Leonard Nimoy died today. I found myself surprisingly affected by that. And as I watched the tide of sorrow pour over the internet, it occurred to me to ask: why, specifically, was I so touched? In effect, I channelled my inner Spock to process my feelings, and in doing so, partially answered my own question.
Leonard Nimoy had many talents, but for many of my generation, the fact that he was Spock effectively eclipsed the rest of them. Does that belittle the rest of his achievements? To my mind, not in the least, because what Spock symbolized was inspiring, and generation defining.
I grew up as a nerdy, troubled kid in a school that didn’t have the first clue of what to do with me. They couldn’t figure out whether to shove me into the top math stream or detention, so they did both. I was singled out for bullying by both other pupils and the school staff, and had test scores that oscillated wildly from the top of the class to the very bottom, depending on how miserable I was.
In that environment, it was trivially easy to see myself as an alien. I cherished my ability to think rationally, and came to also cherish my differentness. There weren’t many characters in popular media for a kid like that to empathize with. Spock, though, nailed it.
And while my school experience was perhaps a little extreme, I suspect that a very similar process was happening for isolated, nerdy kids all across the western world.
And here’s the root of why: Spock was strong because he was rational. Sure, he was physically powerful and had a light form of telepathy and all that, but what made him terrific was his utter calm under incredibly tough conditions. Furthermore, as Leonard Nimoy’s acting made clear, he was still quite capable of emotionally engaging, of loving, and having friends, even if he seldom admitted it to himself. Spock didn’t just give us someone to identify with. He encouraged us to inhabit that rationality, and let it define us.
Leonard Nimoy’s character kept it together when everyone around him wasn’t thinking straight, and made it look cool. In doing so, he helped to inspire a generation of computer scientists, entrepreneurs, and innovators who have changed the world, and the status of nerds within it.
The kids growing up now don’t have a Spock. Sure, they have plenty of other nerd-icons to draw from, and maybe they’re more appropriate for the current age. But for me, none of them really speak to the life-affirming power of level-headed thought in the way that Spock did.
Looking back on it, I see that Leonard Nimoy, Gene Roddenberry, and the rest of the team who created Spock’s character, helped inform the life philosophy that has guided me for years, and that’s this.
All emotions are valid, from schadenfreude to love. They’ve all part of us, and should be respected, even when we’re tempted to be ashamed of them. But emotions should have a little paddock to run around in. The point at which emotions start causing problems and eating the flowers is when you let them get out of the paddock. So long as you look after your paddock, you can transcend your limitations while remaining fully human.
And so, today, I confess that I find the death of Leonard Nimoy incredibly sad, but its significance also, somehow, fascinating.