I was hit hard by the news of the tragic death Philip Seymour Hoffman earlier this week.
I have always been a huge fan of a man I believe to be in his own class of actors, with the ability to lose his identity into diverse characters, to convey emotion and bring meaning to what would otherwise be flat dialog and stage direction. I am not lost on the weird idea of average people mourning for celebrities with whom we have no direct relationship other than the one created by film and media, but we are human, and our emotions are not always (rarely in fact) ruled by rational thought.
Philip Seymour Hoffman truly blew me away in the magnificent film by Paul Thomas Anderson, Magnolia. His understated performance as the nurse caring for Earl Partridge (Jason Robards) on his deathbed was compelling to say the least. An unglamorous role, he brought a grounding to a story about complicated relationships that demonstrate the darkness in people but does not necessarily mean they are devoid of humanity. I love this movie.
I actually just started crying watching this scene.
I was also thrilled when Hoffman was recognized for his work in the film Capote. Aside from his superb performance as the brilliant American writer, it is also the story behind In Cold Blood, on my top ten list of best books. Again, this story examines evil and forces us to ask if reprehensible and unpardonable actions also make the people who perpetrate them devoid of any good.
Over the past week, I was stunned to read so much commentary on the Internet denouncing the collective mourning of Philip Seymour Hoffman, the theme being that he deserved what he got because he abused drugs. Life must be a wonderful place when you are in a position to sit in judgement of others, when right and wrong are so clearly delineated as black next to white. In my world, I see so many different colors, blends, hues, I’ve almost never been able to categorize the complexity of human behavior into simple categories of good or bad.
But this problem is far deeper than the natural human desire to judge. It stems from a misunderstanding of what Hoffman, and so many like him, suffered. Our society must start to recognize that addiction is a disease. Addition is met with shame and blame, as are so many other mental disorders, that are genuine chemical functions of our bodies. For those who suffer from addiction, depression, anxiety, among many other diseases, it is not simply because they are weak, or lazy, or ignorant, or reckless.
Those of us fortunate enough to not be afflicted by the disease of addiction, read Russel Brand’s brilliant piece in the Guardian about the mind of an addict. Brand, who I consider to be an incredibly articulate person, writes frequently for Britain’s The Guardian. He also penned a piece this week following Hoffman’s death in which he asks us:
Would Hoffman have died if this disease were not so enmeshed in stigma? If we weren’t invited to believe that people who suffer from addiction deserve to suffer? Would he have OD’d if drugs were regulated, controlled and professionally administered? Most importantly, if we insisted as a society that what is required for people who suffer from this condition is an environment of support, tolerance and understanding.
Sympathy, however, is a value that can be taught, and offering it to those who suffer is a practice people can learn. Worse than coping with a disease is dealing with the ignorant masses who then tell you that you deserve to suffer all its horror because you brought it on your self. I’ve yet to meet such a perfect human with perfect genetics who can afford to be without empathy for those who are dealing with an illness.