Well we all have a face that we hide away forever;
And we take it out and show ourselves when everyone has gone.
-“The Stranger,” Billy Joel
These things I believe, and the world, for all its horrors, has left me unshaken.
-Bertrand Russell (at the age of 80)
My first thought after watching the latest installment of the Academy Awards the other night was that it didn’t do much for me. Ellen DeGeneres wore very thin after her opening monologue, and when she actually brought those pizzas in, I found myself actually wishing that Seth MacFarlane had been hosting again. The acceptance speeches (all but Jared Leto’s, which was moving) were exceptionally trivial, with few even speaking to the meaningful aspects of the films they received their awards for.
But I am always interested in the “in memoriam” segment of the telecast, when the names and photos of those luminaries who have died in the last twelve months are shown on the giant screen in the hall. And this year, after the telecast was over, it was those 111 names and images that had been shown, each for about three seconds, that left me deep in thought. I share that thought, and the others that grew out of it, primarily as a means of therapy. Make of it what you will.
The segment opened with a photo of James Gandolfini, who will always be remembered for his portrayal of Tony Soprano. It ended with an extended image of Philip Seymour Hoffman, whose death was perhaps more tragic than the others because it came far too soon and was so horribly caused. And then Bette Midler, without an introduction, sang “The Wind Beneath My Wings,” and there wasn’t a dry eye in my house.
I suppose I’m a sentimentalist at heart, but that segment of the annual show always fascinates me. Most of the names and faces of the recently departed are familiar to true movie-buffs like me. Some are obscure (the technicians, primarily). Others were well-known but have been forgotten (some of the stars from decades ago). Most spent their whole careers in the industry and so are rightfully recognized by the industry at its biggest annual event.
But that image of Hoffman, the renowned actor, stayed with me well into the night, long after dear Ellen had collected the last of the pizza man’s tips, the last of the awards had been claimed, and the most boring of the very boring acceptance speeches (Steve McQueen’s, for “12 Years a Slave”) had been delivered. As I focused on Hoffman, it occurred to me that he was revered by his colleagues in the film industry for his work but was hardly known for the real person he was. Why else would there have been such shock at his death from the drugs to which he was apparently addicted?
And so it is with all of us, isn’t it? We all have a face—a self—that we hide away from everyone and only show to ourselves in moments of solitude, or maybe in times of profound grief, or maybe never. Did Philip Seymour Hoffman ever see the real self that he was, away from the stage or the cameras, apart from his family and his friends? Did he know that he was a self who was addicted to the drugs that would kill him? Did he know why he was addicted, what had made him so afflicted, how self-destructive his self was?
I’m intrigued by this concept of the self, the person that we are underneath the persona that we show to the rest of the world. I wonder if being able to identify that self, and to, indeed, know it, might not be the key to the inner peace that seems to elude so many of our species.
I admit that I’m not all that sure of the value or meaning of inner peace, let alone whether a path to achieving it might be worth finding. But I am convinced that the world is a hostile place and that the struggle to survive, if not physically, then psychically, is with us every day. It is part, it seems to me, of the human condition. We are born and immediately need sustenance to survive. As we grow, we continue to need the physical protection and the material nourishment that sustain us. And, as we mature and develop our sense of belonging, we need emotional and psychic nourishment as well.
Most of us, somewhere along the way, lose our innocence and engage in the wearing of masks, so as to hide the stranger that Billy Joel sings about: the stranger who is our self. In creating that persona, we make unconscious decisions that we hope will enhance our survivability. Some of that persona works well for us. We succeed in a chosen career or in a trade or hobby. Along the way we may find someone to love and be loved by, thereby forming a bond that sustains us emotionally.
Sometimes those interpersonal bonds are based on the real self that we are and the bond strengthens and becomes a life support and anchor for us in the continuing struggle. More often, however, those bonds are built on false expectations due to masks we have created for ourselves, masks that we aren’t even aware of wearing, masks that only our most intimate lovers are able to see through.
I wear many masks. I don’t think I’m alone. When I allow myself to think about my place in the world, I’m often terrified of the imponderables of my existence. I’ve survived cancer, but what fate awaits me? How will I be remembered? What mask will represent the image that is spoken of at whatever memorial service is held for me? Who, indeed, am I?
I ponder these questions rarely. Somehow, amidst all the hoopla of the Academy Awards nonsense, they came to me in the image of Philip Seymour Hoffman.
I long for Bertrand Russell’s sense of self. So should we all.