What is the obligation that we have to reflect upon the worst as well as the lives of other people? There is a longstanding cultural tradition, although one that has been considerably eroded as of late, that we should speak no ill of the dead. A great deal of the erosion of that tradition has come about through the fondness of our contemporaries (and I must admit being part of this trend as well) in writing dark memoirs and gloomy personal essays that reflect upon aspects of our upbringing that tend to reflect badly upon others who are no longer alive to explain or defend themselves. Likewise, it is not very uncommon to look at the deaths of famous people and to bring up the least creditable parts of their existence as a way of expressing why it is that it is not so important to mourn or celebrate a life that has been snuffed out before its time. That said, if we feel little compunction about speaking ill of the dead whom we do not particularly happen to like for whatever reason, we still speak ill of those who speak ill of the dead whom we happen to care for and respect. If that makes us hypocrites it is only one more hypocrisy among many in our age.
When dealing with the mass of mourning that has erupted after the death of Kobe Bryant at the age of 41–it still strikes me as rather alarming that Kobe was a peer of mine–a few of the aspects of his life and death have struck me as being particularly relevant. An online acquaintance of mine who has written a book I enjoyed and who frequently writes thoughtful essays relating to Catholic matters commented that he was comforted by the thought that Bryant had celebrated mass on the first day of the week before embarking on his fatal helicopter trip with a teenage daughter and a handful of other people. I had not realized that Bryant was a Catholic, or a particularly religious one, although that appears to have been the case. After a particularly low point in his life (which I am about to discuss), he apparently managed to turn his life around and if he was frequently a cranky person on the court who had longstanding beefs with others like Shaq given his competitiveness to win, he was well-respected by his peers (including Shaq, it should be noted) and had become a good husband and father and someone who was seeking to help the game of basketball that had done so well for him. He was embarking upon various athletic matters that were making his second act in basketball as influential and notable as his first act was, and which were cut short by an aviation disaster. It is natural and proper that we should reflect upon the loss that comes from death at any age, but especially to someone whose activities build up those around them.
That said, it also troubled me that those critics who wanted to continually bring up Bryant’s previous legal troubles were of the thought that one big mistake (one whose precise meaning was contested in court and still not entirely clear) was enough to wipe away all of those bad deeds. I do not believe that our bad deeds wipe away our good ones, or that our good ones wipe away our bad ones. The repercussions of both the good and evil that we do extend far beyond ourselves and both make their way into the structure of the world that those after us have to deal with. Even if we believe the worst of Bryant’s conduct, it does not wipe away the reality that he became a better man on the other side of it. To be sure, he lost a lot of peace of mind as he contemplated a long jail sentence and the horror of having a reputation as a rapist, but he did plenty of soul searching and was not abandoned by his friends or his wife and he came out on the other side someone who was wiser and more careful in how he lived his life. Something was lost, to be sure, but something was gained.
I would like to think the same is true of the person on the other side of the case. Speaking from my own personal experiences, I know that a great deal is lost when one reflects upon rape and sexual abuse. One loses a good deal of trust, innocence, one’s abilities to enjoy intimacy can be deeply damaged, and one can lose a great many hours of sleep in anxiety and stress and nightmares. These loses are real, and they may take decades to go away if they ever do. But something is gained from the experience too. If we are scarred by the experience of life’s evils, the fires of our desire for justice are stoked as well. If it is harder for us to feel safe, we are given a passionate longing for a better life and a better world than we have perhaps known ourselves. If all things are not good, they all work together for the world, and at least some experience of the darkness that humanity is capable of can help us to avoid the sort of mistaken idealism that leads a great many people to think that people are good by nature and that if we just follow our own dark hearts than we will be led into perfection and the best of all possible worlds. And sometimes it is the destruction of illusions that is associated with recognizing the truths of human existence that can give us the grim determination to do and be our best come what may. For we cannot be certain that good will come to us and not evil.