For a long time I have been taken with Whitney Houston’s 2009 video of her song, “I Look to You.” I often return to it for some kind of connection which I’m really not sure of. I think it must be her vulnerability. Or mine. And there is something that feels so fragile about her in this one. I feel compassion when I watch it.
The video has a simple setting. She begins in shadows sitting in a chair. As the song opens soft light reveals her in a flowing silk dress. Her head is bowed. Her features troubled. And though her face is luminous, there is weariness in her eyes.
She sings, “As I lay me down/Heaven hear me now/I’m lost without a cause/After giving it my all/Winter storms have come/And darkened my sun/After all that I’ve been through/Who on earth can I turn to?/I look to you”
The most awarded female performer of all time, according to Guinness World Records, she nevertheless often lived a life tormented by inner urges she could not control, by an injured soul that would not heal. Addicted to cocaine, her behavior often spiraled into erratic helplessness. She was late to interviews, missed appointments, cancelled concerts and television appearances. She often experienced dramatic weight loss and had problems maintaining a healthy routine. Her significant relationships were for years a mess.
Behind the stunning smile, the perfect makeup, the expensive clothes, the elaborate sets, the spectacular talent, the endless success, the abundance of money and the luxurious lifestyle, was a lonely woman caught in addiction and despair.
We forget sometimes that celebrities are actual human beings, no different from the rest of us, apart from the money they make and the things they possess.
It is not what we own but what owns us that determines how our life unfolds, where it goes, what it means. Whitney Houston seemed owned by terrible needs she could not fulfill, by emotional hurts and secret pain she could not share. Except perhaps, at times, in her music.
“About to lose my breath/There’s no more fighting left/Sinking to rise no more/Searching for that open door/And every road that I’ve taken/Led to my regret/And I don’t know if I’m gonna make it/Nothing to do but lift my head/I look to you”
Some will say this song is a sort of prayer to God. At the beginning of the video a shaft of bright light beams down on her. She looks up raising her open hands to the sky. It looks very worshipful; the devotion of a humble petitioner. Somehow though the words don’t match all the bright splendor of the set. If you listen to them, if you watch her expression, particularly at the beginning of the song, it is not worship or praise that is going on. It is pleading. It is a cry for help. And probably not to God but to family, to friends, to some human presence who truly cares. That’s really how God comes to us anyway, through people.
You don’t have to be Whitney Houston, a star of fortune and fame, to know these feelings, to endure deep pain, to wrestle with questions of self worth, to cringe under the forces of shame and go to one’s knees brokenhearted and alone.
“My levee’s have broken/My walls have come crumbling down on me/The rain is falling/Defeat is calling/I need you to set me free/Take me far away from the battle/I need you/Shine on me”
We need others in life who understand us. Just one or two people who get who we are and are okay with us. And we need to be that person to others.
Yes, we also need to love ourselves and find the inner strength to look to our own abilities. But no amount of inner healthiness, no level of self confidence, ever removes the need and the want to be loved by another person. And to be loved for who we are not who they or someone else wants us to be.
We suspect that celebrities are loved by so many. But often, they are some of the loneliest, most emotionally dysfunctional people on earth, in so much need of having someone love them for their personhood not their performance skills.
A woman in one of Paul Coelho’s novels says, “All my life, I thought of love as some kind of voluntary enslavement. Well, that’s a lie: freedom only exists when love is present. The person who gives himself or herself wholly, the person who feels the freest, is the person who loves most wholeheartedly.”
“Freedom only exists when love is present.” That’s the freedom I think Whitney Houston was looking for. She tried to find it in success, in drugs, even in her incredible talent. But it’s never really there. It’s always found in another person. Someone who welcomes us just as we are. That love helps us let go of all the things that keep us in our pain. It frees us to love ourselves and others, too.
Sadly, Whitney Houston never found it. Many don’t. To be loved is life’s greatest gift. All of us need it, and all of us deserve it. It is what makes us truly human.
© 2013 Timothy Moody