Losing Whitney

While watching Whitney Houston’s funeral it occurred to me that she and I shared a common problem. We are both without spiritual homes. Early in the work that led eventually to my book, Eden—Regaining our Spiritual Freedom, I began realizing the full implications of our expulsion from Eden. What angered me most was: How could I possibly have been born into a world that offers no access to a spiritual home—an extended family bonded by feelings. I am not the only one who suffers. This world is wading in suffering as a consequence of humans having decided, a few thousand years ago, to anchor our lives in money and law, instead of relationships based on soul-felt needs.

To the happily married, I say, “Rejoice in your good fortune!” The issue here is not to disparage the value of any relationship that works. If you are experiencing relational intimacy, you are clearly finding resolution to the needs of your souls. Nothing more can be asked of any relationship. On the other hand, our souls will never ask less.

In view of the institution of marriage’s multi-dimensional failures, why do we continue to believe in it? Institutions provide the illusion of control. The more they fail, the more desperate we become for the control we hope they will provide. Do cults breakup because their end-of-the-world predictions prove untrue? No. Having cut their ties to the larger world, such groups of fervent believers become more closely knit than before. Ironically, it is the same with our institutions. Having cut our ties to the natural world, we must cling all the more tightly to the institutions that separated us from it. Consequently, the more they fail, the greater our devotion. This applies to all institutions, not just marriage.

The failures of marriage include not only disappointments that often lead to family breakups, but also emotional, sexual, and physical abuse, including death, through which even children are victimized. If anything else on earth resulted in as much suffering and disarray as that institution, we would outlaw it before the sun rises the next morning. Instead, we worship it. Why? As citizens, we have been trained by circumstances, words, and deeds, to secure our lives in money and law. We believe in marriage because, being legally based, it is the only reference for family that we have.

Most people agree, to know relational intimacy, we must anchor our lives in relationships. But that would require that we trust the human spirit. Institutions are based on mankind’s long held fear that the human spirit cannot be trusted. As such, not only do we continue to anchor our lives in money and law, but also suffer the spiritual insult of living in families based on legal arrangements, rather than on our natural need for one another.

As an engineer I was once tasked to determine why missile fuses coming off production lines kept failing their final tests. The issue had gone unresolved for months, during which the factory kept tightening the specifications on the fuse’s subsystems hoping it would fix the problem. Instead of fixing it, they only compounded their problem. Not only did the unacceptable failure rate continue, but as a result of tightening of subsystem specs the fuses were becoming difficult to make, resulting in a production rate that had fallen to almost nothing. It didn’t take long for me to determine which subsystem caused the problem. More significantly, the problem was caused by something for which they weren’t even testing. With the real problem under control, the subsystem specifications were loosened, production rates went back up, and the fuses performed as expected. The point is: To resolve problems, we must properly direct our effort. If institutions indeed provide only the illusion of control, then we can put all the effort and devotion we can muster into making them work and it will result in nothing other than wasted time and resources, while the real issues continue to worsen.

Misdirected effort digs holes. It does not solve problems. This is exemplified by the loss of Whitney Houston, early in 2012. She thrilled the world with her talent, her beauty, and her grace. As noted by family and friends at her funeral, she was a genuine and caring person. Despite her qualities, trying to make her marriage work represented misdirected effort. As she said to Oprah on a televised interview, “I was his wife, he was my husband. I am going to make this happen, I am going to make it work, you know.” By her devotion to what she had been taught about right and wrong through religious and cultural influences since childhood, she threw herself into making a relationship work that, due to no fault of her own, did not meet the needs of either her or her husband’s soul, and it destroyed her.

It wasn’t just the relationship. Like us, she had no spiritual home, which gets a lot of people who attain fame into trouble. We like fame because, in our world, fame means acceptance, which is the basic requirement for survival in our natural state. But finding acceptance among members of a spiritual bond is a very different matter than being accepted by millions. There are many ways to relate to others with whom we are emotionally acquainted, thus many avenues for feeding one another’s souls. When relating to millions, on the other hand, there is this pressure to be perfect for fear that one may disappoint. There is food for the soul there also, but, needing to be perfect confronts us with issues that can drain our souls. This results in spiritual vacuums that, without relationships bonded in spiritual trust, often require drugs to fill.

So here was this remarkable woman, burdened not only by a dysfunctional relationship, but also with concerns about whether she was good enough. As Kevin Costner testified at her funeral, “Yes, Whitney, you were good enough,” a remark that brought the congregation to a standing ovation.

One of Whitney’s great hits was, “The Greatest Love of All,” but in its words reside a contradiction that cost Whitney dearly. The line is: “Learning to love yourself, it is the greatest love of all.” In a world of spiritual alienation, both inside and outside of marriage, little wonder the song was popular. The problem is, we cannot love ourselves—love is about relationships, not about self. We can know love, indeed, really know ourselves, only by serving the needs others with whom we are intimately acquainted.

The quality of Whitney’s personhood wasn’t the problem. She failed to survive the contradictions that pervade all our lives—that of being estranged from each other, and even from ourselves, as a result of our being without homes based on spiritual trust.

 

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