Commentary: Hope from the artists who left us in 2016

Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) and Han Solo (Harrison Ford) in "Star Wars: Episode IV A New Hope."

The end of 2016 was filled with obituaries and in many responses to these deaths a theme was clear: Enough. Enough sadness over those we loved and won't see again, enough of a dispiriting year. Let's move on if we can, though toward what we're not sure.

I was struck by an unexpected parallel in two of the lives we lost in the last days of 2016, and perhaps the guidance they can offer for the months ahead.

Carrie Fisher was an American movie star and Richard Adams was a British author and government bureaucrat, so what should they have in common? For me, they were both formative figures in my young life who taught me about bravery, as I watched Star Wars and read Adams' Watership Down. But I now see in their lives, passing as they did within hours of each other, a deeper lesson about heroism - about how we fight for a cause in art and in daily life, and how the latter is ultimately as profound as the former.

Fisher was a child of Hollywood who had the fortune, good or ill, to act in the role of her lifetime at a young age, and to spend the balance of her years coming to grips with it. She ultimately understood that the character she portrayed wasn't her, but that it could help her and the world, and she had some control in this process. Princess Leia knew her pivotal place in the destiny of worlds; Fisher ultimately understood not only the power of the role, but that she did not have to be defined by it. More than that, she knew she could use her celebrity to do more than be a victim of drug addiction and mental illness. She used her position to help countless others struggling with these all-to-common challenges to realize that they could overcome the seemingly impossible odds, and be the heroes in their own stories.

Like Star Wars, Watership Down is one of the true epics of the 20th century. Adams was an unlikely storyteller, publishing his first work at 46 years of age. Spending 26 years in public service, including the British agency for air-pollution abatement, he told tales of valor imagined in response to his children's demands for entertainment on long car rides.

Adams' stories extolled the values of humility, personal and social integrity, individual sacrifice, and the importance of a higher truth over oneself. I was stunned by this work of art when I read it in high school, and have read it to my children as they've grown up, and cried at the end each time. I defy anyone to read Watership Down to the end and not do the same.

As we mourn the passing of these two figures, I can't help thinking that the departing year, not soon to be missed, may yet have something to tell us about the nature of heroism. Did Princess Leia actually accomplish more as an iconic character for the ages than Fisher did in helping real people know that they were not alone in their day-to-day struggles with illness? And did Adams' creations - Hazel, Fiver, and Bigwig - ultimately achieve more in demonstrating that even the humble can defy brutality, than the author himself accomplished in a career striving to keep the country's policies humane and its environment clean?

Definitively, the answer from both of these artists as they pass is that we don't have to choose; we need not divide our creative and professional lives. In both arenas, Adams and Fisher provide us with a (finally) uplifting epitaph to 2016:

Never give up no matter what the odds; always keep your eyes on the world that might be; and remember that the work you do every day can change the world, if you choose.

Karl Schonberg is vice president and dean for academic affairs at St. Lawrence University in Canton, N.Y.