My friend Elliot Harmon died three months ago, taken by cancer at the age of 40. We wrote about it on the EFF blog, detailing his accomplishments, what he fought for, how much he meant to all of us. We are a community in mourning, and we are gathering in a few days for his funeral.
And me, I still have all these questions that rattle around in my head. Like, what’s it all for?
What’s any of it for? Why are we here? How can we measure the worth of a life, the worth of Elliot’s life or my life or anyone’s? I feel foolish asking these sleepless philosophical questions that have plagued people since the beginning of time, but maybe I feel even more foolish for not asking. Three months after Elliot’s death, I feel like I’m still staring into the void, my pockets turned inside-out.
Because I want it to make sense. I want there to be some grand calculus that says: yes, Elliot died younger than he should have. Yes, half his life was taken from him, and his family and wife had to suffer his loss, our community had to lose him. But in the end, it was worth it somehow. Because he lived so much in those brief years. He accomplished so much, and touched so many people. I want to tell myself that he died young but he had a whole life, a huge life, just in half the time—like one of those podcasts you listen to on double speed.
That’s the math of mourning. It’s trying to make sense of something insensible, to reason out a tragedy. As if cancer were some fortune cookie with a special message about the meaning of life.
Sometimes I think people more or less waste huge chunks of their lives just skimming through the days on auto-pilot, a jumble of automated reactions and animalistic needs, ego and consumption. The impact of any given person on the planet—ecologically, economically—is negative, on average, and yet we can make excuses that we ourselves brought something of value. We tell ourselves that love and relationships are as important—no, more important—than accomplishing anything truly meaningful, and isn’t that a consoling thought?
I think about Elliot’s brief life, and I think: he stood for something. He used his time on earth to champion a set of principles grounded in access to knowledge and freedom of thought and expression. He woke up every day and used his skills to advance this movement.
He was also intellectually curious and compassionate to a fault, a weird mix of self-confidence and humility, and did I mention he was a marvelous writer? So it wasn’t merely that he fought for something. It’s that he actually fought well. He was good at fighting for something.
And I keep circling back to that. There’s some important recipe in there, and I think that those two pieces—fighting for something, and being remarkably good at fighting for something—are helping me make sense of this puzzle of what the heck it means to do something with your life. It’s not enough, and it’s not finished, but it’s something.