Thursday, November 3, 2011

All Souls Day - Remembering a Few Impactful Souls

Yesterday, November 2nd, is celebrated in many faith traditions as All Souls Day, a day to commemorate the members of our community who have passed on. It offers a time of respectful reflection on the lives of those who've impacted our own in positive ways.

Here are a few Renaissance men and women whom I would like to pay homage to today:

Kurt Vonnegut (1922-2007)

Vonnegut was renowned for his controversial science-fiction laced dark comedy writing. His novel Slaughterhouse Five was banned from many high schools for a time. The novel plays off of Vonneguts time as a Prisoner-of-War in Dresden, Germany, bearing gruesome details of his time in the second World War.

Vonnegut is lesser known for his art work, as seen in novels such as Breakfast of Champions. The crass illustrations of his early novels blossomed into more detailed work that stands on its own as statements of artistic expression.

"I've been smoking Pall Mall unfiltered cigarettes since I was 12 or 14. So I'm going to sue the Brown & Williamson Tobacco Company, who manufactured them. And do you know why? Because I'm 83 years old. The lying bastards! On the package Brown & Williamson promised to kill me."

-Kurt Vonnegut

Harry Houdini (1874-1926)

As I posted in a recent essay, Houdini was much more than a talented escape artist.

A masterful promoter, educator, and fervent consumer of knowledge, Houdini was constantly learning, in areas beyond that which he was proficient. The illusionist had a collection of thousands of books, and was constantly probing the worlds of spirituality, geography, and human anatomy.

From a small town in rural Wisconsin, Harry Houdini rode his passion and curiousity for life to international acclaim. He didn't shy away from much of anything, often allowing perfect strangers to challenge his abilities of escape and strength. This may have led to his demise, which adds to his mystique.

“My brain is the key that sets my mind free.”

-Harry Houdini

Florence Nightingale (1820-1910)

Nightingale was born into a rich British family living in Italy, and was expected to settle down into a life of complacent wifely duties and mundane motherly servitude. Instead she shirked the traditional roles set before her and entered into a career of nursing and academic study. She traveled throughout the Mediterannean, observing life and society, all the while mindful of the medical practices being implemented.

Nightingale's work has advanced the worlds of nursing, sanitation, and statistical analysis. Upon returning from the Crimean War, Florence spent a great deal of time analyzing the information she gathered while tending to thousands of injured soldiers. The reports she presented to the British government were integral to further developments in medical care.

"The world is put back by the death of every one who has to sacrifice the development of his or her peculiar gifts to conventionality."

-Florence Nightingale

Steve Jobs (1955-2011)

Steve Jobs had an indellible impact on so many aspects of modern life. His work revolutionized modern personal computing, music consumption, digital animation, and mobile connectivity at a personal level.

It has been said that Jobs was a harsh task master who demanded perfection among his employees. His visions of the products he produced included even the most finite details - down to the screws inside the machines. It was this unyielding attention to detail that brought him the success he enjoyed later in his life.

The most inspiring thing about Steve Jobs is the story of where he came from. By understanding the failures and disadvantages that he overcame, this story of technological success becomes even more inspiring.

"Again, you can't connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something - your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life."

-Steve Jobs

Marie Curie (1867-1934)

Marie Curie was born in Russian occupied Poland in a time when women were not only allowed to participate in academics, they were rarely allowed to gain a rudimentary education. At a young age, Marie cast off this life of ignorance and absconded to Paris, where she studied chemistry, biology, and later physics.

Marie Curie was ahead of her time in many ways. In order to better study radium, she and her husband would pull discarded uranium from a nearby mine. This led to many advancements in radiation therapy. Additionally, she helped disseminate x-ray machines throughout france for use with infirmed soldiers during the first World War.

In a twist of irony, Marie Curie died of cancer, probably related to her unprotected contact with the various elements she explored.

"A scientist in his laboratory is not a mere technician: he is also a child confronting natural phenomena that impress him as though they were fairy tales."

-Marie Curie

Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826)

Everyone knows Thomas Jefferson as one of the architects of the constitution, or as the third president of the United States, but few know the full extent to which he impacted society.

Jefferson had an insatiable thirst for knowledge, and was known to read multiple versions of the same text in order to fully understand what was being said. He was probably the first American Presidents to read the Qur'an, and his collection of tracts and novels became the basis for the Library of Congress.

Additionally, Thomas Jefferson served as the Secretary of State,Vice President, and Ambassador to France. And he founded the University of Virginia.

He also bought the majority of present-day Continental United States, and generally only slept for a couple hours at a time, a practice known as polyphasic sleeping.

Not too bad for eighty-three years of colonial life.

"All tyranny needs to gain a foothold is for people of good conscience to remain silent."

-Thomas Jefferson

Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961)

Ernest Hemingway experienced life at every level. From Oak Park to Paris, Africa to Cuba, Hemingway recounted some of the most amazing events of the last hundred years. Through his correspondence and novels, he shared a view into life in the early twentieth century that spoke of war, isolation, and American life as an expatriate.

If one wanted to catalog Hemingway's life by injury, they might start with his injuries from the mortar fire he sustained while driving an ambulance in the first World War. Next would be a variety of intestinal bugs and illnesses contracted on adventures in Spain and Africa. Hemingway gained a huge scar on his forehead from a falling skylight in Paris, and narrowly escaped death when his plane en route to Africa crash landed, twice. He rode into the front lines of Normandy on D-Day, and almost died at the Battle of the Bulge, though from nothing more nefarious than pneumonia. By the end of his life, he'd sustained serious liver damage, diabetes, and damaged eye sight. Finally, Ernest Hemingway committed suicide by shooting himself with his favorite shotgun.

I share all of this because this was a man who, as my grandfather might say, was "rode hard and put away wet". He lived a hard life, delivered a beating to his body, and left behind a great legacy.

"Every man's life ends the same way. It is only the details of how he lived and how he died that distinguish one man from another."
-Ernest Hemingway 

Now before my inbox is flooded with retorts about all the nefarious underpinnings of these historical figures, pause a moment. Please do not inundate me with refutations of character and anecdotal wrong-doing. I do not deny the fact that these people all had their flaws and poor judgement. I argue that, despite these imperfections, the men and women who I've named above have made positive contributions to our society.

Regardless of ones beliefs in a specific faith-tradition, everyone can appreciate the opportunity to pause and reflect on the lives of friends, family, and those complete strangers who have made our existence better through their contributions to society. By respectfully remembering those who have gone before us, we are able to learn from their lives, so as to enrich our own a little more.



  1. My two favorite Hemingway tidbits:

    1. His Mom dressed him as a girl until he was seven.

    2. He claimed to sink German U-Boats in the Gulf of Mexico using his row boat.

  2. Keegan,

    Footnote to your first point: AWESOME.

    Footnote to your second point: The name of the boat was "The Pilan".

    He was also supposedly the first American to step foot in Paris during the Liberation of the city.

    The man is pretty much my favorite American author of the early twentieth century.


  3. Also a fan of Hemingway and Jefferson. I am a big fan of Teddy Roosevelt. The first president to work on parks while in office. A big personality, and a true American "cowboy". Kind of an enigma too, won a peace prize for the Russo-Japanese war but his ruff riders beat up Cuba years before. Just an interesting personality.

  4. Buddy,

    Great point! Teddy Roosevelt was truly a different style of political figure. Kind of an "Indiana Jones" suave academic persona, mixed with that rugged "wild west" attitude.

    Definitely going on my "Renaissance Man" list.