Dr. John E. Johnson

Dr. John E. Johnson

Thinking About Hoffman, Leno, and the Beatles

There were three deaths, of sort, that occurred this past week. At least these were deaths I noticed. Dying happens every week, but some deaths seem to stand out above others, especially if they happen in succession. The first was Philip Seymour Hoffman. It’s not that he was one of my favorite actors. He generally struck me as a man both base and earthy, and he seemed to play these roles well. Some say it was natural because he loathed the person he knew he was inside. Unlike those who assume an innate goodness, Hoffman acknowledged that he, like everyone else, is deeply flawed. He used the word “grotesque” to describe the nature of everyone. Romans 3:10 might be a fitting eulogy for him: “There is no one righteous, not even one.”

However, there was an inspirational side to Hoffman, as noted in a quote he once made in the New York Times in 2008: “I try to live my life in such a way that I don’t have profound regrets. That’s probably why I work so much. I don’t want to feel I missed something important.” Though it tragically translated into more jobs, more films, more work…and more drugs, it does give a clue to his success. He determined to not squander the time and waste his gifts (would that we all began each day with a determination not to miss the moment). I am reminded of Samuel’s advice to Saul—“Do what the circumstances require” (I Sam 10:6). Sadly, Hoffman’s life curved inward, and he ended up giving more attention to his addiction than to the family he left behind. For whatever reasons, there was not enough to live for. It all amounts to a vanity and emptiness (Ecc 1:1).

The second and third deaths are the “of sort” ones. The second also involved someone on screen, Jay Leno. He is still living, of course, but his life as the host of The Tonight Show has now been given its last rites. Again, it’s not so much a personal loss. I rarely watched Leno, accept in The Netherlands, where he was the one American show that one could find at night. His “jaywalks” helped give me a taste of home, though I could have done without the crudity of some of his jokes.

But I mention him because his final show was a kind of funeral. There were accolades expressed by a host of famous people, including the President. And there was humor. But there was also discomfort. Alessandra Stanley captured it well with an article she wrote the next day. His last hurrah, as she put it, became “a dreaded rite of passage, an acting out of peoples’ deepest fears about their own obsolescence.” I can’t get past this sentence. I probably wouldn’t have noticed it were I in my 30’s or 40’s. But then the years pass, and obsolescence is a word we come to fear about ourselves. We can try to escape it, but we realize even the very best eventually become outmoded and unfashionable.  Stanley writes, “Many viewers weren’t feeling loss so much as pinpricks of projected anxiety…he is the nice guy who really works hard, did a great job and will barely be missed come Monday morning.” It all reminds me of Jack Nicholson in About Schmidt (another upbeat experience), an actuary whose “helpful” files were soon tossed in the dumpster.

Unlike Hoffman, Leno got to hear farewell tributes while he is still living, what Stanley refers to as “a preview of the eulogies to come.”

Finally, there was “The Beatles: The Night That Changed America—A Grammy Salute” to end the week. This too was filled with a star studded cast and crowd and lots of reminiscences. Watching it brought back so many memories. I was not one of those shrieking teenagers, but I did love their music. And watching this show, I realized I was part of a boomer era that too is passing. The reality is that despite the adjectives used—“ageless” and “timeless”—even this music shall one day pass. Again, I found myself feeling like I was watching the end of something. Paul McCartney can rasp and shout only so much longer.

I am drawn back to Richard Rohr’s Falling Upward, who puts the third third of life in needed perspective. He warns against becoming too preoccupied with the first and second part of life. In reality, these are simply the starting gate, the “raft” but not the shore. The latter years, for a life lived well, are not so much the end as a transition to a beginning. Those who do it well, who end up having even more to offer in the subsequent chapters of life, are those who give their best energies to the interior. I can’t speak to the priorities of Hoffman or Leno or Paul or Ringo, but as I watch many aging stars, a preoccupation with the exterior, with playing to the crowd, does eventually lead to untimely uselessness. We end up with old wineskins that are useless to contain anything of value in the season that is left. If we give more and more devotion to practicing for heaven, we will find that our best years are ahead, not behind. Paul spoke of a metamorphosis that comes with focusing on God’s glory (2 Cor 3:18). Depth of heart and Spirit empowered devotion to things eternal are never out of date.

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