Last week, the actor Leonard Nimoy passed way. Nimoy is publicly known for his portrayal of the character Spock from the science fiction series Star Trek, but like most people, Nimoy was much more than what people saw of him. Just professionally, he was an actor, a director, a poet, a singer and songwriter, and, of course, he had a personal life of which most of us know little. But, he will always be connected to his role as Spock.
My social and professional circles were filled with references to Nimoy and Spock upon the announcement of Nimoy's death, but people would ask me if I was in mourning over the loss of Spock (yes, Spock not Nimoy). This made me wonder why were so many people tied to the notion of Spock? What was so important about this character? After some thought, I realized it came down to acceptance - within ourselves and within society.
Spock represented an intellectual and socially-detached person that had been socially accepted by the populace both within the Star Trek world and the real world. Spock was the popular and (dare-I-say) mainstream 'nerd'. The character enabled a group of people, that are often ostracized or marginalized by society, to connect with mainstream society via popular culture. As a result, Nimoy will forever be linked to Spock and vice versa. But there is something deeper here that I realized while I was contemplating these questions.
Nimoy wrote two autobiographies: one in 1975 titled "I Am Not Spock" and then in 1995 titled "I Am Spock". The first book came after the the original Star Trek series had ended but the movies had not yet been created; the book was an attempt by Nimoy to distinguish and separate himself from the character Spock. The second book came after the last of the motion pictures to star the original cast and was more of a discussion of how Nimoy and Spock grew together and separately - how Nimoy had matured partly because of his connection to Spock and Star Trek and how Spock had matured as a character from the growth and maturity of Nimoy. The books are fascinating peeks into human psychology.
When we are young(er), we often rail against societal expectations and pressures without always realizing that as we mature and grow and learn, we become who we are, partly, by deciding how to merge with and co-exist with these expectations. However we overlap with societal and cultural norms and expectations, true maturity and contentment comes from an acceptance of who we are inside with a recognition that truth to ourselves is fundamental to our well-being. Nimoy gave a nice interview where it is very clear that later in life, he viewed Spock as a part of himself and that Spock reflected some of Nimoy.
Nimoy saw the power of Spock, even back in 1968, and how he could use his character to help. A young girl wrote to Spock to ask advice on how to live life as a 'Half-breed'. The girl was the child of a mixed-race family (black and white) and saw Spock as someone who might understand (human and vulcan). Back in 1968, mixed-racial couples were not common and were often the pariahs of society. Today, such a situation is much more socially accepted, and I am happy to say that I am not sure that I know what that label 'mix-raced' even means. Nimoy's answer to this young girl is marvelous and really comes down to "you have to be true to yourself".
For me personally, when I was younger, I struggled for a long time trying to understand who I was and what was important to me. It took me years to accept within myself that a significant part of my personality was, as society would call it, 'nerdy'. For a long time, I hated that word. To me, it was an insult and a reminder that I had a difficult time fitting in with the rest of society - that I could only socialize with other 'nerds'. But, in fact, it was this rebellion against 'nerdiness' when I was younger that helped me grow and mature and become a more well-rounded man with compassion and insight into others that I had not previously harnessed.
Now in my mid-life (whatever that means), I have re-embraced the nerdy side of my personality, partly because it is a piece of who I am, but partly because I have reclaimed the word for myself and made the word mean something to me. The word is just a word, but learning to accept myself (and accepting others for who they are), that is the true measure of maturity. Accepting others (or yourself) does not have to mean accepting poor behavior, but it does mean accepting that each person is different, and it is the differences that make up the richness of our culture and society.
Interestingly, I see the word 'nerd' being re-claimed by the nerd-community in a much more public way, similar to the manner in which the word 'gay' has been re-claimed by the homosexual community. Owning the word prevents the word from being used in an offensive manner, but more importantly, it marks an ownership and acceptance by the gay community of themselves.
Do I use the word 'nerd'? No - mostly because I still detest stereotypical labels. To me, labels convey the wrong connotations in that they pigeonhole individuals into groups. Instead of viewing people by their actions, labels enable judgement of people by their appearance. I am not a nerd; I am simply me.
And with that, Mr. Nimoy (and Mr. Spock), you will be missed. Thank you and Live Long and Prosper.