The Symphony: Reacting to the Death of Steve Jobs

Steve Jobs died this past week. I heard the sad news in my car, and was surprised by how much it upset me. When I got home, I read his now famous speech given in 2005 at Stanford’s commencement. Steve spoke with gravity and struck a somber tone for a graduation. Having survived his first brush with death, Jobs warned the graduating young adults to make the most of life.

Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything — all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure – these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.

Separately, this past week I finished Moby Dick, which some people consider the greatest novel ever written in any language. The story of Captain Ahab’s monomaniac chase of the white whale is an epic metaphor about humanity and our relationship with death. The story shows how we are all connected to each other and, ultimately, to our shared and terrifying fate. At the end of the story, before he becomes fast to his destiny, on the morning before the immortal God pulls him into the sea of eternity, Ahab stares into the ocean, sheds a tear and reflects on a lifetime at sea.

Oh, Starbuck! it is a mild, mild wind, and a mild looking sky. On such a day—very much such a sweetness as this—I struck my first whale—a boy-harpooneer of eighteen! Forty—forty—forty years ago!—ago! Forty years of continual whaling! forty years of privation, and peril, and storm-time! forty years on the pitiless sea! for forty years has Ahab forsaken the peaceful land, for forty years to make war on the horrors of the deep! Aye and yes, Starbuck, out of those forty years I have not spent three ashore. When I think of this life I have led; the desolation of solitude it has been; the masoned, walled-town of a Captain’s exclusiveness, which admits but small entrance to any sympathy from the green country without- oh, weariness! heaviness!

We’re all like Ahab, caught up in our own chases today, but sharing his and Jobs’ inevitable fate. In another part of his commencement speech, Jobs paraphrases some advice he once heard telling the students to, “Live everyday like it’s your last, because someday you’ll be right.” At the end of my life, what will I look back on? On my last day will I stare into an ocean of time and regret years of exclusion like Captain Ahab? Am I following Jobs’ advice, following my heart?

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