When a “star” like Whitney Houston dies in a Beverly Hills hotel bathtub, everyone is shocked. We shouldn’t be, of course. Whitney Houston, like so many stars and starlets before her, slid into drug abuse, did stints in rehab, and lived in an abusive marriage. She was hugely successful—selling over 55 million albums—but like every other great performer she peaked and then faded. That hurts. As Robert Frost put it, “No memory of having starred/ Atones for later disregard/ Or keeps the end from being hard.”
Even though we shouldn’t be surprised, we always are. The appearance is so beautiful and gifted—we just can’t believe that underneath it all is the same insecurity and fear, the same disappointment and pain that we feel. Celebrities, like the gods and goddesses of Olympus, are life writ large. That’s why we follow them. And in the case of Whitney Houston, there’s something we can learn. All of us seek some small version of the Whitney Houston story. You want to be that “successful,” even if it’s just within the little circle of your business or industry, or just inside this town or your circle of friends. You would kill for a fraction of her gift, the voice that could slay millions. One percent of her wealth would be like the lottery. You long for recognition—to walk into a room and have people start whispering.
If you’re “lucky” you get some measure of that “success.” You’re not walking the red carpet but you’re not exactly sweeping the floors anymore. You’ve made it. In some way, you’ve arrived.
Then it starts to fade. Like it did for Whitney Houston. Your physical powers wane. You’re not as young-looking. The gift that carried you to the top isn’t quite as sharp as it used to be. The people who used to call you are calling the newest ingénue. It’s the moment when life just naturally starts to withdraw its early gifts in preparation for the later. You can fight it, or you can go with it, trusting that something deeper is in the offing.
When people fight it, it’s sad and unfortunate and ugly. There is a cycle of death and rebirth, but when you fight it, you are holding onto a dead thing. It’s unthinkable but it’s what we all do. St. Paul knew he was gripping a self-corpse and he didn’t know how to let it go. “Who will free me from this body of death?” he cried out (Romans 7:24).
Whitney Houston was 48. By the time you are 48 (or 38 or 28) some things start dying. Naturally. Let them fall away from you, like molted feathers or a shed skin. There is always a frightening three-day period when the old is passed away and the new has not yet appeared. But if you can wait in faith and hope it always springs to life within you.