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.
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.