My favorite discussion in the wake of the death of Stephen Hawking early today took place on the NPR morning show, “On Point.” Guests and callers alike illuminated the achievements of the great physicist, and beyond those, his generosity in writing for the layperson, so as to make what he understood accessible to the rest of us. There was respectful mention, too, of the fact that all of this was accomplished in the face of severe symptoms due to ALS.
All of that was good to hear, but it was the rest that made the discussion, ah,...well...on point. In the same hour, guests also acknowledged the personal difficulties and costs that came with that extreme strength of will and determination. This part of the discussion didn’t happen in that tone that people take when they want to take a superior down a peg for their own self-justification. It was stated simply, almost parenthetically, with the emphasis on the fact that this very talented, generous, and hard working man was very much a human being. The attitude was that - for all of us - the best things about us can also the things that get in our way.
With great gifts come the need for skill in managing them; and even the skillful don’t get it right all the time. This acknowledgment didn’t belittle the accomplishments of the scientist, but created a backdrop where we could better see the magnitude of those accomplishments. It was an anonymous caller, though, that made the point that stuck with me for the rest of the day.
Speaking with obvious appreciation for Stephen Hawking, the caller pointed to the tremendous amount of help it required for Hawking to achieve what he did. Just to name a few sources of Hawking’s help, the caller mentioned his first wife, his students, and the makers of technologies that allowed him to communicate with the rest of us directly. Beyond those, of course, would be help of the sort we all have, from those who grow our food, who build our homes, from so many more people than we could ever know.
The brilliance of his mind set aside for a moment, it occurred to me that perhaps the most brilliant aspect of Stephen Hawking’s character was his willingness to receive the degree of help that he did to make the truth known, as he understood it. When you think of how much psychic energy it can take for most of us just to allow a friend to help us move furniture to a new apartment, I am almost as much in awe of that as I am Hawking’s intellectual achievements. Had he not considered his mission in this world more important that protecting our culture’s main idol - the false view of self-sufficiency - much of his work would have never occurred, and perhaps all of it would be lost.
May we, too, be so dedicated to the truth that we are willing to accept the help we need.