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Pondering Philip Seymour Hoffman

Philip Seymour Hoffman’s tragic death has stayed with me. I have both puzzled over it and mourned it for days now. Famously gifted, endlessly busy with wonderful acting projects, the father of three sweet children, rewarded with plenty of financial resources—and yet, a deep need or perhaps craving, allowed him to test a dark path of self destruction.

Even the most talented of us, those seemingly delighted with their well-earned success, people beaming with what appears to be the things we all want, can still have a profound inner restlessness that desperately eclipses achievements, awards, blessings, and all good things.

I saw a Facebook post where a minister was reflecting about Hoffman. It was an attempt to deal with his death in some sort of religious terms. Someone commented on the piece by stating, insensitively in my opinion, that Hoffman's life ended the way it did because "he didn't have Jesus in his life.”

I find myself exhausted by such banality; as though someone with “Jesus in his life” is exempt from self destruction. I’m sorry but this kind of simplistic Sunday school religion is not useful in times of profound loss however sincere it is meant to be.

There are many Christians today who need to move beyond bromides and feckless ideas about life and death if they expect their beliefs to be taken seriously. Someone as emotionally intricate as Philip Seymour Hoffman cannot be explained by simplistic pious notions such as he was just without Jesus.

And the truth is, none of us can be understood that simply. We’re all more complicated than that.

Philosopher and law professor at New York University, Thomas Nagel, has written: “The point is…to live one’s life in the full complexity of what one is, which is something much darker, more contradictory, more of a maelstrom of impulses and passions, of cruelty, ecstasy, and madness, than is apparent to the civilized being who glides on the surface and fits smoothly into the world.”

This is more precisely how Hoffman lived his life. He reflected so honestly in his acting the inner turmoil, the unanswered questions, the sorrows and regrets, the unhealed pain, the treacherous urges and allurements that often pressed upon him. 

There is integrity in living our flaws, in refusing to pretend we are without our own emotional and personal entanglements and issues.

Besides that, none of us really know all of the secrets of others. Every one of us carries incidents, experiences, moments, memories no one else knows anything about. These things make trite explanations of our behavior or our life by strangers, empty, and worse, just harebrained.

Nigerian novelist, Chris Abani, has referred in his writings to a South African phrase called “Ubuntu,” which basically means, “The only way to be human is for you to reflect my humanity back at me.”

Isn’t that so much of what acting is all about? And Philip Seymour Hoffman was one of those actors who did it brilliantly. 

The ancient mystics had a saying, “Regard mistakes as teachers, not judges!”

Philip Seymour Hoffman offered that wisdom both in his life and in his death. And neither his life nor his death can be dismissed with easy explanations.

© 2014 Timothy Moody

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