On Philip Seymour Hoffman and Learning From the Unanswered Questions.

By Alyce YoungbloodFebruary 3, 2014

During Christmas break of my junior year in college, my mother and I went to see Doubt in theaters. We didn’t know much about it, except that we were big fans of the cast—Meryl Streep, Amy Adams, and especially Philip Seymour Hoffman—and that seemed to be enough. When the credits rolled, we remained still in our seats, silent except for occasional sniffling, and then went to get dinner, where we talked about the film eagerly and at length. A few weeks later, I saw Doubt again, this time at the two-dollar theater near my campus with a friend from school. We sat at Starbucks for a long time afterward, reviewing the story and its themes until our coffee turned cold. For years, random things have brought the film to mind, and I continue to mull it over. Not too long ago, I returned to Doubt, this time with the sole purpose of introducing it to my husband so he might analyze it with me.

If you haven’t seen it, it’s a brilliantly acted film, based on a play, that raises big questions—questions of religion, race, loyalty, sexuality, love, friendship, deception. Unfortunately, I have to tell you, it answers none of them. But that’s one of the reasons Doubt impacted me so much. There’s something to be learned even from its unanswered questions. They are presented in such a heartbreakingly human way, you can’t help but sense there is something there, something you need to be aware of, something that should change you.

Yesterday, I picked up my phone to see several notifications from Twitter: friends retweeting the news that Philip Seymour Hoffman had passed away from an apparent overdose. It’s strange, when celebrities die. It feels weird to grieve a life you never knew, but it also feels important to do so, because that life still affected yours, perhaps even looked like others you do know. In this respect, to hear that Philip Seymour Hoffman had died felt like a kick in the stomach. Since the news broke, the headlines and social media have been filled with people praising his best performances, his off-screen demeanor and sincerity, his legacy as one of the greatest actors of all time.

And, of course, there are the inevitable, painful questions that follow such a passing. Why did this happen? Was rehab not enough? Could someone have stopped it? What went wrong? Many will make assumptions, because that feels cleaner, easier. But what can we know? Well, we know Philip Seymour Hoffman fought addiction for much of his life. We know he experienced 23 years of sobriety before relapsing and re-entering rehab in 2013. We know he is now gone, leaving family, friends, and fans to mourn a vibrant presence.

And we also know this: Philip Seymour Hoffman was not alone in this struggle. There are millions of people, all around the world, who daily face the terrible disease of addiction. For some, it’s a secret, quiet struggle; for others, a loud and humiliating one. For some, it’s defeated in community, in treatment, in time—for others, like Mr. Hoffman, it’s a force that eventually and sadly claims their life.

Ah, the big unanswered questions. They feel so heavy in times like these … “I have such doubts.”

And yet, I still believe—I have to believe—that even if we don’t have all the answers, we can learn something. We can be more aware. We can change.

What does that change look like? I think it looks like people addressing addiction and overdose with sensitivity, intelligence, and compassion. (I hope this might be the case for major media outlets too, many of which still have some catching up to do when it comes to reporting well on mental health.) It means pushing those conversations from “Why?” to “What now?” by pointing to help and resources. It means when we see celebrities, we see people, and perhaps that Hollywood would become a better, safer, more honest environment for them.

And for the many who are feeling stuck in addiction, teetering on the edge of relapse, and bravely, day-by-day walking that valuable path of sobriety and recovery—remember that change is ongoing, gradual, but it is real and possible. Keep your head up. Fight. Speak up, even when it’s hard or when you feel ashamed. Go to that meeting. Take your friend. Hope. Learn. And stay. Please stay. (Tweet This)

As was said in the opening minutes of Doubt, one of countless scenes Philip Seymour Hoffman stole, “When you are lost, you are not alone.”

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Comments (2)

  1. Tina Kranz

    Thank you. Beautiful words. Our world needs more compassion, more understanding and less judgement. We are all on the same team. Team humanity.

    Reply  |  
  2. Anonymous

    PSH was a brilliant actor and his role in Doubt was one of the best. Thanks for recognizing his talent and life above his addictions and death.

    Reply  |  
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