Until two weeks ago, when he was revealed to have made up quotes and attributed them to Bob Dylan, Jonah Lehrer was one of the most successful journalists of his generation, and an It Boy, and a good boy, to boot.
At 31, he’s the author of three books that nimbly dance a line between the sciences and the humanities altogether invisible to most mere mortals: Imagine (containing the falsified quotes), How We Decide and Proust was a Neuroscientist.
He was a contributing editor at Wired. On staff at The New Yorker. He was a Rhodes Scholar. And he’s so cute! That artful stubble! The sculptured eyewear! He married a nice Jewish girl and together they bought an historic house in L.A.
I am by no means above schadenfreude – as I guess the above makes clear – but I still feel sorry for him.
I think it’s because of my visit last week to Camp Nesher, an Orthodox sleepaway camp that hosts two bunks for kids with disabilities. So those kids sleep in special settings, but during the day, they mix frequently with the rest of the camp, baking cookies, whiling Shabbat afternoons away on the lawn and whooping it up at the dance parties that usually break out after dinner.
It was this crazy scene especially – the stomping on tables, the conga lines -- that made me think about Lehrer.
My theory is that he, and I, and most folks, especially Jews, have bought into a fantasy of professional perfection, of omnipotence and success, and for a while Lehrer embodied it. From the outside, it looked like he would never make a misstep, but would move from strength to strength forever.
I think we all want to believe in this just like most Americans want to believe in the myth of the self-made man: we all want to fantasize that if someone is that person, we too can be that person, someday. Many Jews are particularly susceptible to this fantasy because collectively, we carry around the baggage of our recent immigrant striving-and-success story.
The main difference between Lehrer and me, I think, is that he's smarter than me. Had I ever reached such rarified heights, I might have lied too, lest I fell.
But not those kids at Camp Nesher. To see the world they live in, the swirling dancing, the kid in the wheelchair in the middle of it, the kid with Down’s Syndrome bouncing up and down to the music, was to be reminded that we all matter, and that the present moment matters, and that there’s more to life than laurels and the next thing.
I wonder if Jonah Lehrer was ever one of those kids. I want my kids to be those kids.
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