It will soon be 30 years since he died, and yet Stephen's memory remains incredibly vivid. He was just 28 years young when sadness, sickness and hopelessness moved him to desperation. But despite the crude reality of Stephen's ultimate self immolation, his enduring legacy is poignantly life-affirming.
Stephen craved all that life was intended to provide: love, acceptance, belonging, and freedom from emotional pain. And though these longings went largely unfulfilled, there is beauty in the knowledge that he so valued the things that are good and right about being alive, he bravely—and desperately—searched for them right to the very end. It remains a mystery whether his last desperate act was one of resignation that he would never find the things that make life worth living, or one of anticipation where all that he longed for would be found in abundance in a life to come.
The scourge of religious delusion is a potent and sinister beast. If allowed to take hold and fester, it will possess even the most intellectually agile among us, which Stephen most certainly was. It tells us we are so powerless against the malevolent side of human nature that an unwavering deference to forces unseen, unheard, and otherwise unreal offer our only hope for finding joy and purpose. Stephen courageously defied the indecent ultimatum being offered him when he took his own life, but it should never have come to that. We did not answer his call for help. We should have. Doing right by each other isn't always easy. In fact, we know it to be difficult.
With hopes and dreams meticulously gleaned—and eventually dashed—by promises that could never be kept, Stephen fell prey to those who offered false hope, to those who told him the uncertainty of a life beyond was more important than living—to the fullest—in the moment one finds himself. And yet he managed to carve an identity, admittedly imperceptible to some, but plain to those of us who truly loved him and did our best to emotionally care for him. It was an identity rife with intelligence, armed to the teeth with potential, spiced with a deliciously caustic sense of humor, and weathered by immeasurable pain. This was hardly an empty life.
Stephen's memory will always provoke in me a kind of bifocal appreciation. On the one hand, he failed at the practical and the temporal; on the other hand, he seemed to succeed at the ethereal. He was at his best when immersed in the sublime. Very impractical, yet ever so engaging—ever so alive.
Some misunderstood you, Stephen; others strained to tolerate you; a few of us were lucky enough to get close to you. Believe me when I tell you: all of us—each in our own way—loved you immensely. Thank you for making it easy—all these many years—to find the joy. ▪