R.I.P. A tribute to some great lives

by Joanna K. M. Bratten

Some two months ago America mourned the passing of one of its greatest stars; on screen and off, Jimmy Stewart personified ideals cherished by the people of America and the rest of the world. Upon hearing the news of Steward’s passing I was not so much distressed by his physical death, as by the greater significance of the passing-on of a spirit which, although not particular to Stewart himself, seems to have vanished since the hey-day of this great film star and which has since been replaced with a spirit that is, to say the least, banal. I decided at the time to write a tribute to Stewart and this spirit of which he was for some time a representative. But the events of the past few weeks lead me to extend this tribute to some very different people whose recent deaths have dramatically affected people all over the world. I speak, of course, of Mother Teresa and Princess Diana, as well as of the lesser-known, but also-great, Viktor Frankl.

Since mid-summer, the world has seen the deaths of many influential people announced in the newspaper headlines; in addition to those I have already mentioned there are Robert Mitchum, Gianni Versace, and Sir Georg Solti. The world is learning much about national—and international—mourning, and death itself seems to be bringing people around the world closer to life. Closer to life because we understand better our humanity and realize how the loss of another life, so far from our own, can affect us so deeply.

What can we learn from the passing-on of these men and women? Certainly from Versace’s death we saw first-hand, thanks to news accounts, how a life of depravity can hurtoneself and so many others. But, contrary to this, we learn from the deaths of Jimmy Stewart, Viktor Frankl, Princess Diana, and Mother Teresa something of the greatness of the human spirit.

As I have already stated, Jimmy Stewart represents, especially in our generation, a sense of “wholesomeness” which we can look back to as being part of what our grandparents called “the good old days”. Although a celebrity of tremendous magnitude, Stewart led a life that was in many ways ordinary; he was a normal man. This is, perhaps, what made him such a great man. When compared to the film stars of today, Stewart seems almost puritanical and a bit backwards: he wasn’t involved in sordid affairs, he didn’t have his body pierced, he said “gee whiz” instead of words which could only be indicated here with asterisks. Stewart came from a time and a culture so alien to our own that it is amazing that he is still appreciated. But he is still appreciated, because the values he represented are so true and lasting that even our benighted age can look back and experience their appeal. The question is whether we can ever get them back.

The death of the great psychiatrist and author Viktor Frankl is another great loss for the world, and his life a towering inspiration for our age. Rather than allowing himself to be embittered by his experiences as a prisoner in a Nazi concentration camp, Frankl dedicated himself, through his “logo-therapy” and scholarly work to helping fellow men recognize and cherish the dignity and meaningfulness of human life. And though he died quietly, in the shadow of more stunning world events, I hope and expect that the influence of his noble soul will continue to make itself felt for many generations.

Princess Diana led a life very different from either Jimmy Stewart’s or Viktor Frankl’s. She was a glamorous socialite and lived in a palace; photos of her were plastered on tabloids all over the world; accusations were continually leveled against her of being involved in innumerable acts of vice. Yet she stands as an example of the greatness of the human spirit. A woman who certainly made her share of mistakes, Diana attempted to make her life more bearable and worthwhile by helping others, by reaching out to people who were so often ignored, particularly by the British royals. Her death reminds the world of how careful we must be not to judge others, for only God can ever know what is in the heart of a person. We are also reminded that the greatest virtue of all is charity, and that “love covers a multitude of sins.”

Mother Teresa, of course, was the brightest of charitable stars. One cannot even begin to sum up the magnitude of her life’s work. It is ironic that Mother Teresa, perhaps the greatest and most humble saint of our age, should die just days after Princess Diana. In the enormous hubbub surrounding the death of Britain’s princess, Mother Teresa’s passing was a footnote in the daily news. I say that this is ironic because I imagine that Mother Teresa would not mind missing out on the greater public attention she would certainly have had had hers been the only headline-making death that week. Great in humility to the end, I am sure that Mother Teresa knows and is pleased in the fact that the publicity surrounding Diana’s death has done so much in bringing the people of the world together in grief and in realization of the need to carry on charitable works. It would be like her to put her own death in second place. Such was the greatness of this woman.

While the world has lost some of its greatest and strongest individuals, the rest of us must take care not to lose the greatness of spirit that these people exemplified. We can look to Jimmy Stewart and hope to revive in our own age his sense of wholesomeness; we can try to imitate Viktor Frankl’s dedication to the dignity of human life; we can learn from Princess Diana that through charity for others and by not dwelling on our own sorrows can we make our lives worthwhile; and we can learn from Mother Teresa the greatest lesson of all: holiness, pure and simple.

Rest in peace and let us never forget to emulate the greatness of your lives.

Joanna Bratten, formerly on the Concourse editorial board, graduated from FUS last May. She is now studying Shakespeare at the University of St Andrews in Fife Scotland.