone they touch.

As I was growing up in conservative, Mormon-dominated southern Idaho, Bill was the first atheist I ever knew. To hear the John Birchers in my hometown tell it, this was possibly even worse than being a Communist. Certainly such a person at minimum sported a pair of horns and a pitchfork.

Bill, on the other hand, was a big, gregarious bullshitter who liked to golf and yank his nephews' chains. He could be brash and loud (his nickname on the golf course was Boomer), but at other times he could be quiet-spoken and thoughtful. Maybe his most endearing trait, the source of his special spark, was a boyishness that let him keep his sense of wonderment at the world. We kids loved him.

This trait was also the source of an unpredictable zaniness that was part of the scene whenever Bill was present. My sister Becky recalls a classic instance: "I remember visiting there one time and Bill came home with a tank full of hermit crabs. They were having a party and were going to have races. The look on his face was great."

One of his old friends at the memorial service recalled the time Bill, on a lark and a sizeable wager, managed to climb to the top of a nearby mountain in 45 minutes, mostly by clambering straight up the hillside through a dense thicket of brush. He emerged at the hilltop in time to win the bet, and emerged back at the camp -- scratched, bruised and tattered, certainly a bit worse for the wear -- in time to collect it. With, of course, that goofy, slightly deranged grin on his face.

To someone who didn't know Bill, this zany quality might have disguised or even overshadowed his brilliance, and ultimately his seriousness. But to those who knew him, it validated it. Bill reveled in life, especially the life of the mind, and every day was a celebration of it. He had little time for people too pinched to join in.

His declaration of atheism back in the '60s was in that same spirit -- a sort of declaration of independence from the small-mindedness that was part of the landscape we both grew up in. It was also, perhaps, a mischievous poke in the eye for everyone back home.

At the time, I was myself in the thrall of an odd brand of Methodist fundamentalism that fit neatly into the predominantly Mormon society of southern Idaho, and when I first heard of Bill's atheism, I was horrified. I tried arguing with him and found he was more formidable than I expected; indeed, his pointed counter-questions eventually had me doubting my own assumptions.

In reality, I was to find, Bill was more in the way of a pantheist than an atheist. He didn't disbelieve in the idea of God so much as he objected to the anthropomorphic and self-serving interpretations of God demanded by those who prefer to cite Scripture than deal in real life. He insisted on the independence of every person's mind in seeking God.

These were radical ideas for a young person and they affected me deeply. I like to think that the skepticism and insistence on factuality that are part of my approach to journalism were originally inspired by Bill's example. All I know is that at about age 15, I started looking at things differently, and Bill was much of the reason why. If nothing else, I understood that being from small-town Idaho didn't doom you to life as a reactionary know-nothing. I gradually came to see that much of the "common sense" I had taken for granted -- no small part of which involved a loathing of anyone or anything different -- wasn't part of our cherished "family values" but came from a darker place in our collective psyches.

I even tried to follow Bill's example: When I first enrolled at the University of Idaho -- where Bill also had obtained his bachelor's -- I was a biology major, with an eye perhaps toward wildlife or marine biology. But it was a bad fit; within a couple of years I had switched to English and was working for the school paper. Bill, I later discovered, had followed the reverse of this trajectory; he originally been a journalism major and switched to biology.

After we picked up Bill's ashes, I decided to thumb through his personal library in his reading room. There I discovered an old, well-thumbed copy of the Modern Library edition of The Philosophy of Spinoza, edited by Joseph Ratner (not an altogether accurate translation, but famous as the book that introduced millions of readers to the great philosopher). On the flyleaf Bill had imprinted his name and the year he had bought it: 1958, the year he switched majors at UI.

I was a little startled because I too have an abiding love for Spinoza, the "God-intoxicated" philosopher whose pure logic is still relevant three and a half centuries later. Perhaps this isn't coincidental; the man who introduced me to Spinoza, in a Philosophy of Science course, was the late Francis Seaman, who had been teaching at the UI back in the 1950s as well. But in any event, the concurrence struck a chord for me, because it helped me put Bill's life and death in perspective.

Toward the end of the text, I found the following passage (from the final chapter of the Ethics, "Of Human Freedom") that made me think of Bill:
He, therefore, who desires to govern his emotions and appetites from a love of liberty alone will strive as much as he can to know virtues and their causes, and to fill his mind with that joy which springs from a true knowledge of them. Least of all will he desire to contemplate the vices of men and disparage men, or to delight in a false show of liberty. He who will diligently observe these things (and they are not difficult), and will continue to practice them, will assuredly in a short space of time be able for the most part to direct his actions in accordance with the command of reason.

… From all this we may easily conceive what is the power which clear and distinct knowledge, and especially that third kind of knowledge whose foundation is the knowledge itself of God, possesses over the emotions; the power, namely, by which it is able, in so far as they are passions, if not actually destroy them, at least to make them constitute the smallest part of the mind. Moreover, it begets a love towards an immutable and eternal object of which we are really partakers; a love which therefore cannot be vitiated by the defects which are in common love, but which can always become greater and greater, occupy the largest part of the mind, and thoroughly affect it.

I'm not sure I have quite yet come to terms with the meaning of Bill's death, other than that it demonstrates in vivid colors how capricious and cruel fate can be. In the end, it seems inconsequential anyway when I think about the meaning of Bill's life. I was only one of the many people whose life he touched in profound ways, just through the force of his personality and his ideas.

People like Bill are capable of changing the world, one person, one relationship, at a time. And understanding how this happens is one of the great secrets of life Bill, by sheer force of example, imparted to those of us fortunate enough to have known him: that if our lives are to have meaning, it is through our relations with other people, which ultimately is the same shape as our relation with God.

Another passage, this from another Spinoza-inspired thinker, Martin Buber, perhaps describes it best:
The world … teaches you to meet others, and to hold your ground when you meet them. Through the graciousness of its comings and the solemn sadness of its goings it leads you away to the Thou in which the parallel lines of relations meet. It does not help to sustain you in life, it only helps you to glimpse eternity.

I've been spending the time since getting back from Denver with my two-year-old daughter. I am perhaps holding her a little closer than I did before. I know that Bill planted seeds in me that shaped my life, and I hold out the hope that I am planting them in my little girl in turn -- and, perhaps, in others too, just as Bill did.

It is, in the end, the best we can do. And Bill did it very well.