I don’t want to write a hagiography about Aaron Swartz. I met him once and don’t even remember what we talked about. He seemed exceptionally smart and I admired his work and passion. I will mourn as others will for a peer lost because of bullying. And doubly so because it was the United States Government that did it.
I also mourn, as I do whenever I hear about a suicide (or experience one, as I have a few times), because it has echoes of a what-if for me personally.
As I said earlier on this blog, I’m familiar with depression and anxiety. I call anxiety the boulder on a hill for me. I’m ever mindful of it and do whatever I can to keep it from falling. Depression is the pit that anxiety can knock me into.
Sometimes I think I grew up at the wrong time. I’m 33, which means when I was really getting into technology between ages god-knows to 13, I was alone for much of my pursuit. At the same time, homebrew computing clubs were springing up, Byte Magazine was in existence and I’m sure college departments flourished with camaraderie about these new machines being made.
But I was a kid in Orange County, CA. In 1988, being a kid was about being a kid. Riding your bike without a helmet in oil fields (for me), neighborhood wide capture the flag, etc.
There was no Reddit, no Github, no peer group who was into what I was into. So I played around the neighborhood, and hid my hacking, programming, fucking around on PPP connections and BBS’s just like I did my listening to R.E.M. and the Cure while everyone else did Poison or teen-pop.
It was lonely. In fact the first two friends I made who were into computers are still friends of mine. That wasn’t until I was 13.
I envied Aaron, as I do a lot of people 5-10 years younger than I. To grow up when being into technology wasn’t a stigma, and communities were so easy to find would be heaven.
It wasn’t for me. It was the exact opposite.
I deal a lot with regret and what-ifs, like most others do. There are moments in my life – as with everyone’s I’m sure – where I made a choice, did something or was compelled to do something who’s alternative decision could have changed things. My problem is that I always think causally about everything I do, down to illogical conclusions, or the far reaching ramifications of seemingly meaningless actions. It’s often paralyzing, but just as often crushing in its ability to make me grieve for a present reality that doesn’t exist, while not appreciating the one that does. It isn’t logical, but nothing about what can trigger depression is.
When I was 19 I called my girlfriend of five years to have another guy answer the phone, tell me she didn’t want to talk to me and that he was “the new guy in town.”
I remember when I called I was walking to my car. I don’t have many coherent memories after that on my way home. I had made a lot of decisions for this person, including where I went to school, where I lived, who I was friends with and others. Even where I still worked. All of those decisions were now called into question. Those what-ifs and why questions started. The boulder rolled, the pit loomed. I found myself very alone with no way out.
It took me four years to come out. In that time other things happened as well. I considered driving off on my way to work, not telling anyone where I went. I considered just leaving forever.
My parents were worried, as were others. I remember screaming at my dad once, “I am happy, just leave me the fuck alone,” when he voiced his concern.
Meeting my wife put an end the episode, but I never had really come to terms with it. I was in some therapy when I started graduate school, which helped greatly, and through time was able to really process those missing years, and all that the end of a relationship had called into question from the years prior.
I remember that feeling though. The feeling of not seeing anything through the dark. Not knowing what the future held, because it was too scary to consider. Where nothing seemed better than anything. I can’t even listen to a song on KidA because it brings the feelings back too strongly in that sense-memory way. I’m thankful every day that I was pulled out of it. I have a beautiful wife, a loving family and an amazing son as a result.
Others aren’t as lucky. Others are missing out on the sons that could have been, the wife they could have had. Mothers miss the son they had, and partners the love they had in their life.
I mourn for that.
The only way out of despair is meeting it, not avoiding it. Suicide is avoiding it in the most irreversible way possible. Some say it is selfish. I don’t think it is. I think it’s desperate, sad and in some cases beyond anyone’s ability to help prevent.
What I am sad about for Aaron, his parents and the community at large is based on the fact that I know of where he stood. I’m fortunate that I turned away from the edge. If you find yourself there, be fortunate you live in a time, a place and a land so rich in spatially transcendant community that you can always find an ear that will listen, even if they are a screen name on the other end of a line of text.
Aaron’s peers will continue where he left off, working so hard to create something for themselves, in the end creating something magical for each other and us. That will always be their greatest gift left for this world.
Let’s use that wisely and for the greater good.