Many of us will file this past year under “death”, for the passing of a platoon of heroes and beloveds, and for the sudden passing of our joy in progress. Taken altogether, the host of remarkables who left us during this most deplorable of years marks the end of a life that we recognized. The world that remains without them is strange, anxious, even hostile.
The uncertain world that launches with this new year, however, need not be unhappy. Given what the dead have given us, 2017 shouldn’t be unhappy. Whatever else it might have done, 2016 and all of its misery did remind us, clearly and harshly, that each present moment in which we sit is not merely the product of a past, but a view of the next, unrealized moment. Those we most miss, now that 2016, itself, has finally died, were not remarkable for embodying the past that produced them, nor even for exemplifying their era, but for living ahead of the rest of us, revealing in themselves a future into which they had already joyfully stepped.
We certainly can’t divorce Muhammad Ali from his American past or present. But he was always a demanding step ahead of the past’s and present’s claim on him. Ali’s legendary “What’s my name?” fight not only pummeled Ernie Terrell but taunted the entire, fusty country. In a moment in which past and present insisted that Cassius live as Cassius, and in disgrace, too, for betraying his country and what was supposed to be his heritage, Ali punched everyone from a future—his own future—where he lived free. The rest of us are still trying to catch up.
Prince and David Bowie did not make new music out of nothing, but they did not labor to perfect tradition. Perhaps there’s something laudable about chasing after the perfect pop song that sticks, with the claws of clap machines and cowbells, in the ears of the masses and can’t be shaken out. But Prince’s and Bowie’s greatness—musically and otherwise—distilled from some future place the rest of us could not hear for all the snapping pop that, years and years behind, keeps struggling, even now, to put what is miasmic and arresting about Prince’s and Bowie’s music in a can that can be plucked off a Wal-Mart shelf.
To Kill a Mockingbird was published in 1960. The fact that the Black Lives Matter movement is necessary, now, as 2017 begins, confirms that Harper Lee’s novel was not a product of its time, but of a time-not-even-yet. Given the embarrassing bathroom wars in which we are now engaged, let’s acknowledge that we have not, still, realized the future from which The Lady Chablis came.
It would be foolhardy to try to catalog everyone who went in 2016. I want only to note this one heroic element of the people whose departures have seemed most hard. The glorious ones lived ahead, out ahead in a future they knew and in a future that the rest of us could see only in them.
Let’s miss the greatness gone in 2016. And let’s give it all the honor it earned by living the future, likewise. We need only live ahead, without compromise, risking everything of the moment, though the risk might be great, to manifest in ourselves the future that puts away the past and transcends this so sad present. The new year could, then, be happy, even while also fierce and angry. Perhaps happy in anger. Certainly, in living the future, the coming year will be happier than we expect in this sordid, hateful, contemptible day.
I will venture to say that the coming year could be the happiest ever, the most joyful year of all our living lives. It depends on how many of us dare to live ahead.