What makes a person “great”? I think the outpouring of tributes to Leonard Nimoy answers that question: they are great when they are beloved for who they are and what they have done.
I’ve read a lot of beautifully sentimental essays about Nimoy, and I relate to all of them, since as a young girl in the 1970s, I latched on to the positive and optimistic science fiction of Star Trek, and Spock was by far my favorite character. I’m hardly alone or special in that regard. What stays with me now, though, is less the role the Nimoy inhabited and what that represented but rather the creative artist who lived life on his own terms. Here was his true greatness, in my opinion.
But to step back a little: our society is not kind to artists. We idolize the successful ones but until they cross that rubicon they are often belittled, shamed, and discouraged from following their art. If a young person says they want to be an actor or musician or sculptor or dancer, they are immediately weighed down by the metaphorical “wet blanket encouragement”. We tell them that’s wonderful, sure, but don’t count on it, always have a back up plan and preferably a “real job” as well, just in case it doesn’t work out.
The problem here is that we determine whether a career “works out” by how much money people make, and artists traditionally have a reputation for poverty. It’s a stereotype that is both wrong and right; certainly, the starving actors of NYC and Hollywood who are all working crappy jobs to make ends meet while they pursue a big break-through seem adequate proof. Yet, there are a lot of artists of all stripes who are making a living doing what they love and working in their chosen field/industry on their own terms.
But more critically, a lot of artists define a career that is “working out” for them by the self-satisfaction they get from it, not by their income. They make art because they are artists, not because of the money their art can generate. Do artists need money? Yes, of course – we all need it to survive. Hence the constant refrain from friends, family and society at large to get a day!job, or have a Plan B. It is well-meant advice. It is still advice that undermines the creative effort of the artist in question though; most creative people don’t need to be reminded of the grim realities that encompass paying the bills and affording groceries. What we need is a support system filled with encouragement for our work.
Encouraging artists carries risk, though. What if their work sucks? What if they have marginal musical talent? What if you are stuck backing the wrong horse, metaphorically? What if they spend their whole lives in poverty and die in obscurity? WHAT THEN??????
I answer this with: so what? Who are we to judge the success of that life? If they created works of art they are proud of, if they participated in plays or movies that gave them joy, if they made music that lifted spirits and hearts, then…so what? Is that not success? But even artists themselves shy away from the risk of putting their work (and themselves) out there into the world. It’s a scary thing to do, and so many people are ready to jump on the slightest imperfection or perceived failure. Artists end up abandoning opportunities or strangling their creativity out of fear – fear of failure, fear of social mockery, fear of unworthiness.
Nimoy did not really worry about any of that. Certainly, the success of Star Trek helped him financially and also opened doors in the entertainment industry that might never had opened otherwise. But while he always worked towards being “successful” both financially and popularly, the reason he went into acting in the first place was because of his passion for it. He played in some truly horrible television shows and movies for a decade before Star Trek happened. He kept going.
And then he was a success in the traditional sense, but still, he kept going. He never left the stage even despite being a television phenomenon. He loved music and put out musical albums of no particular noteworthiness aside from his appearance on them. He loved photography and pursued that in his later years with sincere artistic dedication to his projects. He wrote and directed and produced.
Through all of that he remained a kind person, who helped those in need when he could and tried to contribute to creating a better world (tikkun olam). No doubt he suffered a few slings and arrows for some of his less popular work, but it’s clear that he remained kind-hearted and open-minded to the end of his life.
Nimoy had a cheesy role in cheesy sci-fi show of the sixties and took it seriously, as he did all of his art. Detractors (surely there were some? At some point? As hard as that is to believe) could make fun of the ears and the green make up and the sometimes terrible scripts, but Nimoy gave Spock the best of himself, inhabiting the character and lending Spock an empathetic gravitas. There were times he resented the role, but he never let fans suffer from his own quandaries. He gave us Spock just as much as he gave us everything he did, with sincerity and wit and charm and devotion.
He was a great man, not simply for being a successful actor and a good person, but because he never paused in his creative pursuits. He’s an inspiration for all creative types, I think, because his persistence was driven not by a need for approval or popularity, but because his art demanded to be made.
I’m not sure greatness will surely follow if we all do the same, but I think it is a better bet in the long run than running into the arms of our fears.