My wife and I were watching Saturday Night Live when NBC broke the news that Whitney Houston had died. Other than the time and place of her death, no other details were given. And, truthfully, we didn’t need any other details to have an inkling of what had happened. Just as with the announcement of Michael Jackson’s passing, we had all watched Whitney slide into her downward spiral.
I was in High School when “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” started airing on MTV. I’m sure everyone has seen it. Think about what we see there: one can’t help but see the pure joy of someone exercising an incredible, God-given talent. In fact, that’s another MJ parallel–it reminds me of watching little Michael Jackson performing with the Jackson 5.
At that point, everything seemed to be marvelous, maybe even magical, for Whitney. Her career, both singing and acting, was stellar. She had “fame, fortune and everything that goes with it”. Unlike MJ though, she came from a nurturing family. She didn’t start out as a child star (with all of the attendant problems), and she always appeared to be very comfortable with who she was. So what happened?
We always assumed it was Bobby Brown: that he had dragged her down with him. “Perhaps she thought she could change him,” my wife commented the other day. Now there are reports coming out that her drug abuse began before she ever met the self-styled ‘King of New Jack Swing’, that it was just kept under wraps. For two people that always seemed so unalike, perhaps the drugs are what they ultimately had in common. Perhaps it was no coincidence that Whitney was always singing about unconditional love and dramatic rescue – she was dying to believe in/experience the, um, ‘Greatest Bodyguard of All’.
It reminds me of the 1962 film, “Days of Wine and Roses,” which tragically portrayed the life, romance, and downward spiral of an alcoholic man and woman. Like Joe (played by Jack Lemmon) and Kirsten (played by a young and quite pretty Lee Remick), perhaps the glue that held Bobby and Whitney together was the addiction itself. And like the slow-motion trainwreck of their life together, which was often played out in the public eye, the movie is at times quite difficult to watch. What a horrible metaphor for life!
And yet, there go I…and there go you, too, without intervention from the outside. At the 2011 Birmingham Conference, David Zahl referred to this as “life as impasse”–that this impasse is where we actually live our lives, yet we delude ourselves into thinking we actually have control of it. The truth is, we’re never in control. We never were.
There are two paintings by Thomas Cole that illustrate this concept remarkably well. They’re from his series, “Voyage of Life”. The second and third of the series are the ones to which I’m referring. First, consider “Youth”:
This is what we enter adulthood thinking that life is like. The young man is firmly in control of his destiny, with his hand on the tiller, pointing straight for the castle in the sky. God’s representative, the angel, is waving and wishing him well as he heads for his dreams. (This was me at age 22!).
And this is the way in which we like to envision life at times even in middle and I would dare to venture in old age. We want to think that we’re at the wheel, firmly in control of our fate. But take a closer look at the background just over the angel’s left shoulder. It turns out that the river of life isn’t headed for the castle in the sky. Instead, it makes a hard right toward rocks and rapids. This is what we see in “manhood”:
This is a very visual, disturbing rendition of the impasse that is human life. The rudder is gone, all control of the little boat is gone as well. The man is praying, begging for help from God, as the rapids are upon him, threatening to tear him and his little boat to pieces. God’s representative is still there, but he can’t see her. All he can see are the rocks, the danger.
This is the impasse, and unfortunately, it’s a pretty accurate description of life. We live constantly in this impasse, we just don’t see it because we fool ourselves into only seeing our delusions. And in the times that we can’t make them work, the times in which the mask is off and the impasse is right in front of us, those are often the times we see God most clearly, because those are the times we tend to go looking for Him.
And here’s what keeps me awake at night: if Whitney (or Michael Jackson, or take your pick!) with all of her fame and good fortune can’t escape the impasse, then I can’t either! In his Easter 2009 sermon, Paul Zahl made reference to a Bob Dylan song called “Series of Dreams”, in which Dylan sings,
And the cards are no good that you’re holding
Unless they’re from another world
The point is that each of us are “playing the hand we were dealt” in life, and doing the best we can with it. But the cards themselves are such that they will never add up, they’ll never be enough. If the hand Whitney was dealt wasn’t enough, with her talent, beauty, money and fame, then nothing in this world could possibly be enough.
So, like the man in the painting, we must look to another:
Come unto me, all ye that travail and are heavy laden, and I will refresh you.