Sadly this week we lost one of the greatest and most influential minds of modern time, a man who exceeded all expectations including life itself. You would assume someone of such knowledge, influence and of heavy hard-core physics would be a stoic somewhat serious individual. Hawking however was a character of extreme wit as demonstrated on numerous occasions take for instance when he was asked of how he felt about his fame, “The downside of my celebrity is that I cannot go anywhere in the world without being recognised. It is not enough for me to wear dark sunglasses and wear a wig. The wheelchair gives me away.”
When he was only 21 years old Hawking was diagnosed with motor neurone disease effectively slashing his life expectancy to nothing and yet he would go on to exceed the expectations and limitations placed upon him, just as he would in many other fields of his life. Through all of this adversity and hardship it was clear that he never lost his sense of humour. Many dismiss humour in the face of tragedy seeing it as a deflective coping mechanism, of how that person is unwilling to face the harsh truths before them. To me however it is the ultimate acceptance and understanding of the trials set out before you. It is a quintessential part of the human spirit and is a heavy part of what it means to be human. Our ability to accept, understand and then adapt to what surrounds us or is put upon us or that that lies before us is a mesmerising thing. Then to not lose our sense of humour or see the funny side within all of it is an attribute to us as a race. Humour is something incredibly succinct to us, as human beings, it is one of our greatest evolutionary traits. It is something I could never bear to lose and something I would want to hold onto no matter what I may face.
A cousin of mine fought cancer from a very young age, battling it away into remission only for it rear it’s ugly head again and again. As he entered his later teenage years he lost a leg to the hideousnesses pressing upon him. I remember though meeting him for the first time, post amputation, and while something obvious was missing nothing had gone from his personality. He had always been upbeat and quick to the joke kind of guy. In particular on that first meeting I remember him sitting discussing all the things he could now dress as for halloween with another of my cousins. They eventually settled on the none too obvious, peg leg pirate, which further led to all the possibilities of what he could hide in his said hollow peg leg from snacks and treats to booze (we were of the age where these were the things a young mind instantly goes to/are allowed in a relatively family friendly blog post) to which he responded to all with “Well at least now I will truly have a hollow leg for all my drinking!”
At another time in life my mother would be also diagnosed with cancer and upon beginning chemo she began to loose her hair. Weirdly, with fondness I remember this time, while I know my mother would rather not, I was sat at the computer when my mum dashed into the room with a cry of “Look Ian look” as she pulled a large clump of hair easily away from her head, laughing and smiling all the while as if it was no big deal what-so-ever. I know that may seem like something utterly horrifying but at the time it was brilliant! It is only now that I can truly appreciate the immense bravery that any such an act would have taken and all most likely done for the benefit of me and my brothers to make something quite serious to be the funniest thing we had seen all day.
It goes without saying that without wit, humour or love would we truly be human and would these be worthy lives worth living without such treasures. Hawking knew this vehemently it seems and cherished it also, the man spent over 230 weeks at the top of the bestsellers list for his world expanding book, A Brief History of Time and yet the very same man famously held a party for time-travellers. The tale goes, that one afternoon Hawking decided to throw said party. Canapés, champagne flutes and balloons were arranged and the lone figure of Hawking sat beneath a grand and brilliant party banner declaring ‘WELCOME TIME TRAVELLERS’. Hawking would sit alone beneath the banner for a long time with not a single attendee showing for the auspicious occasion. Following the event however Hawking declared, “I have experimental evidence that time travel is not possible. I gave a party for time travellers, but I didn’t send out the invitations until after the party. I sat there for a long time, but no one came.”
Humour may well be our greatest gift and one of our most defining characteristics. One that should never be forgotten or lost no matter what our situation may be or how dark the times may seem. Even when humour and the idea of laughter may be the furthest thing from our minds do not forget it and most importantly never lose it. Hawking, my cousin Sam and my mother all knew this and testaments to its power as are countless others in my life, next to love humour truly is what makes us human.