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What Carrie Fisher, David Bowie, Prince and Muhammad Ali Taught Us

Nothing I can say will make the losses of 2016 hurt less. But it’s possible to take something from this year’s long parade of deaths (which, for me, include a personal loss).

When someone famous dies, and we mourn and feel the pain of a lost connection, it’s because that celebrity transmitted something important into the world. They didn’t just make art that we remember and cherish, they put messages into the world in the way they lived their lives. These were ideas we needed to hear, and those wild and unruly transmissions changed us — and the culture around us. 

As 2017 dawns, we will undoubtedly still be in mourning, and quite probably afraid that this difficult year was a mere tune-up for what’s to come. A terrifying thought, that. Scraps of comfort are hard to come by.

But when I can, I’m thinking about how we can build on what people like Carrie Fisher, Muhammad Ali, Prince, and David Bowie taught us.

  • From David Bowie, we learned how to create our own realities and personas and effortlessly slip from one identity into another, and still stay true to the our own personal spirit of innovation and revolution. We explored planets and galaxies with Bowie, who found those faraway places inside our hearts and minds, even as he made us cry and dance. He was the trickster who knew we are all weirdos, and he told us that was our secret strength.
  • From Prince, we learned to question everything and find joy and communion even in the excavation of deep pain and profound longing. Everyone was accepted in Prince’s world, regardless of sexuality, regardless of background, regardless of creed, as long as every entrant to the Purple Domain was prepared to let go and find the divine in the funky, and vice versa. Prince taught us to let go and be ourselves and see what fantastical energies would be released as a result.
  • From Muhammad Ali, we learned how to be poets, to be prophets, to be true our beliefs even when it felt like the entire world was against us. Ali would have been a legend in his chosen sport even if he’d never given an interview. But it was his advocacy, his patience and his unbelievable steadfastness that made him into so much more than a mere legend. He was an example of someone who remade the world around him by never relinquishing the core of what mattered to him, and by communicating those beliefs in the most memorable and evocative way possible. His passionate joy and his righteous anger, combined with his charisma, made him the Greatest of All Time.
  • From Carrie Fisher, we learned that the world will try to put you into a category and make sure you stay inside it, but you can pick up a space blaster, blow apart that tiny little cell and rescue yourself. Carrie taught all of us — but especially women and girls — that an appetite for adventure and an irreverent attitude will get you everywhere, on this planet and far beyond, and that you shouldn’t wait for someone else to write your story or lead your army. Hollywood has little use for women over the age of 25, for women who speak their mind, for women who are irreverent, and for people who are open about their mental illness. Carrie Fisher gave zero shits about all of that. When she told her stories and shared her brutally, hilarious truths, we all felt less alone. Carrie was unashamedly and unapologetically herself. She said what she thought and she cut through sky-high walls of bullshit in her own way, and she made everyone love her as she did it. She did her best to be kind and she was a tireless advocate for those with mental illness. She was a heroine. And she wasn’t a space princess, she was a queen. (And a General.)

Losing these people is hard. Many more famous people died this year, of course, and every one of those losses stings. This year has been full of bad news, and being forced to say goodbye to so many brilliant hearts, spectacular spirits and unique minds is the icing on one hell of a nightmare cake.

But of all we’ve lost, I think about these four people all the time, possibly because every one of them had a lot in common with my irreplaceable and irreverent mom. When those who loom large in our memories and imaginations leave us, old currents of grief can surge forward again, even if we never met those people. But didn’t we, in a way? 

Whatever the future holds, we can’t say we really loved these artists and advocates unless we’re willing to help each other in the new year and beyond. We’ll show our love for those we’ve lost by following their examples and being ferocious about what we believe in, but never forgetting to be ferociously kind. We’ll make mistakes, and we’ll be honest about it, and we’ll try to work as hard as they did, never forgetting to dance and laugh and create joy when we can.

We’ll honor their legacies by having compassion for those who need it, strapping on our space boots and saving ourselves.

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