A stirring piece about the tragic death of Phillip Seymour Hoffman appeared in this morning’s San Francisco Chronicle. In it, film critic Mick LaSalle writes, “With Hoffman, we never really knew what he was thinking—but we always understood that he was thinking, and that it was something interesting and mesmerizing and slightly out of reach.” This comment hit me hard. It also made me question why of all the recent deaths of talented actors, writers, and artists, Hoffman’s struck me as especially heartbreaking. After all, we lose a number of celebrities to drug addiction and alcoholism all the time. In the last few years alone, we’ve said goodbye to Whitney Houston, Heath Ledger, Brittany Murphy, Corey Monteith, and Amy Winehouse, to name just a few. All were supremely talented in their own right, but the news of Mr. Hoffman’s death felt profoundly different to me.
Phillip Seymour Hoffman was like a Mona Lisa in disguise. He exuded superior intelligence. Whether he was playing a devastatingly awkward gay man as Scotty J. in Boogie Nights or shedding his own skin to embody an obsessive writer in Capote, like Mona Lisa he seemed to possess an uncanny understanding of the human condition. Mr. Hoffman recognized the promise of the human race, but he understood the depth of our flaws more. He knew our secrets, our despair, our darkness. “One must assume this darkness was also within Hoffman himself and this disturbance was part of his gift,” LaSalle writes. “For sure he often exuded a lack of ease in his own skin, a submerged self-hatred. Was this real? One sensed it was, though perhaps it was just the movies. In any case, the quality of his intelligence was major, and unmistakable.”
Like most people, I have to ask why someone as brilliant and talented as Mr. Hoffman would give in to something as potentially lethal as heroin. He appeared acutely, agonizingly aware of how far a person could fall—why would he put himself at risk of descending to the point of no return? Was he tormented by the ghost of a role he’d played? Was he trying to heighten his creativity? He’d been sober for over two decades. He had a family. He had access to the best care in the world. What was just slightly out of reach for Mr. Hoffman himself?
I confess that I’ve long associated drug use and alcoholism with a weakness of the mind and spirit. Don’t get me wrong: I understand its appeal. For some, like my mother, it fills the void left behind by divorce and trauma. For others, it’s a way to self-medicate. But in my view it all boils down to a limitation of the mind. And Mr. Hoffman’s mind didn’t seem to lack any limitations. His brain appeared to operate on a different stratosphere altogether, and, if you believe in reincarnation, his expression on screen and off suggested that he had a soul thousands of years old.
Overdosing is another form of suicide when you get right down to it, and one has to wonder if Mr. Hoffman was intent on dying or just playing with fire. There are myriad reasons for why he turned to heroin, and for me to speculate on the why behind it any further than I already have would be foolish but I have to assume that it was due to psychological pain. I also have to wonder why someone as intelligent and emotionally perceptive as Mr. Hoffman wouldn’t instead dig deeper into the great mysteries of life and death, of what is impermanent and what is everlasting, to deal with his grief. I have to wonder why someone who appeared to have astonishing insight into the complexities of the human spirit failed in that moment to recognize and accept that joy and sorrow work in cycles, and that even the worst psychological pain can be overcome.
If there is any lesson to learn from this tragedy it is to ask ourselves how we can be stronger in the face of fear and despair. In my darkest moments, I’ve turned to my belief in a higher power. Illusory or trite as it may seem, I have faith in the notion that every stage of our life occurs for a reason, and that reason is more often than not spiritual growth. Some phases might be pleasurable. Some might be difficult and uncomfortable. Others might be dreadful. But each one empowers us, often in mystifying ways that don’t make sense for years. Trusting that has kept me float, and has carried me through seemingly unsurmountable challenges.
It’s staggering and devastating to consider what else Mr. Hoffman might have accomplished had he acknowledged the existence of these stages, had he acknowledged the old adage that this too shall pass. Think of the lives he could have touched; the indelible roles he could have continued to play.
In the wake of his death, Jim Carrey tweeted “For the most sensitive among us the noise can be too much.” May the rest of us find enough quiet in our minds to have faith in the cyclic nature of this bright and beautiful thing called life.