05/20/2014 03:53 pm ET Updated Jul 12, 2014

Remembering Hoffman

A lot of us have been thinking about Phillip Seymour Hoffman recently.

He achieved great fame as both a movie star and a theater actor, but he was still tormented by his inner demons. Though he'd won an Academy Award several years ago, he was still in the middle of his career, and he had a lot of time left to screw up. He was gifted beyond measure, but he was separated from his partner and living alone.

No one in high school is free from psychological stress, be that academic, athletic or social. "Am I going to get the A? Am I going to get recruited? Am I going to get invited?"

Then there's the stress of getting into college.

What happens, though, when all those stressors fall away, and they're replaced by the stress of getting a job, paying rent, paying off student loans? The stress accumulates and compounds: Will you get promoted? Will you make partner? And will you find someone who loves you?

Those are the good questions, the nice questions we all want to be able to ask.

But what about the tougher ones, like: What will you do when you get fired? Because, let's be frank about it, eventually, we will all get let go from something, be that from our jobs, or from our relationships. The friend will ditch you, the girl will dump you, the guy will take his business elsewhere. What then?

This is a question I've been asking in the wake of the Philip Seymour Hoffman news. He didn't know how to answer it, and the really troubling thing is that his childhood was not a scary one. He grew up in an upper-middle class suburban community. He was a varsity wrestler. He went to the movies every weekend with his parents.

The first and only time I saw him live, I was taken aback. It was a cold, grey day in May, and my classmates and I were standing on line outside a theater in New York City. We were walking around the entrance, when all of a sudden Hoffman pushed past me. "Move it, kid," he said in a gruff voice, and hurried through the side door of the theater. He looked pale and unshaven, not like a movie star, more like a man trudging along to work. He looked disheveled -- a guy with a lot on his mind -- and completely human.

People forget sometimes that recognizing our own demons is as central to success as our skills and accomplishments are. It's hard not to feel like there's someone doing more in less time, and doing it with almost no effort at all. It's a defense mechanism; we like to obsess over the trivial things and forget the stuff that doesn't go so well. What scares me is people who try to maintain the perception of being perfect, this image of winning and winning big all the time, because under that brag sheet of accomplishments there is often a mountain of repression, of self-denial and a relentless quest for satisfaction that will probably never come.

We have to acknowledge the things that could derail us in life or stymie our goals, because the very fact that we're a part of this greater community means we are capable of doing something great. Nobody gets remembered for that, though; as Margaret Atwood said, "potential has a shelf life." Sometimes, inner demons drive people to succeed, sometimes not.

Imagine an overfilled balloon. When the birthday party is over and you need to put the props away, you have to let the air out somehow. You can undo the knot and slowly release it all, or you can just...pop the balloon. Either solves the problem, but only one allows you to reuse the thing later on. Philip Seymour Hoffman popped it.

In the New York Times' front-page obituary, Hoffman was said to be, "Perhaps the most ambitious and widely-admired actor of his generation." But his demons took him by force, in the form of a drug addiction. He won't get to see his children graduate from high school or get married, and all we have left of him are the sequels to the Hunger Games.

What is most important about his death is that we can't passively write it off as "just another talent gone bad." We have to remember that, with enough pressure, anybody can fold to self-destruction. The man enjoyed a powerful forty-six years of life, but now he'll have an eternity alone, six feet under the ground and stripped of his talents. In other words, if life is a marathon, then running the first twenty miles at lightning speed is irrelevant if we falter in the final six.

So, we have to release that air slowly, with plenty of rest. Those outlets are as critical to success as hard work and passion are, and for me, that outlet comes through the Buttondowns, my school's "a cappella" group. When I walk into our Choral Room every second period, I experience a kind of emotional purge -- a moment in which my English paper, AP United States History and that math test become second fiddle, and for sixty-five minutes I am free and liberated to sing.

It's the repetition of these rituals, the cathartic fulfillment of the self, and the joint sense of community that keep us from going off the rails. Occasionally, we have to remind ourselves that millions would love to be us -- because at school, we are largely healthy and safe in a world that is not.

Now, you may not be a singer. You might not be able to carry a tune, and the only time you raise your voice is in the car, alone. But singing isn't the point: the idea is to relax and exhale whenever possible. We should remember to recognize our demons and ask for help when we need it, to calm ourselves down, and pick ourselves up, no matter when the tide turns against us.