Saying Goodbye to Philip Seymour Hoffman

I have been feeling haunted by the death of Philip Seymour Hoffman ever since I heard the news on the car radio that Sunday afternoon a few weeks ago. At first I was incredulous, then angry at the waste of such a life. And then came sadness along with realizing he was only a few years older than my children. And now this, unable to get him from my thoughts.

It’s not as though we were friends. Like almost everyone, I knew him only through his films, an actor who dared to play characters who were not only complex, but could be downright unlikable, willing to explore the depths of our humanity in ways that most of us would not. As an artist, it seems there wasn’t much that could scare him off.

What did frightened him, though, and to death, it seems, was the day-to-day reality of his own life.

There is no end of talk about his unhappiness and personal troubles and the power of addiction and the tragedy of loss, as if this was no more than one man’s struggle with demons he could not overcome. In a way, of course, it was, and not just the drugs and alcohol. But what haunts me is something more than that. It’s what a friend of mine said a few days after, that Philip Hoffman “was a canary in the mine.”

One of the dangers of coal mining is the presence of explosive methane gas. Miners used to take canaries in cages down into the mines, because the birds were more sensitive than humans and would keel over and die before the gas reached dangerous levels.

Philip Seymour Hoffman found his inner life so hard to live that he needed to escape, to be someone or somewhere else, which he did through the consuming pace of his work and, when that was not enough, with alcohol and prescription pain killers and, finally, heroin.

Shortly after I heard the news, it occurred to me how many tens of thousands of people die in this way every year, or, even more, the millions who are living some version of it. All kinds of people, including brilliant artists, but whom we never hear about because they are not famous. And yet they all have one thing in common. They find it too difficult, too painful, or too empty to be aware of their own lives from one moment to the next. They want only to be distracted, numb, high, stoned, or wrecked—anywhere but here and now and who they are.

Which brings me to the question I have not heard asked in the sad conversations about Philip Seymour Hoffman—in what kind of world would so many people want so badly to escape their own lives?

How do we understand the ubiquity of alcohol and drugs being used to dull the pain of loneliness and not belonging and self-doubt and living lives in which it is hard to see the point?

What do we make of a society in which distraction and oblivion are destinations, where a day or an evening or so much as an hour alone in silence with ‘nothing to do’ and no constant stream of outside stimulation is an intolerable condition in need of a fix, whether it’s to be found in the refrigerator or online or the television or the latest text or bit of cable news or, for that matter, at the end of a needle?

I sit in an airport or walk across a college campus or visit a coffee shop, and I see people staring at little screens or talking to someone they cannot see, and I wonder if they have any idea of where they are, who is sitting next to them, what color is the sky, what is happening all around them. If I took out a knife and began to cut myself, how long would it take for them to notice?

It’s not as though this is about everyone but me. Decades ago, when I was much younger, there was a time when I made use of marijuana on a fairly regular basis. I remember liking it a lot, getting stoned, feeling out of time, everything okay, even when I was not. But after a year or so, I stopped, because I began to miss myself, my presence in my own life. I grew tired of the isolation of oblivion, even in the company of another.

I don’t know why it came to me as it did or why I was able to make the change, but it left behind a vivid sense of the difference between being here and not.

And yet, like everyone else, I still can feel the seductive pull of all the inducements and ways this culture offers up to escape the painful reality of the world as it is by taking myself somewhere other than where I am. It is a growth industry, in which we are daily exhorted to invest our lives.

How many ways are there to make small talk about the weather without considering where climate change is taking us as we speak, toward a world we not only will not recognize, but that may have no place for our kind?

How many ways are there to depend on an economic system that is based on unrestrained recklessness and greed and still tell ourselves that somehow everything will be okay?

How many ways are there to imagine that friendship and intimacy and community can be found at the ends of our thumbs or with the click of a mouse?

How many ways can we pretend that the past does not matter or even exist, that a country owned and ruled by a small elite can still be a democracy, that there is no such thing as excess, no limit to growth, or that death is a failure that is not supposed to happen?

I know, it is all too much. We feel overwhelmed. And so did he.

There is a photograph of him sitting in a plane coming home this one last time. Apparently he was so drunk that he was all but unconscious, head down, beyond caring if anyone saw or even pulled out a camera to record the moment. There were several such sightings in the last day or so of his life, people noting that he was high or drunk or otherwise not himself. At risk. And now, looking back, how can we not wonder why no one intervened, why he could not be saved.

And I have imagined a moment that fatal night when suddenly he realized that he was dying, all alone, and that he could not take it back, that it was too late.

Oh, no.

What haunts me is that he was, like so many others, a canary in the same mine that we all inhabit. We may tell ourselves all the ways that we are different, but if you put us all together, stand back and see where the whole thing is going, well, he does fit right in, doesn’t he.

I imagine some observer, from another time or planet, perhaps, watching the humans as we go about what we take to be our lives, an observer snapping photographs—

Here they are, the human beings, busybusybusy, always in motion, in varying degrees of numb, drunk, high, or stoned, distracted or obsessed, estranged from the pulse of silence, the illuminating heart of stillness, the restorative power of sleep, oblivious to their condition, everywhere the signs of discontent and fear and unhappiness, medicating their pain and the fear of pain, the possibility of pain, in pursuit of what can never be enough and so wanting to escape or disappear, if only for a little while, they tell themselves, thinking they are just going home or off to work or school or shopping or to have some fun or sitting down to dinner, the tv going on and on in the background of their minds, all the while with no time to step back and see where this is going. How sad that no one saw, that no one spoke, or not enough of them, or were dismissed or ignored until it was too late. You would think the signs would be unmistakable, impossible to miss. And yet, now, look where they have come.

It is hard for me to say goodbye to Philip Seymour Hoffman, not because I knew him, which I did not, but because it means accepting the reality that he is really gone and that whatever sustaining power there was in the sweet and brilliant soul that he brought to this life, it was not enough.

And it means being reminded that yet one more canary has by its death sounded the alarm, and that we who remain are still deep in the mine.


If you liked this post, you might also want to read “Collecting Silence.”

5 responses to “Saying Goodbye to Philip Seymour Hoffman

  1. Anne Batterson Friday, February 14, 2014 at 9:43 am

    Very thoughtful and disturbing post. We cannot choose our particular reality, so it seems, no matter how hard we try.

  2. Susan Bradley Friday, February 14, 2014 at 11:06 am

    After I read this, I sat for a moment in silence, and the song by Holly Near ‘It Could Have Been Me’ came to mind. While the details vary, perhaps the “fight for freedom” can also be the recognition of denial and repression. Thank you Allan.

  3. Amanda Udis-Kessler Friday, February 14, 2014 at 3:58 pm

    This is a marvelous post. I wonder whether a future post might address the connection between the horrific impacts of all kinds of inequality on all of us and our temptations to numb out or go elsewhere in our heads because the impacts of inequality are so soul-destroying.

  4. Andrew Wednesday, February 19, 2014 at 8:23 pm

    I have recently started picking my kids up from school. From the start I would stand by myself and smile and try to look available for conversations, but no one would talk to me. When I mentioned this to a mentor, I was challenged to be the one who is brave, to initiate interaction, to meet people and be in the present, enjoying their company and listening to their stories. Such a concept challenged my long-held beliefs about my self-worth. But it was the kick in the pants I needed. My mentor has a smiling warmth and I want what he has. I took the challenge and have walked up to anyone who looks available for a chat. I found that there is nothing to be afraid of and a lot to be gained.

    The world needs more people brave enough to meet people anywhere, anytime and to dissolve loneliness. We need to recover the art of friendship. The ones who can see the ‘canary in the coalmine’ are maybe the ones best placed to start this, but we are also the ones who need a kick in the pants because of our own self doubt that we could really make a difference. Don’t be afraid. People aren’t as scary as all that.

  5. Suzanne Thursday, May 12, 2016 at 8:37 pm

    Your post resonated deeply with me. I couldn’t help but see a link between an implicit societal malaise with disingenuous connection, loneliness, reality we can barely endure and the modern trend towards exhibitionism and voyeurism. I see this exhibitionism and voyeurism expressed in the endless stream of reality shows and the posting of millions of self-made videos on a host of social media websites. I sense that the exhibitionism and voyeurism is a kind of self mutilation of the soul, a way to feed an insatiable hunger for that “15 minutes of fame”, for that illusive viral status, that signal from others that you “mean” something, that you’re not just one more bag of flesh in an infestation of 6 billion other. A hunger that I suspect is just one more symptom of that canary in a coal mine. As that blip of faux-meaning comes and goes, I wonder if it leaves a hollow empty feeling, worse than before. For some, that hole can only be filled with another blip.

    I wonder what effect this will have on the children who, at very early ages, are exposed without their consent, to be viewed by millions of strangers. When they are grown up how will they feel about that video that often shows them unmasked, innocent and at their most vulnerable? I find it ironic that we fiercely guard our privacy on the one hand and disrespect it so blatantly on the other.

    Based on his brilliant portrayal of complex characters, I imagine that Mr. Seymour-Hoffman was intimately acquainted with the challenges of balancing the tensions between private and public life, his art and real life, people he knew and people who knew him. How can those tensions not corrode a soul?

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