Seeger and Hoffman: Lessons on Being Brilliant
Last Sunday evening, my dad and I were listening to the Almanac Singers, a group Pete Seeger was a part of in the 1940’s. There was a feeling of reverence in the air as we discussed his life and music. I had grown up listening to dad’s old LPs of The Weavers as well as Seeger’s solo albums. When I heard Monday morning that he had died in the night of natural causes at the age of 94, I felt a sweet kind of sadness. It was like finishing an achingly gorgeous novel, wishing there was more, but having been fairly warned by the bookmark as it made its steady march toward the last page.
I dreamed this Saturday night of an ancient graveyard with a huge clock right at the entrance. Yeah, my subconscious mind is pretty direct. The dream was detailed and vivid, leaving me with a strong sense of how transitory life is.
The dew of this dream clung to me throughout Sunday, so that the news of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s death of a drug overdose really struck me.
I first noticed Hoffman in the movie Magnolias. I searched the credits at the end to find the name of the chubby towhead who took my breath away. His body of work, more than 50 films and possibly as many plays, is well detailed elsewhere. With a young family and a business to run, I rarely find time to watch movies. I can’t list all of his work or even claim to have seen most of it. But I can testify that Hoffman was extraordinary enough to consistently pierce my veil of busyness, to get me to sit down for two hours and just be human. I know that when I watch one of his movies I will undergo something that is more experience than entertainment, that I will encounter some new part of myself in his performance.
Unlike the graceful ending to Seeger’s story, the passing of 46-year-old Hoffman was like a needle scratching rudely across a record album, or one of those film noir scenes of ultra-happening speakeasies being raided as the musicians stop playing and harsh lights instantly turn glamour into shame.
I didn’t want to feel this loss, and my defenses jumped right in to distance me from it. I heard them say, “That’s not the world I live in. It’s very sad, but just about as meaningful to me as this big football game everyone’s going on and on about. It’s another news item.”
One thought slipped in under the door, though. It was a tweet from Jim Carrey: “Dear Philip, a beautiful beautiful soul. For the most sensitive among us the noise can be too much. Bless your heart.” Carrey’s words kept me just open enough to allow the possibility of exploring what Hoffman’s death meant to me.
Many of my social media friends talked about how senseless it was. One commentator suggested that a brisk walk with a good dog was all the high anyone could need. We have all kinds of opinions about other people’s lives. But neither I nor the dog walker have a right to judge the choices of a man whose only relationship to us was that he gave us a precious gift, that he bared his soul so we could see it.
Haven’t we all been figuratively in that bathroom with the needle in our arm?
When I’m at work on a tough project there can be anything from a stack of used tea bags to a bunch of carrot “bellybuttons” strewn about. In the old days it was more like coffee cups and empty cookie bags. I also become obsessive about choosing the perfect size and color of my fonts and getting just the right degree of shading on my graphics. Food and perfectionism numb me when I’m facing potential failure or (even scarier) greatness.
Brené Brown in the audio version of The Power of Vulnerability confesses that she watched eight hours of Downtown Abby after reading some unflattering online comments about her looks. She then continued the numbing fest by Googling historic references in the series.
At times, we’ve all chosen to postpone the moment when we’ll experience our feelings or step into our full potential. It leaves me crestfallen that Hoffman used such a deadly numbing agent. But let’s not cluck our tongues at his situation as if it’s something that wouldn’t happen to us. I’m lucky I can’t immediately die of a sugar or caffeine overdose, and I’m equally lucky that my self-medication isn’t the topic of nationwide speculation.
What rises to the top here are not the tragic, embarrassing circumstances that ended Hoffman’s life or the other occasions when he sought escape. What comes shining brilliantly forth are the many times he did not run, the countless instances when he was still enough and brave enough to allow his talent to overtake him.
As saintly as Pete Seeger was, I’m sure he numbed himself on occasion. That his self-medication was less lethal and apparently less frequent than Hoffman’s doesn’t change the unifying lesson of both men’s lives. If you’re brave enough to show up fully to your destiny, you will leave a worthy legacy no matter how long you live.
Will you truly show up to work today? Can you be brave enough to breathe into the fear and excitement of being completely present in creating your work? I’m taking that deep, scary breath right along with you.
Thank you Pete and Philip.