All deaths are sad, and some are shocking and sad. Ken Lay’s this week was both, though I don’t suppose it should have been a shock.
Putting aside all judgments and conclusions, all umbrage, outrage and indignation, and all debates on who was most responsible for the Enron scandal—putting all those weighty and legitimate concerns aside—isn’t it obvious that Ken Lay died of a broken heart? We forget that people do, or at least I forget, but they do.
His life was broken and would never be healed. Or if it was to be healed it would happen while he was imprisoned, for the rest of his life, with four walls to look at. All was wreckage around him. He died, of a massive coronary. But that can be another way of saying broken heart.
Is this Shakespearian in the sense of being towering and tragic? I don’t know. I think it’s primal and human. And I think if we were more regularly conscious of the fact that death through sadness happens we’d be better to each other. I’m thinking here of a friend who reflected one day years ago, I cannot recall why, on how hard people are on each other, how we’re all complicated little pirates and more sensitive, more breakable, than we know.
He said—I paraphrase—”It’s a dangerous thing to deliberately try to hurt someone because it’s not possible to calibrate exactly how much hurt you’re doing. You can’t know in advance the extent of the damage. A snub can leave a wound that lasts a lifetime, a bop on the head with a two-by-four will be laughed off. One must be careful. We’ll always hurt others by accident or in a passion but we mustn’t do it with deliberation.”
We are human beings, and to each other we are not fully knowable. There’s a lot of mystery in life. The life force can leave before we even know it’s withdrawing.
* * *
On TV Wednesday, on cable news, they weren’t calling him “CEO scam artist” but, literally, on CNN, “beleaguered businessman.” They didn’t know how to play the story. To rehearse, on the day of his death, the allegations against Lay and the jury verdict—guilty of fraud and conspiracy—would be . . . ungracious, lacking. But to ignore the scandal—which is after all the reason he is famous, the reason we are reporting his death—is journalistically incoherent. Reporters tried to find a middle ground. Lay came from nowhere, rose high, messed up, fell.
But part of what happened to him, one of the interesting parts of the sad story, is that it is an illustration of the changing nature of scandal. There has been a huge change in the impact scandal now has on a human life in the modern world.
Once you could get in terrible trouble and just vamoose and find a place to hide. You could lam it, lay low, start over. You could reinvent yourself. You could cross an ocean and go to another continent and begin again.
You could leave the scandal behind you.
You could create a new life by creating a fiction. It is 1794 and you are in fact a farmer’s son from Normandy who stole a purse. But you’ve just arrived in Philadelphia and have taken to announcing that you’re a member of the French nobility fleeing the revolution. And they believe you! You work in a store, own a store, found a chain. In time you are the sober scion of an old main line family. Or it’s 1930 and you’re a socialite who caused a scandal, so you go to the hills of Umbria and begin to call yourself the widow Jones.
You could hide or start over. As late as the 1950s a Blanche Dubois could have confidence her tale of lost love would be believed. She could rely on the kindness of strangers.
But no one’s quite a stranger anymore.
Now, with modern media, there’s no place to hide. In the age of Google there’s an endless pixel trail.
You can’t disappear and start over because you can’t disappear.
And—I’m serious—there’s a sadness to this, a less human, less rich, more constricted and constricting quality to modern life because of it.
* * *
The modern media age has leveled the trees behind which people used to hide. If Ken Lay had been found not guilty and gone to live on the most obscure street in the third biggest town in Chad, you know what they’d say as he walked by. “That’s the guy that headed the company that stole the money.” They have CNN there. They have it everywhere.
Too bad. People need second chances, and thirds, and fourths.
The answer? There is no answer. The lesson is not, “Human beings will have to have fewer scandals and embarrassments,” because human beings can’t have less scandals and embarrassments. They’re human. They’ll do what humans do.
The only relief in this area will be here: when every embarrassment is famous for a day and every scandal known worldwide for a week, they’ll all start to blend into a big blur. And you can hide in a blur for a while.