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Why Michael Jackson's Death is Heartbreaking for me... Finally

08/07/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Cynthia Boaz Associate Professor of Political Science, Sonoma State University; Consultant on Civil Resistance

Although I grew up, smack dab in the middle of the era of Michael Jackson (my friends and I did a very cool rendition of "Thriller" for my 8th grade talent show), the truth is that I really didn't feel anything about his death at first. It was odd. Nothing. Numb. I was surprised at myself.

Then today, accidentally, I came across some snippets from Michael's memorial tribute, and began to get a sense of the enormous love around him. It's corny, but the sincerity in the voices of his friends and family inspired me to go back and listen to young Michael's rendition of "I'll Be There." And then it started to become clear. It had been hard for me to mourn Michael Jackson, because the person the world lost is not the person he was supposed to have been.

And that realization is very sad.

Without making excuses for his eccentricities -- or reportedly inappropriate behavior -- Michael Jackson's life and death give us the opportunity to look more closely at ourselves as a society. What did we do to him? What does it say about us? What can we learn from it?

Take a moment to think about the destructive forces that pulled at him constantly, from the first time he appeared onstage -- all the horrors of celebrity: commercialism, consumerism, superficiality, disconnection, judgment. What gentle soul could bear that never-ending barrage? The truth is we wanted a freak to gawk at, to mock in the vain hope of filling up a void in ourselves. We were like bullies on the playground, kicking the shy, slightly weird kid when he was down.

Looking back, it seems that Michael Jackson was always searching for an identity that we would embrace, and that he, ultimately, would also accept. It was an impossible task, because the Michael Jackson we wanted was a specter, an ideal. So with each rejection, he recoiled and tried again harder the next time. He was lonely, so we exploited it. He was kind, so we twisted it. He was brilliant, so we marginalized it. At the end of his life, it seems that Michael himself did not know who he was, and that is why to us now, he remains an icon, a caricature of himself. And we all have a part in that. Maybe -- at the end of the day -- he was just too sensitive for this world.

At first glance, what made us uncomfortable about Michael Jackson in the later years was how severely he diverged from what we understand to be normal. But who amongst us hasn't searched for identity? For acceptance? For love? Who hasn't struggled with intense loneliness and a desire to connect?

Because of our role in his own understanding of himself, how we respond to Michael Jackson's death reflects on us as a culture and a people. There is a conventional wisdom that when you point a finger at someone, there are three pointing back towards you. Those who take the sadness of his death to cruelly rebuke Michael Jackson for his oddities transparently reveal their own pathetic insecurities.

The spectacle we made of Michael Jackson's life shouldn't be repeated in his death. Perhaps it's time for us to ponder our role in the destruction of the person that Michael Jackson was meant to be. Perhaps we should use this as an opportunity to heal ourselves as a culture. Perhaps it's time to turn off the television reality shows, cancel the subscription to celebrity gossip magazines, and take a few moments out of the day to be conscious of the effect our attention -- positive and negative -- has on the people around us.

And to paraphrase a well-known person of great compassion, let s/he who has never felt the sting of rejection or the despair of loneliness cast the only stones.

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