I have been, and always shall be, your friend.
- Spock, Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan
The world lost not only a great man today, but also one more connection to an era that seems to be slipping away. Leonard Nimoy, best known as Spock from Star Trek, died earlier today at 83. The fact that Spock, a character initially devoid of human emotion and attachment, would emerge as one of the most beloved characters from Star Trek is a testament to the complexity both the character and the actor would bring to the role as it evolved from a campy TV series to a cinematic cultural icon.
In many ways, Spock represented an outsider’s view of humanity, a lens that allowed us to look back on ourselves from the position of a rational observer. At times Spock reflected how absurdly irrational we were, at others he embraced what was best about the emotion that sparked that absurdity. Reflecting back on the world that made Spock a cultural icon illustrates just how different things are today. Spock was embraced for how he let logic guide his decisions. Today we let celebrity charlatans override volumes of scientific data and consensus with one 140 character remark.
Spock also represented a kind of common popular culture that our fragmented world of YouTube and Twitter has largely killed. Star Trek was an institution, even if you didn’t watch the show you knew who Spock was, you might even have been able to do his famous hand gesture. Popular culture is far more fragmented today, we have more choice and more narrow networks of interest than ever. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but the world in which a charismatically challenged alien could occupy a central place in pop culture simply seems impossible now.
However what was most remarkable about Spock as a character, and Leonard Nimoy as an actor, was how both evolved over time to embrace a more holistic view of humanity. Though Spock was half-Vulcan, he was also half-human, and over time he began to embrace the emotion, passion and humility that comes with being part of humanity.
This, more than anything, is what makes me wish my kids were old enough to watch the Star Trek movies (soon!). Today it seems like society either speaks with passion or with logic. We’re polarized by the debate over rationality vs. emotion, science vs. religion, and technology vs. people. What Spock, and Leonard Nimoy, showed us was that this was a false dichotomy. As humans we don’t have to choose, our gift is the ability to take the best of both worlds and employ them to our advantage. Supporting vaccination does not mean ignoring natural wellbeing. Tackling climate change doesn’t mean abandoning economic prosperity. Teaching our kids to embraces science and math doesn’t mean the end of arts, music and athletics. What Spock learned on the big (and small) screen was how to balance both sides of his being for the benefit of himself and everyone around him. He also learned the value of sacrifice, the meaning of friendship, and what it takes to be part of a community greater than yourself.
There are those that believe science is the only answer, and as someone who is staunchly pro-science, it’s hard to disagree with that. However it is only through balancing that knowledge with the greatest respect for the traits that make us human–compassion, respect and love, that we bring out the best in our species.
Live long and prosper.