Today I attended a memorial lunch for my friend Jaime. He died in October of Motor Neurone Disease at the age of 53. To say it has been a day of mixed emotions has been the understatement of the year (thus far); but having gone from dragging my heels in getting there, as I was already in tears, (as I have been intermittently since finding out about his demise), I ended up finding the whole experience cathartic, revealing, and inspiring.
As we all sat in the Swan restaurant, overlooking the Southbank which was one of Jaime’s favourite places in London, I found myself looking around at people who had travelled far and wide to be there, from Australia, the Falkland Islands (where Jaime grew up), France, and of course the London contingent, I found myself asking and being answered the question that has been going over and over in my head: what is the measure of a life well-lived?
I don’t know about all of you out there in the ether-sphere, but this last year has been one of reckoning and pondering and grappling with big questions, in a universal and personal sense. This elided not only with the passing of one of the kindest men I know, but with two of my great heroes. One you will have heard of – Mandela; the other you may have heard of – Stéphane Hessel.
Mandela, like many people around the globe, was part of the fabric of my world for most of my life. I first came to hear of him as a child, when workers in Dunnes Stores in Dublin refused to handle South African goods in protest at the apartheid regime. All I knew at the time was that to buy South African goods was not a nice thing to do, and that buying a grapefruit was somehow keeping black people in a faraway country oppressed; and then of course as the years progressed, we heard about this amazing freedom fighter who had a song made up about him (Free Nelson Mandela) and eventually learned more about why he had been locked up. Looking back at his life this year, what stood out for me was how free of any hate or impulse for revenge he seemed; and how revolutionary his implementation of the “Truth and Reconciliation” commission was. It takes a person of extraordinary grace, dignity, compassion and kindness to behave in the way he did after his incarceration.
Likewise, Stéphane Hessel was a living testament to all that is best in human nature. A survivor of not one, but two concentration camps and a Resistance fighter, he spent his life afterwards not exacting revenge, but striving to build a better world; firstly through his involvement with the editing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, right through to his activism on economic inequalities (addressed in “Time for Outrage!”), to his support of a two-state solution in the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, and his endeavours to protect the post-World War II social vision. Although there were efforts to silence him in later years from certain quarters (according to a Parisian friend,Sarkozy did not allow a talk he was to give inDecember 2011, allegedly because of his criticism of Netanyahu’s then government), he remained engaged and committed to justice, and to fighting for human dignity, no matter how politically inconvenient. This too exhibited a kindness, compassion and ability to look for what was best in human beings, rather than the worst – no mean feat for a survivor of Buchenwald and Bergen-Belsen.
Why do I mention these two giants of world politics and social justice in conjunction with my late friend? Simply because they all, in their kindness, compassion and acceptance of human frailty and strength, inspired and continue to inspire me. And it is important to be inspired not only by those in the macrocosm of our lives, but by those in its microcosm as well.
What was so extraordinary about our Jaime? Many things. His life itself was a rich tapestry of adventure: growing up in the Falklands, going to school in Argentina, training at NIDA, being one of the devisers of the film “Strictly Ballroom”, adventuring around the world with his actress ex-wife on various locations, coming to London seeking more adventure as an actor, where he met his second wife and becoming a dad at the age of 50; and finally back to Australia where he fought with courage and optimism and maintained a sense of curiosity and wonder in the face of the terribly cruel and debilitating disease to which he eventually had to succumb. As people spoke today – a doyenne of the British theatre here, a neighbour from the Falklands there – the same words and phrases kept coming up. He was, for many of us, “the strong hand at our backs” when we were in crisis; the cheerleader when we lacked faith in ourselves; and as one person said, he had the ability to raise the temperature of any room just by his mere presence. I never heard him speak negatively or pettily about anyone or any situation in the six years I knew him. Everyone spoke about how incredibly lucky they had been to know him. But Jaime’s greatest quality, and the one that I most associate with him was his superhuman kindness, and that was manifest in the quality of his interactions with me and others his whole life.
Death has a way of bringing what is most important in life into sharp, uncompromising focus. Ultimately: What matters, and what will be our legacy? In the words of Peggy Mitchell, “What’s it all about?” Looking at the headlines over the last year, there seems in the wider world, politically and socially, concerted efforts to dehumanise, categorise, incite prejudice, divide us from each other and from what is most essential in our interactions with each other in life: the milk of human kindness. In the macrocosm and microcosm of our worlds, it is important to recognise and celebrate people who embody this rarest of qualities; cherish them, be grateful for them having enriched our lives, and ultimately, honour their lives’ work as an exemplary human being by paying it forward.