When I turned 40, my friends threw a party for me. We had great food, drink, and music. Several good friends read messages about me aloud. It was touching. I remember thinking how lucky I was to have such a loving family and such caring friends.

I also remember the enormous guilt I felt when I made it to 40. Not that there was much preventing me from making there– I grew up with plenty to eat, with decent health, and largely out of harm’s way. My profession was not overly physical or dangerous. The activism I had done- and continued to do- did every now and then earn me encounters with the police or even in about half-a-dozen cases death threats, but with maybe one exception, I never felt a real threat to my body. Overall, I had lived a very cushy life.

So why did I feel guilty when I hit 40? Not, mind you, as the generic angst associated with privilege. Indeed, I felt a twinge of survivor’s guilt- the notion that one lives when the more deserving perish. I felt it specifically about three people- Martin Luther King Junior, Malcolm X, and Che Guevara, all of whom were assassinated at the age of 39.

Now, before anyone accuses me of grandiosity or self-congratulation, I am in no way comparing myself to these three great people. That in fact is the nub of the matter- that those who fundamentally alter, for the better, the course of history and of human’s connection to each other are targets while the rest of us benefit from their work as free-riders and escape the turret. That is the source of guilt, anger, and ultimately the call of duty.

Lamentations about the dead are inevitably trite but always political. The Horizontal person is easier to laud than the vertical. We beatify people posthumously precisely to undermine their counterparts working today. We beatify them to kill them further, to ensure that we sing hosannas but never complete their agendas. We beatify them to depoliticize them and to beguile people into sedentariness by suggesting that these people were otherworldly and impossible to replicate. “I can’t do great things like Saint Martin Luther King so I’ll avoid doing anything at all,” is a common typology of excuse.

So the guilt is self-defeating if it does not prompt action. Silent grief is necessary but so too is translating that grief into public pronouncements and action. Don’t tell me how sad you are that Malcolm was shot dead in 1965 at the age of 39; find today’s Malcolm and support him or her. Don’t tell me how India could have gone in a certain direction had Gandhi not been killed by Hindu fundamentalists, actively support today’s versions of Gandhi.

As Martin Luther King suggested, in a premonition of his own violent demise, “longevity has its place.” Those of us who have been granted longevity- especially those of us who made it past 39- should think of that as a gift, not only for ourselves but for other people and for nature itself. The edifice of humanity crumbles when we confer Sainthood on those in the past and forget their admonitions about the present and future.

Romi Mahajan in an Author, Marketer, Investor, and Activist


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