The evening of Friday 10, February 2012 was a snowy winter night here in New York City. I decided to stay in, watch a movie and catch up on some reading. While going through the February issue of Parents magazine, I was extremely moved by Michael Njenga’s story of his journey with clinical depression I thought about it through the night.
I woke up the following day to the shocking news of Whitney Houston’s death – one of my mum’s favorite singers, I actually bought her Houston’s 2009 come back album I Look To You and she simply loved it. As with any famous person who dies unexpectedly of non-natural causes, society begins the epic ‘play’ of his or her life. With the ‘tragic’ and ‘talented and ‘artistic’ and ‘famous’ people, this play is always the same. I am not trivializing, neither am I (for once) being sarcastic. I say this as I am watching the theatre currently unfold in the media.
Act One: Shock.
Act Two: The sharing of this shocking news, and the importance of being one of the first in the know – Did you hear about…
Act Three: Combined grief, mourning and pure sense of loss for the individual, as we personally understood and/or cared for them, and/or their art. This is perhaps the most authentic act and most often, the shortest.
Act Four: And I quote: ‘Combined grief, mourning and a pure sense of loss’. Here is when we insert the honest, but contrived phrases. Such a talented individual, yet so tragic; Haunted by demons; A tremendous artist but a tortured soul; what a waste?
Act Five: We rationalize it. We collectively come together, scratch our heads and attempt to figure out exactly what happened. Didn’t we see this coming? Is there anything we could have done to prevent his/her death? What exactly was going on in his/her life? How on earth do we make sense of this tragedy?
Act Six: Blame. Because we cannot comprehend the Why, we try to figure out the Who and the What. We gather all the experts, all the professionals, all the people who ‘know’ about this stuff, and debate exactly where to point the finger at. Weak character! Fame! The curse of celebrity! The paparazzi! The media! His/her family! Friends! Enablers! Irresponsible parents! Sex, drugs and rock’n’roll! Addiction! The doctor who prescribed the pills! The pharmacist who filled the prescription! The drug company who made the pills! Immorality! Society!
And so on and so forth. Regardless of where the finger is pointed at, the message is clear: What a Shame, Shame, Shame?
Act Seven: We vow to remember the individual in their good, not bad, times. Their talent. What they gave to society. We buy their songs once again, watch their movies on repeat, and feel the loss. But of course, with a touch of shame.
Finally, Act Eight: After a period of time passes, correlated to how impacting we think the individual was, we move on. Loss becomes nostalgia. We eventually file the story under the Another One Bites the Dust folder.
What makes it so theatrical and why we are all always part of this spectacle, is the huge contradiction in it all. We romanticize the ‘tragic artist’. Glamorize the ‘perils of fame and success’. Yet simultaneously feel disgust and ashamed that such an individual could be so self-destructive. I thought they had it all! Why would he/she do that to themselves? We think it’s all about the famous people, the supremely talented or artistic people. Basically, those people.
But of course it’s not. And underlying that disgust is, of course, fear. If those that seemingly had it all could break so easily, what does that say for the rest of us? Of you and I?
I am really not talking about fame, success, talent, creativity, tragedy, misfortune, failure, drugs, alcohol, addiction, mental illness, negative environments, perfection, or about any ‘issues’. All of these things are not who we are, simply the things that form us. This is about the human condition. Our shared, universal and innate, human condition. The beauty that is instilled in us all. And the utter tragedy that we are all burdened with – death. All that makes life so fascinating. And so utterly devastating. That is what binds us.
And for a good, and biologically necessary, reason. If our ancestors didn’t run fast enough, choose the most fertile mate/s, or rear their offspring safely, then that not only equated to death, but the failure to carry one’s genes forward. These are the basic life instincts – survival, reproduction, pleasure, pain avoidance, human interaction and love. Mental or physical discomfort is generally antithetical to our evolutionary nature, which is ‘the pursuit of best wellbeing and viability’.
Though we currently may not be running away from predators, we sure are calculating, each and every day, a series of infinite questions and choices pertaining to our survival, wellbeing, and viability. I would like to posit that this is based on four core needs, or energies: the physical – sustainability; the emotional – security; the mental – self-expression; and the spiritual – significance.
Makes simple sense, right?
But it wouldn’t be called the human condition if there wasn’t an inherent problem involved. That is the contradiction we face while fighting for survival. Yes, we genetically strive to live and avoid pain, but the very act of doing so often creates that which we sought to avoid.
We can, simultaneously, act good, and often, great.
We are built for survival.
But have to face our surprising frailty.
We desire security and love.
But are burdened by guilt and sin.
We really want to do good.
But oh sooo often do bad.
It is this failure to achieve what we want, what we need, what our humanity requires, that causes all the pain, heartache, sorrow, grief, devastation, and for many, ultimate self-destruction.
Yet to add insult to already serious injury, we are very rational beings. Hence, when our actions don’t give us what we aimed to achieve, we ask Why? What did I do wrong? How do I make it right? And when we come against a brick wall that we have no control over, known as ‘the world’s stage’ as Shakespeare put it…well, therein lies a big problem.
To add further insult to already damaging injury, we will be confronted with this brick wall over, and over, and over again. That is the human condition.
But with the yin, comes the yang. Our repulsiveness is complimentary to our utter beauty. Our daylight requires the night darkness.
What we choose to do with this condition, how we chose to act upon it, and ultimately how we choose to let it shape us, is only up to us.
And it will be painful. It may actually destroy you. But it can also transcend you, bring true joy and happiness, and empower you beyond imagination.
“Nobody makes me do anything I don’t want to do,” said Whitney Houston, adding, “The biggest devil is me. I’m either my best friend or my worst enemy.” ABC News interview with Whitney Houston, 2002