Saturday, February 18, 2012

Why We Cry When Beauty Dies: On the Death of Whitney Houston

Some might argue that we mourn over the death of beautiful people more so than ordinary folk because we are shallow and we put too much value on physical beauty and personal achievement and talent. While it's true that we do, in fact, put too much value on these things in American society, I think there is another reason why we cry when beauty dies. It is because beauty is a sign to us that there is something beyond our present circumstances of life, and that we are made for a place where beauty is forever. Beauty has a transcendent quality that leaves us yearning for something more. Beauty makes us long. Beauty makes us feel comfortable. And beauty makes us feel empty, too. That's the longing part. We long, and we are not fulfilled. We think that if only we can be beautiful, or have something beautiful, then we will be happy. But the longing we feel is not satisfied by the apprehension of beauty, either in terms of self, sex, art, environment or career. We tell ourselves these things will make us happy, but they don't. They leave us still with this longing.

"If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most
probable explanation is that I was made for another world."
~C.S. Lewis.

Why do we stop and stare (at least mentally) when we see a beautiful, attractive person?

I was about 13 when Whitney hit the scene in '85 or '86. I remember thinking how beautiful she was. She was so beautiful! I've spoken to friends, none of whom, myself included, listened to Whitney's music. And yet, we are all saddened with tears over her death. I've been terribly sad, actually, and it has made me ask the question to others: what does it mean or take to be a happy person?

But here's a different question: When was the first time you experienced the destruction or loss of beauty? Perhaps it was when your first pet died. Or worse, when a friend, parent or grandparent died. Maybe it was less traumatic but still very real, such as when someone stole something that belonged to you--something you cherished. Whitney Houston has died, leaving us empty, sad and angry. At first, when I heard the news of Whitney's death, I thought, "Well, another Hollywood, pop-icon has gone by the wayside yet again due to destructive lifestyle choices," or something to that effect. But then I reflected upon her some more, and looked at the pictures of her early career, read her life story, and I was hit with a deep sadness. Have you experienced a lull, and stopped to ponder this week over Whitney's death? Have you ever stopped to think why we humans destroy ourselves with such readiness? Are we lonely?

“If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him."
~Jesus of Nazareth, John 14:23

My first experience with willful destruction, to the best of my memory, was when I was a little boy. I woke up one day and looking for my dad and brother, asked my mom where they were? It was a bright, sunny, summer day in the 70's, and a great day for Grampa's farm out in Coopersville, Mi. Ah, to run in the fields amidst the hay and wheat and soak up the dust and the sun, explore the trails and the barn and climb the equipment and eat the sandwiches made of that prepackaged, thinly sliced deli meat, followed with Kool Aid. Grampa's farm, ah! "They left," says Mom. "You slept in, so they left." Anger. I immediately went to my room and saw what was most precious, grabbed it and stomped to the front door. Smash! Little pieces fell in chunks, after making the initial sound "clunk." A ceramic piggy bank in the shape of a little, white puppy dog with blue polka dots lay in large shards like an open wound on the concrete porch step.

The broken ceramic gift: because of the pain of feeling abandoned and rejected or simply passed over, I reacted in anger and decided to destroy a gift from the ones from whom I desired love and attention. And I destroyed the tangible object and reflection of that love. "Only a puppy dog piggy bank," you say. No, not really. Not just a puppy dog piggy bank. Not at all. A very unhealthy way of handling frustration, that's what. Destruction of something beautiful, and in certain terms, a mode of self destruction. It's not just a ceramic holding pot for coins from the mint.

Why did Whitney choose to follow destructive patterns? Do we blame Bobby Brown? That's what one friend said. My friend told me he was angry with Bobby Brown for leading Whitney into a life of dissolution, confusion, delusion. Of course, we are responsible, ultimately, for the choices we make. But still...."damn it all," we're tempted to say.

Elvis Presley is purported to have said that the reason why he infused his body with the toxins he chose was to eliminate the pain of what it might feel like to no longer be popular. I've heard Ravi Zacharias speak about this, as he interviewed one of Elvis' friends. Is that why we destroy ourselves? Is it some twisted form of self-love? We don't feel loved so we do things that will make the pain go away. Or, we give ourselves pain, because that's the only thing we can control. Being unloved makes us feel empty, and feeling empty is fought in a mortal combat through inordinate measures which include a pursuit of pleasure, numbing down, or violence. Something has to fill the void.

"Our desires have become attached to things that are little more than shadows, when they are meant to be attached to something which cannot decay or disappoint."
~Alister McGrath

What did Whitney experience in the deep well of her inner self, what brokenness, what pain? And why are we so shocked when someone who has it all experiences depression, or gives in to vices to dull the pain? We say to ourselves, "But she had it all," not believing that the power of celebrity doesn't make pain or yearning and longing go away, as neither can anything in this world including money, sex, career and calling, or what-have-you.

Human longing is seen in human desire, and human desire for beauty is a sign of the transcendent hope that lies within us. It's a sign of another world where beauty fills all. Did Whitney hope for anything, or did she lose hope? If she did have hope, what did she hope for? Peace?

Christian hope is found in God, who is beauty, and who promises us the hope of the resurrection of the dead to a glorious new heavens and new earth where beauty never fades, and in fact where it is continually growing and increasing, flowing from the infinite being of God, the perfect object and subject of beauty. We cry when beauty dies because we know that beauty is ultimate reality found in another world--the real world--for which we're made, and that beauty is just not supposed to die, and when beauty dies, hope dies with it. Hope and beauty sail the seas on a ship heading into the western edge, far away from this land, and it's upon this ship that we must board.

"At bottom, everything depends upon the presence or absence of one single element in the soul--hope. All the activity of man, all his efforts and all his enterprises, presuppose a hope in him of attaining and end. Once kill this hope and his movements become senseless, spasmodic and convulsive, like those of someone falling from a height."

~Henri Frederic Amiel, Amiel's Journal.

1 comment:

angvm said...

Very interesting thoughts Chris. You've got me thinking! Ang Smith Van Meurs