Grieving an Ethos: Thoughts on the Loss of Steve Jobs

Most of the people I work with are, naturally, having very strong feelings about the death of Steve Jobs. But not all, and that’s fine. My wife is also not what I would call crushed by his passing, but she is extremely sympathetic and supportive; she understands how I revered the man and what he built. But I do tend to get hung up on the contrarians: why should I mourn — why should I feel so deeply sad — over this super-rich guy who I’ve never met?

It is a deep sadness. There’s no getting around it; my heart has been very heavy, as though its soaked in thick liquid. The idea of his absence is creating a physiological distortion that my mind can’t entirely process.

But I am also that guy who tends to roll his eyes at the gushing over dead celebrities. I didn’t understand the writhing over Princess Diana, she really did seem to me to be just a lucky rich person, who was probably very nice, and died tragically. But that happens all the time to good people who don’t happen to be really rich. I’m even worse with public fingers who at least in part bring it on themselves through excessively damaging choices. I am the eye-roller over public gnashing of teeth over the expiration over the otherwise super-fortunate.

My feelings about the loss of Steve Jobs is different, though, but it took me some thinking to figure out how.

Steve Jobs was not tapped by fortune, he was not swept into history by forces outside his control. He built everything he had bit by bit. He suffered for his sins, took his punishments, and climbed back out of the ditch to become even stronger than he or anyone else could have imagined. He did it with his own talents, his own mine, his own nearly-insane work ethic. His own love of the work.

And what he built is, of course, more than a company. Just like the Beatles did more than just record some albums. Like the Beatles, Steve Jobs affected the culture. He crafted an ethos, he championed a way of thinking, he embodied a particular spirit. Not all aspects of what he created were of his devising, and his successes were not due to him exclusively.

But he is responsible for putting this ethos into practice so that it served as the framework for Apple’s products, for the company itself, and for all those who sought to learn and grow by that ethos. It is not so much the stuff he made for all of us to buy. It is the culture he spawned, something that now lives on in countless thousands of people who have opened their minds and hearts to it, this philosophy, this ethic, this credo.

I grieve for Steve Jobs much like I grieved for Carl Sagan, like many who grieved for John Lennon, before I was old enough to know who he was. These are people who not only added to the catalogue of human-borne discoveries, ideas, and products, but they changed — and in their way created — the best aspects of what we consider human culture.

I did not lose a friend or family member, but my species lost an important source for its culture. If my tears fall, they fall for the great hole left in our civilization by the loss of Steve Jobs. It’s hard to believe he could die at all. But he’s gone, and all we can do is work to fill that chasm with our own emanations, our own representations of that ethos.

It won’t be the same, but it might be enough. But to fill that hole, we’ll have to be crazy enough to think we can.

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