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What we lose when our cultural icons die

There’s a dissonance when you realize that the world you grew up in is falling away.

A woman places a wreath below a mural of singer John Prine on the side of Apollo's Pizza in Lexington, Ky. Prine died on April 7, 2020. He was 73.Ryan C. Hermens/Associated Press

I actually cried when the great singer and songwriter John Prine died in 2020. It surprised me. I was never so affected when other famous people I admired had passed away, but it felt like Prine was a friend. That day I pulled up some of his videos on YouTube and saw the same sentiment reiterated by seemingly everyone else in the comments. They were all some version of “I never get upset when someone famous dies, but John Prine was like a friend of mine.”

When you reach middle age, you may feel fit and youthful. There’s a dissonance when you realize that while you are still going strong, the world you grew up in is falling away, that more than half of its avatars have died. Many of them, though still living, disappear from the limelight for years, to the point that you forget about them. Then they make a sudden, strange reappearance in your life on their way out the door, when they pop up in obituaries.

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Sidney Poitier, Betty White, Ronnie Spector, Jackie Mason, Charles Grodin, George Segal, Christopher Plummer, Cicely Tyson, Hal Holbrook, Desmond Tutu, Larry King, Hank Aaron, Charlie Watts — these are just some of the people who died in the last year. Some of them I admired, but all were a piece of the masonry making up the seemingly solid cultural world I grew up in. When you are very young, famous people are your signposts to the times. You figure that if they are getting so much attention, it is because they are now or are going to be considered timeless classics.

Some of the names that were huge when I was young: Ali McGraw, John Byner, Muhammad Ali, Walter Matthau, Joe Namath, Madeline Kahn, Marilyn McCoo, Eugene McCarthy. George McGovern, Roberto Clemente, Dr. Joyce Brothers, Sammy Davis Jr., Gloria Steinem. Almost all of the regular guests on “The Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson. And Johnny Carson, Raquel Welch, Pete Fountain, Diana Ross, Ann-Margret. I didn’t know that while some were truly great, others were just people of their times. You think they are all Beethoven.

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Sidney Poitier, the first Black actor to win an Academy Award for best lead performance, places his hands in wet cement at Grauman's Chinese Theater in Los Angeles on June 23, 1967. Poitier died on Jan. 6, 2022. He was 94. AP/FILE

As a kid, you seek to learn about the world, so you are alert to what those who’ve spent more time here discuss, what entertains them, what they revere. Since you lack historical perspective, what is beloved by adults takes on an air of permanent greatness. Even if it is a Plymouth Barracuda, or Steve McQueen, or Cher, or Don Rickles, or the song “Sunshine” by Jonathan Edwards, or the movie “The Sting.”

Later, when one of its stars goes out, you are reminded of the old country of your early days. You hear the news and perhaps comment on it with a sibling or friend: “Charlie Watts, huh?” Saying the name, you conjure a sudden full appreciation of their talent. Occasionally you say it with genuine sadness, as with John Prine in my case. But usually it is with a strangely empty wistfulness, where the real curiosity is why the feeling is so blank. Doesn’t it mean something when important people die? When a complete world, with all of its political and cultural reference points, keeps crumbling?

Hedonic adaptation, the survival tactic by which humans almost instantaneously normalize a terrible event in order to maintain vigilance for other possible blows, has been used to explain various responses to the pandemic. It has often struck me how little panic there has been, on balance, given the nature of the threat we’ve faced. But really, hedonic adaptation comes into play on a daily, perhaps hourly, basis: We adapt to each death we hear about, to each day passing in our own lives, to each existential reminder. Gifted us by evolution, hedonic adaptation also returns us to a stable baseline after a positive event — but in either case it implies that we don’t actually accept reality, we only adjust to it. Real life never truly reaches us.

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From left: Joan Didion, with Abigail McCarthy and Quintana Roo, Didion’s daughter, Sept. 1, 1977. Didion died on Dec. 23, 2021. She was 87. TERESA ZABALA/NYT

It is Joan Didion’s “magical thinking,” which many of us engaged in, to some extent, when Didion herself recently died and we contemplated the dropping away of another of the bright lights of the last 50 years. No one panics, thinking, Another one! A whole world is vanishing!

As your old world does drop away, it can be a struggle to find replacements for the missing parts. Sometimes you look around and think you are living in the quaint castle ruins of your old world. Still, you are somehow content — a fact you attribute to the extraordinary quality of that old world and the bricks that made it up, as well as a few bright new flowers coming up through the cracks here and there. You ask others your age how things are going over on their castle grounds. “Just fine,” they say. “It’s a little strange, but fine. You?”

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That’s the residue of hedonic adaptation: Survival is tinged with a general uncanny feeling. Only occasionally does it strike us that, as my old friend John Prine would say: “It’s hurry! Hurry! Step right up, it’s a matter of life or death — the sun is going down and the moon is just holding its breath.”

Patrick Cole is a science writer and author of the novel “Gemini.” He lives in Barcelona. Follow him on Instagram @streetnoiseworldwide.