All of us at the Humanist Hub and the Humanist Community at Harvard are shocked and saddened to hear of Carrie Fisher’s death today. She was an amazing author, actress and human being who made a positive impact on so many, including our own community. In April, the Humanist Hub and the Harvard College Community of Humanists, Atheists and Agnostics (HCHAA) presented her with our 10th annual Lifetime Achievement Award in Cultural Humanism, at Harvard’s Memorial Church.
The ceremony was, like so much of Carrie’s life and work, poignant, passionate, and very funny. Here is a statement from our Program Director Sarah Chandonnet, who nominated Ms. Fisher for our award (which has been accepted, in previous years, by novelist Sir Salman Rushdie, filmmaker Joss Whedon, comedian and author Stephen Fry, among other humanist cultural icons) and who had the opportunity to connect personally with her in organizing our event:
When I heard about Carrie Fisher’s death I felt anger– it doesn’t feel fair for her to die just as she’d come so far. It was no secret that Carrie had many struggles as a young actress, such as addiction and mental illness. But in recent years, she found many ways to transform those struggles into a story that could reach others facing similar problems. She became a model for overcoming life’s most difficult challenges, and doing so with grace. For her to have that taken away is a reminder for all of us that life can be incredibly absurd and unjust.
I admired Carrie – the actress – from afar for many years, but I came to love her once I got to know her – the person – through working on our wonderful event with her in April, where the Humanist Hub and the Humanist Community at Harvard presented her with our 10th annual Lifetime Achievement Award in Cultural Humanism, at Harvard’s Memorial Church.
I, like so many of you, have always had a special place in my heart for Star Wars — but I learned more about Carrie when I watched The Secret Life of the Manic Depressive — a BBC award-winning documentary made by Stephen Fry, another friend of the Humanist Hub. To me, Carrie had always been the indestructible Princess Leia (and she will always be). But in that documentary — and later in Wishful Drinking — I learned that she’s so, so much more than Princess Leia. She’s a compassionate, funny, deeply flawed, deeply brave, slightly inappropriate, generous, bipolar woman – someone who took the celebrity generated by one of the biggest institutions of our popular culture and used it to do tremendous good.
Here’s some of what our nomination letter said:
“We admire you for your most iconic role in the Star Wars films. But moreover, we admire the myriad ways you’ve used your celebrity to uphold values around which we center our organization’s mission: The Secret Life of the Manic Depressive works to destigmatize mental illness; Wishful Drinking takes an honest (and humorous) approach to humanizing popular culture, facing the challenges of fame, and helping your readers find comedy in life’s ups and downs. Your forthright activism and outspokenness about addiction, mental illness, religion, and agnosticism have furthered public discourse about these issues with honesty and empathy.”
Indeed, we hope our community and our humanist cause can be just one of the many reasons Carrie will be remembered as an effective activist and advocate– in other words, as someone who made the world around her a better place. She was so generous with the people and causes she cared about, donating her time to be with us in Cambridge for an event in her honor, even humoring us by taking photos with storm troopers, as the Harvard band played the Princess Leia theme music from the balcony. After hours of travel, and talking, it was Carrie who thanked us.
On the trophy for Carrie’s award, we inscribed this quote from Wishful Drinking:
“Let’s say something happens and from a certain slant maybe it’s tragic, even a little bit shocking. Then time passes and you go to the funny slant, and now that very same thing can no longer do you any harm.”
Carrie’s death is tragic, and it hits the hearts of millions of people. But I do hope that someday we will be able to look back at our time with her – at her work, and her wit, and her words – and laugh. I think that’s what she would have wanted.
Meanwhile, on behalf of all of us at the Humanist Hub and in the broader humanist community, then, we offer our heartfelt condolences to Ms. Fisher’s family and friends, and to her fans. At this sad time let us remember the words of the late humanist rabbi Sherwin T. Wine, who wrote:
Death needs courage. It is so overwhelmingly final that it fills our lives with dread and anxious fear. Sometimes it arrives at the end of a long life when we are waiting for it. But sometimes when it comes too soon, interrupting young lives and wasting hopes and dreams, it adds anger to our fear. We cry out at the injustice of destiny and wait for answers that never seem to come. Courage is loving life, even in the face of death. It is sharing our strength with others even when we feel weak. It is embracing our family and friends even when we fear to lose them. It is opening ourselves to love, even for the last time.
Love offers the gift of many blessings. None is more precious that the love of family and friends. In the strength and compassion of parents, in the mutual devotion of husband and wife, brother and sister, we find the security of love. For the landscape of our years is peopled by the presence of open hearts that exact no price for the gift of themselves. When a family member or an intimate friend dies, sadness and despair are normal responses. Two people cannot share the best and worst of life in mutual experience and find that absence is trivial. The tribute of love is the pain of separation.