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Everyone is fighting a battle we know not about.
On Sunday, Virgil Abloh died after a two-year battle with cancer.
The African-American fashion designer who broke barriers in art and culture finally succumbed to the disease after silently enduring multiple treatments while continuing to be a changemaker in his chosen industry.
He was 41.
I have to admit I didn’t know much about Mr Abloh until a friend of mine told me about his passing.
But I do know about the streetwear brand Off-White, which he set up in 2012. And I have read of Kanye West (although the rapper-turned-designer-turned-political commentator has gone a little South these days), with whom Mr Abloh was a close friend and collaborator. And I certainly do know about luxury house Louis Vuitton, of which Mr Abloh has been the artistic director for its menswear division since 2018.
The more I read, the more I was impressed by how the son of Ghanaian immigrants managed to break so many barriers in fashion, art and culture in so little time.
Tributes have poured in from across the worlds of fashion and pop culture.
Supermodel Gigi Hadid spoke about her heartbreak, adding that “his kindness and energetic generosity left a lasting impression on every life he touched.”
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Singer Pharrell Williams tweeted that “Virgil you were a kind, generous, thoughtful creative genius”. And even Korean superband BTS called him a “true creative genius”.
RIP Virgil Abloh , you will be missed.
It was an honor to work with you. A true creative genius.
— 방탄소년단 (@BTS_twt) November 28, 2021
In a post on his official Instagram, his wife Shannon described him as “a fiercely devoted father, husband, son, brother, and friend”.
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In the post, she said: “For over two years, Virgil valiantly battled a rare, aggressive form of cancer, cardiac angiosarcoma. He chose to endure his battle privately since his diagnosis in 2019, undergoing numerous challenging treatments, all while helming several significant institutions that span fashion, art, and culture.
“Through it all, his work ethic, infinite curiosity, and optimism never wavered. Virgil was driven by his dedication to his craft and to his mission to open doors for others and create pathways for greater equality in art and design. He often said, ‘Everything I do is for the 17-year-old version of myself,’ believing deeply in the power of art to inspire future generations.”
And Mr Abloh didn’t just lead, he put money where his beliefs were. He gave hope to young African Americans to pursue their dreams in high-end fashion, establishing a US$1 million fund for Black fashion students last year.
He reminds me of another African-American celebrity who went before his time: Chadwick Boseman. The acclaimed actor, famous for his role as Black Panther in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, would have celebrated his birthday yesterday (Nov 29) if he had not died after his battle with colon cancer last year at the age of 43.
While we’re all missing his incredible spirit today, we are grateful for the lessons and legacy he left behind. This day gave him to us- we will continue to celebrate him and take joy in all of the love you are sending his way.
Happy heavenly birthday, Chad 🤍 pic.twitter.com/pmzTFoj2mq
— Chadwick Boseman (@chadwickboseman) November 30, 2021
Boseman donated his personal time to work with several cancer foundations as he went through his own four-year battle. He often visited childhood cancer treatment centres to surprise young fans to encourage them in their own journeys. In April last year, he even donated US$4.2 million worth of PPE equipment to hospitals serving Black communities during Covid.
For his work, the actor was honoured with a US5.4m scholarship fund set up by Netflix and his alma mater Howard University last month.
One of the thoughts that struck me as I read these obituaries and tributes is that one of life’s biggest assumptions is believing that we have time.
We put off our plans to make that next career move, to start that new hobby, to speak to that person, to start a family, to take that next scary step in life, because we believe we have time.
Sometimes, we don’t. But we often don’t realise that before it’s too late.
One of the movies I watched growing up was Dead Poets’ Society, where another great actor taken before his time extolled his young students to carpe diem.
To seize the day, Robin William’s character told his charges (including a young Robert Sean Leonard) in Latin, is to grab hold of the present and not fall into the trap of following a life path laid out for them that they may not believe in.
We are taught from a young age what we believe the Singapore dream should be. Be an engineer, doctor, lawyer, our parents tell us. Make money, be successful and you will be happy, is the promise.
While the 5Cs can give some material comfort, more Singaporeans are realising that there are more pathways to success in life, depending on how they carpe their diem.
As in our professional careers, so too our personal lives.
Don’t wait till it’s too late to appreciate someone in your life.
When we connect with our friends and loved ones – over coffee, over a meal, or virtually on social media – don’t just talk about the mundane; every once in a while, dig a bit deeper and ask a little more.
When we scroll through our socials, don’t just linger on the usual food pictures, staycation videos or happy dances.
Could that overly positive post hide a tired, depressed person who is just trying to stay afloat? Or has a friend who is often active on social media suddenly dropped off the radar?
Unfortunately, there isn’t any secret formula to deciphering a person’s inner thoughts from their outer actions. The only trick I know is to pay attention. And that requires effort.
One thing we can do, however, is to remember: Everyone is fighting a battle we know not about.
With that knowledge, it might cause us to be a little more perceptive and sensitive when a friend laughs a little too loudly, or a flash of sadness passes over a family member’s face when a comment is made.
Don’t bury your faces in your phones. Look up every once in a while and look at the person who is talking. There might just be a hint of something that might give you pause to ask: “Hey, you okay? Is there anything you’d like to share?”
Don’t doubt your impact
My family has this habit. Whenever I see my parents, one of us would ask “Everything okay?” Since we are an Asian family, the inevitable inscrutable reply is almost always “yes, everything okay”.
Most of the time, this is sufficient for us to move on to other mundane topics or wander off to another part of the home.
But every now and again, one of us would pause for a bit. And then share something a little deeper than what we had for lunch or what we were planning to do for the kids during the holidays.
These little chats become sharing sessions, to find solutions to issues or sometimes simply to release some pent-up stress.
In our lives, we might not have the time, talent or resources to make as big of an impact of a Virgil Abloh or a Chadwick Boseman.
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But we do make ripples in our little ponds, no matter how small our pebble may be. And these waves that we make can touch other people’s lives.
Regardless of how big a splash, we affect those around us. And that is something that we can control.
It could be a kind word or a listening ear, or, since the festive period is almost upon us and we begin socialising more with our loved ones, holding back of a cutting remark or a negative comment.
When in doubt, be kind. If that is too hard, then (at least for a while), stay silent.
After all, everyone is fighting a battle we know not about.
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