I was shocked! And I'm sure you were too, hearing about Michael Jackson's death. But the more I thought about it...there were, unfortunately, too many warning signs for any one of us to really be that shocked.
Almost immediately, the news began recounting the many controversies of his turbulent life. Michael changed the world of music as much if not more than any other performer -- that point is not in contention. Despite the many dramas and accusations lobbied against him over the years (most significantly regarding his relationship with young boys) and even in the midst of what had been disappointing music sales, Michael Jackson never lost his title of the "King of Pop."
I remember watching the video for "Thriller" in utter amazement when it was released on MTV back in 1983. Never before had there been anything even close to this mini-movie in terms of style and talent. As hard as I tried, I never could figure out how to do that darn moonwalk.
Very few people could understand Michael's enigmatic life, and I'm not suggesting that I'm unique in that regard. However, as a student of history, what I do understand is that Michael's life, when considered within the broader scope of highly creative people throughout history, was not really that unusual after all.
For instance, let's consider Friedrich Nietzsche, the German existentialist born in 1844. Throughout his life, he was continually frail and plagued with illness, a consummate recluse, an alcoholic and considered very controversial for his day. His ideas on God made him a complete outcast to the conservative majority of his day. In college, I devoured Nietzsche mostly because he was provocative and deep. I also thought it was cool to be controversial. "That which does not kill us makes us stronger" became my mantra. Ultimately, Nietzsche suffered a psychotic breakdown, had two strokes which partially paralyzed him and died of pneumonia, still in his 50s.
Consider Walt Whitman, the nineteenth-century transcendentalist poet who continues to be one of the most influential poets in the world today. Yet in his time, many thought him to be a madman. His homosexuality or possible bisexuality just didn't fly in the Civil War years. He refused to commit himself to any one religion, stating that all were equally valuable. He spent considerable time alone, and after suffering a stroke near the end of his life, he was too weak to even lift a fork and knife. He wrote, "I suffer all the time: I have no relief, no escape: it is monotony -- monotony -- monotony -- in pain." He died of pneumonia as well.
In the realm of religion, consider the Christian prophet, the man known as Jesus. He was born of Jewish descent, and yet he was constantly breaking Jewish laws and butting heads with the religious leaders of his own heritage. Jesus too is documented on several occasions as going off by himself and spending significant time in solitude. In one particular case, he spent 40 days and nights in the desert fasting. Pretty extreme. As you know, he was ultimately sentenced to death by crucifixion.
We could certainly discuss more examples. While some may say that Michael Jackson shouldn't be considered in this crowd, I submit to you that Michael made every bit as much impact on the field of music and race relations as any of these greats did in their particular fields.
The point is that those who leave a major impact on the world are not marching to the same drum as the mass majority.
They often, as with Michael, live controversial and turbulent lives, and they're often greatly misunderstood. Isn't it unfortunate that if someone is 10 feet ahead, they're considered a leader, but if someone is 10 miles ahead, a target? Michael certainly had his share of playing the target for the media. It's easy to take shots at those at the top, particularly if they're "different enough."
Even though Michael was acquitted on all counts in his court cases, it didn't matter. He would still be plagued with negative comments and jabs. The very creativity that brought the moonwalk, highly produced choreography and music that emotionally moved all ages and races was the same unique mind that drove him to live a very different life that defied societal norms.
In a nutshell, when you're a unique thinker, you have a very hard time relating to mass consciousness. Small talk becomes painful, and your inner world more fulfilling than your outer world. This results in behavior that's often misinterpreted as being aloof, arrogant or sometimes downright weird, which is too bad because people have no idea how very lonely it can be at the top. Furthermore, the contributions of many of these leaders are often never appreciated until long after they're gone.
Howard Gardner's research from Harvard University suggests that there are eight distinct types of intelligences. Musical intelligence is one of Gardner's eight categories. While most of the eight are not measured in school or society at large, except math and linguistic intelligence, they are all equally important and valuable.
It's well known in the studies of human consciousness that, to quote Ken Wilbur, "the greater the depth you have, the less the span." In other words, when you're supremely brilliant in one particular area, you may show deficits in other areas. Read accounts of Einstein getting lost on his own campus walking from one class to the next, and you'll see that the structure of genius takes tremendous depth while often leaving little room for the "less important" issues of life.
What often appears to be dysfunctional to the mass majority may just be the hyper-functional behaviors of a true genius with great depth in his field and a lack of concern or ability to relate in the more mundane things of life.
So here's to the memory of a musical genius, a unique human being that will be an icon for generations. May we always remember as Michael told us in his music that to make a positive change in the world, we must first start with "the man in the mirror."
Thank you, Michael.
May you find the peace in the next life that you rightfully deserve. You made a positive difference. You leave a lasting legacy. While few understood you, you ignited our spirit and touched our emotions with your upbeat message and music. Your gifts will continue to play in our minds and hearts forever.
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