The passing of these individuals inevitably results in a firestorm of speculation about the most intimate details of their lives. In addition to being intrusive and disrespectful to the deceased, this mindless focus on the strange, sordid, or bizarre prevents us from fully understanding the meaning and purpose of the lives of these exceptional persons, and what they have to teach us about the nature of humanity.
While it may seem that the role of Michael Jackson, and others like him, is to entertain, this superficial view belies the truth. There are many brilliant singers, actors, world leaders, and others who do not mesmerize us to nearly the same degree. What is the source of this immense fascination which transcends the usual divides of race, culture, geography, even time and death?
I believe we are drawn to people like Michael Jackson because we sense, deeply and unconsciously, that the personal story they tell, through the symbolic language of behavior, is also our own story. They act out what we know instinctively to be true but are as yet unable to fully comprehend or accept about ourselves. The people to whom we are drawn the most are those who serve as living illustrations of the personal struggles we find the most disturbing and difficult to tolerate. This is particularly true of our own experiences of childhood abuse, neglect, and trauma, and our unconscious re-enactment of these experiences as adults through anti-social and self-destructive behaviors.
Surface appearances of genius, glamour, and celebrity aside, lives like Michael's are far from easy. The unique juxtaposition of brilliance and opportunity which enabled him to capture our imaginations tragically prevented him from ever being able to put to rest the causes of his own misery. The constraints that prevail in more ordinary lives, the "bottoms" that force us to finally address our long-suppressed demons, are frequently disabled in circumstances of inordinate wealth, fame, and power. Too often these individuals die tragically and young, usually from the delayed effects of childhood abuse as manifested by extreme forms of self-destructive traumatic re-enactment..
We can learn from Michael Jackson by recognizing that his most important contribution may have little to do with the soaring brilliance of his talent or his enduring fame. We can honor him by recognizing his willingness to allow us access to his innermost self in ways that promote the highest good. Rather than engaging in idle gossip, we must instead learn to ask important questions about ourselves: What about his life so resonates with me? Of what does it remind me from my own childhood? How can I use his life to understand more about myself? What does it say about the human condition that so many of us are drawn to him?