Nobody cares when someone on the street dies of a drug overdose, so why does everyone suddenly care about fat, rich, over-privileged Phillip Seymour Hoffman?
I have seen this question asked repeatedly on Facebook today, and I feel compelled to answer it.
To be fair, the same questions were asked when Corey Monteith of “Glee” died not too long ago. Personally, I was a little more bummed out after hearing about Hoffman, because he was one of my favorite actors. He was a great actor, a national treasure.
Full disclosure: My Facebook wall was not plastered with Phillip Seymour Hoffman pictures and quotes. I didn’t talk about him every day, maybe not even more than a few times out loud, but I absolutely loved watching him in Along Came Polly, Red Dragon, Almost Famous, The Big Lebowski, Twister, and most recently in Hunger Games: Catching Fire.
After hearing of his death, one of my first thoughts was, ‘I wonder what will happen with the character of Plutarch Heavensbee in the last installment of the Hunger Games, Mockingjay parts one and two?’ So yeah… I care. But I also care because another human being has died. And not just any person, but one I recognize and over the years have grown to appreciate though his work. No, I do not know everyone who dies in the street of a drug overdose or otherwise, but if I did know them, I would care. Maybe I would also talk about it on Facebook. I don’t know.
What I do know is that I see no reason to downgrade any human being’s suffering by talking down at it, as if it is some silly hysteria suffered collectively by the ignorant, gossip-hungry masses. I think that is detestable. And what’s worse, I see several of my peers who suffer from such similar afflictions trying to make themselves seem above the silliness of mourning a celebrity’s passing. I don’t think you’re cool because you don’t care about celebrities, and I don’t think people are un-cool because they do.
Celebrity gives us a common ground on which to stand and watch because we are all able to witness the same thing, the same life from a similar vantage point. When someone dies on the streets, we may pause and reflect for a second, then move on because we know little about this person. When a celebrity dies, we suddenly have a forum with lots of information and opportunities to raise awareness. It is a great opportunity for us to stop and ask a different question:
Why are these two insanely different classes of people — celebrity types and average, everyday Americans—dying in the exact same way?
And furthermore, “What can we do about it? How can we as a society help people with the information we have learned?”
I wonder what the family of Phillip Seymour Hoffman feels right now. What shock. What grief. I’m sure I have felt similar distress and sorrow when people that I personally knew and loved passed away unexpectedly, a couple of them from accidental drug overdoses. And I’m sure I would be horrified if anyone took it upon themselves to climb up on a soap box and tell others that it was stupid for them to mourn the passing of my loved one. So I hope I never make that mistake. And I hope I never fall into insanely arrogant thinking that I am above anyone who has everything but feels a powerful compulsion to screw it up by doing drugs.
I have felt that compulsion and it was awful. And I hated the things I was doing. And no one’s useless criticism ever made it better for me. The thing that made it better was people asking the right questions and doing things that were helpful. And now by the grace of God I am part of that class of people who do helpful things for powerless people, without petty, hurtful opinions. And I like to think that I have made a difference for some people, even though it’s impossible to reach them all. But I can say rest in peace Mr. Hoffman, Mr. Monteith, Miss. Houston, Mr. Jackson, Miss. Joplin, Mr. Farley, Mr. Cobain, Miss Winehouse, Mr. Presley, Mr. Ledger, Mr. Hendrix, Mr. Belushi, Miss Garland, Miss Monroe… I didn’t personally know you, but damn it, I enjoyed you, and some people truly loved you.