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Thursday, March 05, 2015

The Art of Being Human

You'll have heard that actor Leonard Nimoy, at age 83, passed away on 27 February. You may also have heard that writer Yaşar Kemal died aged 91 a few days later. You may not have heard, however, a day before the news hit of Nimoy's death, that retired American professional basketball player Earl Lloyd died aged 86 years old.

Aside all three being from a different generation, and personal heroes of mine, what do these, on the face of it, very different men have in common?

Nimoy was an ethnic Jew who considered himself American, and with his craft helped to create one of the most iconic figures in popular culture, Mr. Spock. Kemal was an ethnic Kurd who considered himself Turkish, and with his craft is credited for re-establishing Turkish as a literary language. Lloyd was an African-American descended from slaves, and with his craft became the first black player to appear in an N.B.A. game.

All three are talented mixed-race pioneers in one form or another. And all three knew racism well.

Nimoy was the son of Orthodox Jewish immigrants from Ukraine, and when he played a mixed-race character on Star Trek he drew on his own Jewish background for the role and the isolation he felt growing up in America. There's even an inspiring public letter by Nimoy written in 1968 where he comforts a mixed-race teenager shunned because of the colour of her skin, illustrating how his fictional character had touched a universal nerve with those who felt outcast.

Nearly thirty years later, in the mid-1990s, Kemal wrote an article criticising racism against minorities in Turkey, especially the Kurds, and received a suspended 20-month jail sentence for it.

While Lloyd endured racist jeers from spectators in some American cities as well as segregated hotel and restaurant accommodations in the 1950s. But he played on regardless.

What else do these men have in common? Nimoy as Spock confronted his human heritage time and again, Kemal was renowned for his ability to scrutinise human nature and identify universal traits in his characters, while Lloyd wouldn't allow himself to be a victim to them.

I say victim, because more often than not, our natural traits feel inhuman these days. Being violent, nasty and petty comes easier. Being compassionate, sharing and tolerant a difficult talent to grasp. Any natural ability or affinity we have for our humanity seems to get rubbed out at an early age. Or is too quick to dissipate at the first sign of hardship, like mist into air.

So much so, it feels like being human is a craft or skill which can only be mastered with practice. And the more we allow the world to be rent asunder by our petty squabbles, the more out of practice we get.

It's this reason that, for more than any other similarity, I admired and respected these three men. For that one talent which joined them, and raised them above and beyond their separate crafts.

For their dignity and consummate skill at being human in the face of adversity.

May they rest in peace, while what they stood for live long and prosper.

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