A Tale of Two Tragedies

Comments   3   Date Arrow  February 3, 2014 at 11:15pm   User  by joel

Yesterday was February 2nd, Super Bowl Sunday, and it began as most typical Sundays do. Got the kids up and moving to get ready for church, ended up running later than we wanted, went to worship, chatted with the Pastor, went to the class I’m helping with, listened to some good teaching on some early chapters in Genesis, talked with the lead teacher on what’s to come and options for which part I might take on next, collected the kids, chatted briefly with my buddy and his family about our clan invading their place to watch the game, went home for lunch.

Philip Seymour Hoffman

The kids got going on lunch bits in the dining room and Andi and I sat with ours on the couch; she worked on the week’s meal plan and I casually checked Facebook on my phone while we chatted. And of course, as many others did, I started to see lots of posts about Philip Seymour Hoffman’s death. I mentioned it to Andi, and to be honest neither one of us could place his name. With eight kids still at home, and work and school and church activities, we don’t really “get out” much, particularly for extra things like movies (with the ticket prices these days? gah). I keep somewhat abreast of what’s going on online, but that’s not the same as seeing pop culture news and forced preview commercials on TV. In general I’m okay with this.

And so the name Philip Seymour Hoffman didn’t really ring any bells for me. I’m sure I must have heard his name before, but looking back over his list on IMDB didn’t bring much to mind (“Cold Mountain”? I think we rented that one…). And yet here was this incredible outpouring of public grief over this guy, and the lamenting of the loss of such a tremendous talent in the midst of an openness about discussing his ongoing substance abuse troubles, clearly relevant given the circumstances of his death. And I found myself somewhat troubled, mildly wrestling with this seemingly ongoing story of celebrity and substance abuse and how we choose to regard people who are so great and so messed up at the same time. About how broken our culture is that creates and feeds a supportive environment like that. About how broken the industry makes these people and brings them to the point of “making it” and ruining their lives at the same time. About how broken we all are, when it really comes down to it, and if we’re honest we all know it. Nobody’s perfect, and how that plays out for you looks different than how that plays out for me, but we’re all there. We’ve all got junk we wish we didn’t, like chains we can’t quite keep off our ankles. Sometimes we think we’ve got them off for awhile. Sometimes life shoves them back on us; sometimes we find we’re putting them back on ourselves. But no matter how heavy or light those chains are, or how visible or hidden they are for any of us, they’re there. And so the reality is that we’re all in the same boat with Philip Seymour Hoffman, because, simply put, we’re all human. His gift, though tremendous, did not make him a better person just as his struggle, though serious, did not make him a worse person. Both showed his humanity.

There is a way out of the boat, it must be said, and it’s not death. There is a great deal of misunderstanding in our culture about what the Gospel actually teaches, and who the person of Jesus is, and what he really thinks of us in our junk and chains and mess of a boat. But for now suffice it to say that it’s a lot less like an angry or spiteful prosecutor and a lot more like the father in the story of the Prodigal Son. You should read it sometime.

Anyway, regardless of where that train of thought might lead any one of us, this was clearly a tragedy, though I don’t know about any “epic proportions”. Not because he wasn’t some superstar (which, as I understand it, he had no desire to be in any case), but because the grave is a great equalizer. He was a man with a fantastic talent, but he was after all a man. Still, he was in some sense a public figure, and the deaths of public figures always seem to have almost, dare I say, some non-human sense about them. That is, they don’t quite seem connected with…well, normal people. Normal people, the folks we know and talk to, are everyday people with everyday jobs (or not, these days), and we see their kids at school and church, and we bump into them at Costco. And when they’re sick we visit them, and we hold bridal showers and baby showers to celebrate life with them, and if they pass away we grieve with their families and bring them meals. Everyday life; nobody famous. The people we see on our TVs and movie screens feel like some sort of other, and though of course we know they’re human just like us, nonetheless when we find ourselves mourning their passing it’s…different, somehow. More often than not we’re really just mourning the loss of their gifts and talents; the visible, the public, what they meant to us in whatever way. When it comes right down to it we’re not really mourning the person; in truth, we can’t, because we didn’t really know them. Mourning the loss of a gifted actor we’ve seen in some great movies and would have loved to see more is not the same, cannot be the same, as grieving the loss of someone you just spent Christmas with, for example. It’s not the same; there’s a disconnect.

Well, these thoughts wandered around in my head for a bit that afternoon, but soon enough I was busy with other things. Stacking some firewood, spending some time with my son, watching the clock to be ready to head over to our friends’ house. Then around five o’clock, when I was done with other things and we were soon to be getting ready to leave, I sat down for a bit and skimmed Facebook and saw a sad post from a friend of mine. I met Laura online through the adoption community at least eight or nine years ago, and her post was about another mutual friend and adoptive mom. It turns out she had just heard that this mutual friend had tragically and unexpectedly lost her brother, and Laura (who’s a closer friend than I) seemed almost in shock, standing in the middle of Target and trying to process this news. Comments were starting to come in on her post with condolences, thoughts, prayers for the family, that sort of thing. And though this friend and I are not close, we are friends, and I felt a heaviness for her and her family. I knew at least that she lost a brother and her kids lost their uncle, and I assumed there was likely other extended family that would be grieving.

This news hit me harder and stayed with me longer than that of the actor earlier in the day, and even as we went to watch the game, my friend and her family were often in my thoughts. I wondered if they were geographically close or spread out, if they were able to grieve together, if they had friends sitting with them and holding them in their grief. I didn’t know any more details aside from Laura’s expression of shock, but didn’t want to pry and be nosy about the situation. I figured if details were appropriate to be shared at some point, they would be in due time.

Two tragedies, one public and disconnected, one private and personal. A gift esteemed, a brother loved. It wasn’t until this morning that the realization hit me, like a ton of bricks, that these two tragedies were in fact one and the same. I don’t mean philosophically — Phil was my friend’s brother. She’s got a picture up of the two of them together as happy teenagers. They’ve got other siblings. He’s got kids, three young ones, who just lost their daddy. And the enormity of the family’s loss compounded with the very painful public circumstances was almost overwhelming to ponder. I know grief, and I know losing loved ones. But I can’t imagine what they’re going through with something like this, and I hope and pray they’re finding ways to disconnect from all the public media chatter and simply spend time comforting each other and grieving together.

To my friend, and the Hoffman family, I am so deeply sorry for this painful loss. I pray that God would give you comfort as you grieve and remember Phil.

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  • #1.   Skip 02.04.2014

    Nice and even touching post. Thank you. However, I’m a little dismayed that although you were able to “break” a celebrity down to “being human (a man as you put it) after all, you completely failed to recognize the fact that, regardless of his star status, he was definitely someone’s son, could easily have been someone’s brother, possibly an uncle, a husband and a father. He most definitely had friends, from his current life and back to his childhood who would be mourning in a very non-public way.

    So whether the death is being consumed by the media or not, that person more likely than not has a family that has just suffered a great loss. You began by being all about your family and your Sunday routine, to which I applaud you, the world needs more of that, but to completely discount the fact that a famous person has passed and it’s shameful that the media is all over the loss for false pretense is a tragedy in itself. For you to not be connected enough to recognize him as a man but fail to see there would be someone somewhere that loved him and was suffering the personal loss, not the general public’s talent loss is pretty ignorant.

    I only ask you to look inside and find your disconnect to compassion and understanding. Something that this “Jesus” of yours has been preached and taught to many to have had in spades.

    I am glad to know though you found your way to recognize the personal tragedy suffered by many as the friend of a friend connection was made. It’s a start.


  • #2.   Offended 02.04.2014

    This was absolutely offensive. Phil was a real person. He had 3 kids who he loved more than life. He was a teacher, a supporter of young artists, and an incredible citizen. Yes, he was famous. Yes, he had a drug addiction. But that drug addiction was one he was fighting against for 23 years. It began years before he became famous. And to be clear, he never set out to be famous. He set out to be an professional artist – God however chose him to be an artist that the world needed to see and know. Yes, in the end, he relapsed. He thought he could fight the disease on his own but failed. But that’s not because of celebrity. It’s not because of the culture we live in. Your post sets out to make people feel guilty that they’re mourning an artist who touched their lives. But as artists, that’s what we set out to do. We give up financial stability and security because we think this is important. We create art to either help people momentarily escape their pains or to create work to let them know they aren’t so alone in those pains. And just because you don’t happen to know this particular artist, you thought it to be okay to make people feel bad for grieving for him. Well, as a person who knew Phil, who saw him with his children and his friends, as a person who got to witness the man in real life, I say shame on you for trying to make anyone feel less for mourning ANYONE, celebrity or not. Who we care about and who we grieve for is not something to be critiqued. As a fellow Christian, I’m embarrassed and ashamed by your post. As a person in mourning for their friend, I’m offended you felt the need to dismiss this “actor” because “the name Philip Seymour Hoffman didn’t really ring any bells” for you. Please keep this in mind the next time you need to share your thoughts about someone else’s passing (especially in the hours directly after they’ve passed in which their family and friends would be scouring things like the internet to hear stories about their loved one)

  • #3.   joel 02.05.2014

    I must say I am deeply saddened that my words have offended and caused you more pain; I hope you can at least accept my word that this was far from my intention. And I had no desire to make people feel bad or somehow less for grieving Phil; I don’t know why anyone would want to make someone feel bad for grieving, and I’m not sure how that came across that way. I was just trying to reflect on how there seems to be a difference in how we grieve for public figures vs. people to whom we have a personal connection. The whole point I was going for was to try to show that this is a mistake, that we often don’t give enough thought to the very real pain that close families and friends are going through. And please don’t get me wrong — the loss of an artistic gift is very real, and not to be minimized or overlooked. But it’s only one part of the person, and that’s often (understandably, of course) all the public has to go on for public figures. What we need is more stories like yours, and John Baynes’, and the picture the family posted today of the time he was a counselor for inner city Boston kids. It’s that very real, everyday humanity that you knew and loved that often goes missing in the typical media coverage. I was merely trying to show my own realization of that fact when my own distant connection made me suddenly see what I was at first overlooking. Again, I am so very sorry for your loss, and for my clumsy words adding to your pain. I hope and pray you can find comfort in the days and weeks to come.

    This may sound like an odd thing to say at this point, but there’s a decent chance I’ll be in NYC at some point in the next couple of weeks. If you’re willing, I’d seriously love to buy you coffee and listen to any stories you’d like to share about the person Phil was to the people who knew and loved him. If you’re not interested I of course understand, but if you’re open feel free to drop me an email. You can reach me at blog-at-joel.fouse.net .

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