A Very Modern Mystic

When Saint Lawrence was thirty-three and a deacon in Rome, the prefect of the city’s secular government demanded the treasure of the Church be handed over; the saint brought forth the city’s poor. The prefect didn’t like that much, and ordered Lawrence burned on a gridiron. After he had been held over the fire for a while, the deacon—perfectly calm—called out something to the effect of, “I’m done on this side. Turn me over.”

There’s something particularly horrifying about the idea of death by fire. To maintain such intense calm in the face of it might seem like madness; an act of dissociation so substantial that it requires a complete break with reality. Of course, it was not so for Lawrence. The martyr’s calm showed rather a full appreciation of reality—an intensity of faith that transcends even so torturous a death.

Tony Hsieh was two weeks from his forty-seventh birthday, and eighteen centuries removed from the martyrdom of Lawrence, when he met his own end in a fire in Connecticut. Accounts of the incident differ. One first responder told dispatchers that Hsieh was “stuck inside” the burning building; another traded “stuck” for “barricaded.”

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What really happened remains unclear, and the investigation into the fire is ongoing. A look at the bizarre and heartbreaking story of the multimillionaire’s final days suggests the latter report is far more likely: Tony Hsieh died in a sort of tragic perversion of the martyr’s certainty.

Perhaps just short of a household name, Hsieh was an obscenely successful businessman—an early Internet mogul who survived the dot-com bubble, leaving the world with a net worth of just under a billion dollars after working for barely two decades. In life, Hsieh was known for his personal kindness and visible joy. His only book, one part biography and two parts self-help, was titled Delivering Happiness. Friends, however, describe a downward spiral in the mogul’s final months, which The Wall Street Journal reported on in detail following his death.

This decline is obviously true in some sense. To go, in a matter of months, from life as a successful CEO—even one who always had a penchant for alcohol, drugs, and eccentricity—to a fatal episode in a burning building requires some kind of descent, to be sure. Hsieh’s psychotic break in June of that year has been marked as a particularly disastrous juncture. But the dramatic end to his extraordinarily life should not be explained away with the simple answers of drugs and mental illness.

On the contrary, the downward spiral of those final months was, if not predictable, at least entirely explicable by an examination of the man’s life. The comparison to a great saint is not made accidentally. The key to understanding Hsieh’s life and death is to realize that he had a remarkable religious energy—the kind of faculty that makes great and holy men when oriented toward a proper end. It shines through on every page of his book, as anecdote after anecdote shows a man frantically searching out that very end—yet never able to find it.

One of the telling moments in the book (and Hsieh’s life) came in 1998. He had just sold LinkExchange, his first successful company, to Microsoft for a total of $265 million, of which $40 million was his personally. He went on a cruise with his old college friends to celebrate, and spent three full days drinking and partying in the Caribbean. On the final night, at last call, reality hit.

Hsieh realized in this moment that he had no ultimate goal; no real purpose. He asked himself a series of questions culminating in, “What am I working toward?” And then: “I still didn’t have the answers. So I went to the bar, ordered a shot of vodka, and clinked glasses with Sanjay. Figuring out the answers could wait until later.”

Maybe by sheer force of habit, the distraction itself became the answer. Before long, he had formalized it in a simple creed: “Happiness is really just about enjoying life.” As Hsieh committed himself more fully to this creed, he became ever more engulfed in the alcohol, drugs, and parties that were its sacraments. (The party culture at Zappos, where Hsieh was CEO for 21 years, is the stuff of corporate legend.) His activity soon escalated from parties to raves, where attendees—sometimes numbering in the thousands—spent entire nights high on drugs, adrenaline, and techno music.

The mystical language with which Hsieh describes his first rave is intensely unsettling. He explicitly claims a sense of “spirituality” derived from the drug-and-music-fueled party scene. He even remarks that the crowd practically seemed to be “worshipping the DJ.” In context, it’s abundantly clear that this observation is meant more than figuratively.

At another crucial moment, when the first big party Hsieh organized himself was forced to evacuate due to excessive smoke (which seems now like foreshadowing), the hard-partying executive slumped against the windowsill, worrying that even his quest for temporary happiness had failed as he watched the flashing lights of the firetrucks below. Just then, a beautiful blond woman, whom he had never seen before and never would again, appeared beside him to assure him that his cause was just—that he had in fact found “the answers”—and that all he needed was to persevere. Hsieh’s treatment of the moment again reveals a religious imagination at work, with the episode cast like a visitation of Athena to Achilles. (Hsieh, a Harvard grad and a pretty smart guy, surely knew his Iliad.)

At other times, especially later on, Hsieh’s strange religiosity was less ethereal. Midnight encounters with mysterious sages gave way to a kind of aimless asceticism. He fasted so severely that his weight dropped below a hundred pounds. He climbed the three highest peaks in Southern California in a single day. He deprived himself of sleep, oxygen, and other bodily necessities.

Hsieh also became obsessed with fire. He bought a $16 million mansion earlier this year and filled it with a thousand candles. When the realtor who brokered the deal came by soon after, Hsieh explained to him that “the candles were a symbol of what life was like in a simpler time,” according to the Journal. Another article could be written on the religious significance of the candles alone.

The mansion, located in Park City, Utah, was to be the centerpiece of a community for Hsieh’s friends. He had built similar communities in San Francisco and Las Vegas, where a tribe (Hsieh’s word) would live together, often work together, and hold a great deal in common. The fundamentally fascinatingly monastic nature of these communities is another indication of Hsieh’s religious instinct.

His alienation from such communities during the current pandemic has been offered as one explanation for the man’s downfall; but this conclusion is insufficient. The final months can’t be divorced from the preceding years. It is one continuous life.

We shouldn’t ask how such an energetic, brilliant, and seemingly happy man could possibly have met such a terrible end. On the contrary, it is fairly plain to see why the energetic, brilliant, and seemingly happy man necessarily met such a terrible end. The horrifying result of Hsieh’s failure to find a proper outlet for his religious energies, in turn, offers a study in what the modern world does to a good man who embraces it; who believes its false promises. The parallel with Achilles reappears: his remarkable capacities could be leveraged into glory, but at the price of a tragically shortened life.

Perhaps a better analogy for Hsieh’s fate is found in the Old Testament rather than a Roman martyrdom or a Greek epic. Considering his final moments, it is hard to avoid a visual comparison to the famous scene from the Book of Daniel, when three Jews are cast into a white-hot furnace by Nebuchadnezzar for their refusal to worship an idol.

Each moment in the fire was the end of an arduous path marked by religious zeal. The key difference, of course, is the outcome. When Daniel’s friends found themselves in the furnace, they were met by an angel of the Lord who preserved them and testified to the power and truth of the faith they had maintained.

“A thing is not necessarily true because a man dies for it,” Oscar Wilde observed. And that was the beginning of Tony Hsieh’s tragedy. When he was likewise trapped amid the flames, no angel came to his aid, because he had found none on which to call.

[Photo credit: Bryan Steffy/Getty Images Entertainment]


  • Declan Leary

    Mr. Leary is associate editor of The American Conservative.

tagged as: Catholic Living

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