The first time I realized Philip Seymour Hoffman was astonishing was when I saw the movie Magnolia. In it he plays the character of a nurse named Phil Parma. Phil has been charged with caring for an elderly man dying of brain cancer. As is the case with so many nurses, Phil goes far beyond the call of duty, and attempts to connect the dying man with his prodigal son. It is a beautiful movie about the desperate pain and honesty of the human condition. And it seems appropriate that in remembering the life of Philip Seymour Hoffman, I think of this compassionate character first.
I suppose the second thing that comes to mind is addiction. As a hospital chaplain I happen to work floors where addiction is regular part of a patient’s illness. Often it is alcohol. Or cocaine. Many times it has been intravenous drugs. Up until this point in my life I had not known anyone who was addicted to drugs like heroin. Or at least they had never told me about their struggle. I am ashamed to admit that it felt like a distant thing that happened to people who made poor life choices.
That quickly changed after a few weeks of serving the patients of my hospital. People have many platitudes of illness they use to dismiss their own pain or the pain of others. In terms of addiction, one of my least favorites has come to be “There but for the grace of God go I.” It assumes that God has somehow chosen an unlucky many to be addicts to the worst chemicals man can create. It butchers God’s grace into a game show of life’s drama: some win heroin addiction, others just watch too much TV. Mostly, I hate this self-help saying because it blames God for the world’s atrocity. And the powerless victims of addiction are placed again in a category of “grace-less other.” Which is, of course, the last thing they needed in this, their greatest hour of need.
There are plenty of reasons to be angry with addicts like Philip Seymour Hoffman. He has three kids. He was a brilliant artist with a sparkling career. He has been sober for an incredible 23 years. The thing is, Hoffman knew all that stuff about himself. Throwing it up in the air on social media and around the water cooler will not offer us any answers. Only more sadness and anger.
And yet, the temptation to be furoius towards Hoffman ultimately serves as a way to distance ourselves from him. To make a self-assured solemn vow that we ourselves would never do what he did. Except that when we are really honest, we all land squarely in the Hoffman camp of helplessness and tenuousness on, at least, some of our days. Hopefully it’s not heroin that drives us into the dark. But the same unaddressed pain and heartache can work itself out as our self-destruction.
I cannot waste any time judging Hoffman anymore than I can judge any other addict. Or, for that matter, any other brother and sister in the struggle for hope and survival in this broken world. God bless you, Philip. And thank you for the life and art you shared with all of us.