The latest news of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s death, and clearly his last days, calls out a reminder.
It’s easy to believe such an addict is a party-loving hedonist. A self-obsessed pleasure junkie seduced by a lifestyle as much as a drug. Sure such an addict exists. But that archetype is simply a template of a deeper human tragedy.
My grandfather was an opium addict. Paregoric killed him far before I was born, and my novel, She-Rain, became the shovel that let me dig into his life. The book cut me an entryway into the grave that was his spiritual tragedy. His life became an opiate-walled tomb long before he lay for his last breath. No, I’m not twaddling around making excuses for him. He’s accountable for his premature death. He’s responsible for not living to hold his grandson. But the writing spade me into his humanity. In his brokenness, each of us can see some portion of our own frailty.
In She-Rain, I sought to illustrate the tragic folly of trying to incubate a life in a syringe. But much more than this, the book reveals the humanity of every addict, and everyone wounded at the point of that needle.
She-Rain is haunted by this, and more. In the book, the son of that opium addicted father believes he sees his father’s ghost on a roadside. He’s sure he hears the resurrected man whisper, “You belong, son.”
I never got to hear my grandfather say such to me. He died an addict nearly bereft of his great human dignity. But writing of him in a work of fiction, I hear his voice, and a truth he never understood for himself until it was too late. Those words “You belong” remind me I belong to real life, not despair and tragedy and indignity. I believe the spirit of my granddad knows now, beyond this mortal world, he belonged to something greater than he could see. He needed no numbing opiate to achieve peace after all.
And so it is with Philip Seymour Hoffman. In him we find giant of a talent and a haunting to match. Now it’s reported he wrote, in a set of diaries found in his apartment, of being plagued by demons. So this sets me to wondering. As a grandson and son of addicts, I wonder, do addicts think themselves alone? Tragically so? Do they live in a self-imposed exile, deeming themselves different from the world? Set apart from a humanity that will never understand the sufferings ghosting around in them? I believe their demons are the same ones after us all — perfectionism, shame, old malice, rusting dents of childhood and the ever renewing sense of never being good enough. Perhaps because they can’t be vulnerable enough to share their ghosts with the world, they turn to the likes of heroin, or gin. They graffiti the psyche until the authentic self is painted over. My granddad had his own devils, and hiding them with a spray of paregoric cost him, everything, long before that last breath. I believe in the weeks before he died, he scarcely recognized his image in a mirror or even the thoughts of his own mind.
After I posted an RIP tribute to Philip Seymour Hoffman, I heard from a woman who knew of Philip’s kindness, his apparently gentle way with the world, his refusal to let celebrity and giftedness give him amnesia of where he came from. There was enormous goodness in the man, clearly. Yes, a man in need of tough love, that he was. But those who believe condemnation of the man is the only stout brand of tough love show weakness, not strength. They prove condemnation is an addiction all its own. I heard from one of those condemning personality types, as well. I believe that person is perhaps Hoffman in reverse — deeming his demons lesser, not greater, than those of the souls around him.
So I write this in hope — the steely muscle of it. I hope Philip’s children, his partner, all who loved him hear the words “You belong.” You belong to a life carried on an updraft, far upward of the cesspool life and death in which your beloved was found. Your Philip was not your problem to solve, and you do not belong to his inner torments. He chose his elixirs that kill and denied all of us his enormous God-granted gifts that were to be. Be angry with him, for a time. But resist the drugs of pride and bravado and unforgivenness. Don’t take them, expecting hurt to diminish, or authentic strength to rise. Authentic strength is found in true vulnerability, radical and daring love — yes, even of the self.
In this, may we all hear, and live by, the words, “You belong.” Authentic strength is born of the humility that says we are a common humanity with an uncommon God, to whom we all belong, after all.