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Candles in the Wind

Why did Marilyn Monroe die? Why did such a beautiful, talented, celebrated performer feel empty inside? Did she die because she felt incomplete? Was it these feelings that led her to shine so brightly? And what would have alleviated these feelings?

This is about artists who commit suicide. My question is – why did they die? Were the feelings which drove them to take their own lives also the feelings which caused them to excel? Are these feelings widespread in our community? But, most importantly, what is the solution to these feelings?

We all know of artists who have killed themselves. Wikipedia has pages devoted to artists and musicians who have committed suicide. The 20th century saw the death of musicians such as Janis Joplin and Kurt Cobain. A few years ago, we were shocked to hear that Robin Williams took his own life. And of course, the prototypical tortured genius is Van Gogh.

Earlier this year I went to Melbourne to see the Van Gogh exhibition. I was stunned by the size of the crowds. Although we got there early, we had to line up for ages to get into the exhibition. And once in there, we struggled to see his works amongst the throngs of people taking photos and gasping in awe.

I was one of those people gasping. As I stared at his work, I tried to feel what he felt as he stood in the fields painting the images in front of me. One peaceful impressionist painting of a bridge made me think of him with a baguette and cheese and some wine, in the sunshine. And I felt he must have been happy that day. But what also kept going through my mind was – why did he die? What was the cause of his suffering? Was it his ego that drove him over the edge, or was it an emptiness in his soul? I don’t think it was his ego. I think he was frustrated that others couldn’t see how good his work was. But, in the end, I think he was killed by a sense that he would never be ‘enough’.

It’s a hard question, why did these artist die? I don’t like the tortured genius myth. And I don’t like romanticizing mental illness. It’s unnecessary to pathologize and romanticize these tragedies. While depression plays a role, I think that underneath this the emotions these artists felt are common in our community and serve to illustrate a problem that many people struggle with. And that is, a sense of inadequacy.

This is what drives young women to starve themselves. It drives people to gross huge incomes and chase power. It drives people to excel in their careers or at university. It drives gym junkies and Botox. And it drives more malevolent addictions.

We live in a society where many strive to prove their worth, and it’s important to understand why. Because, while this compulsiveness can lead to great achievements, such as great art, it also leads to great suffering. Freud saw civilization, including great art, as being the result of the sublimation of libido, or sexual energy. But, I think that we are motivated by an (often unconscious) desire for parental love. While Freud sexualized this desire, it is enough to understand it as a desire for approval. We want parental approval, and believe we must work to obtain this.

The urge to be loved is not dysfunctional, but the belief that one must earn that love is. Yet, this seems to be a message that many have internalized. And it is a complex matter to overcome this conditioning. Marilyn was loved by millions, and yet she could not see her own value. She sought this approval in others. What would have allowed her to know her own value?

This is an important question. How do individuals learn to value themselves? Perhaps some trauma is too deep to heal. And we don’t all start on an equal footing. But the psychological shift from ‘I need your approval’ to ‘I approve of myself’ is a shift that signifies the transition into adulthood.

This shift to adulthood occurs when we learn to parent ourselves. Being an adult does not mean being self-sufficient. We’re social creatures who rely on one another. But this transition does mean recognizing that you have the inner resources to cope with the emotions you will experience due to the adversities of life. We can feel ourselves inadequate to the task of life, while believing others to be more competent. But, by projecting this power onto others we diminish our own power. Many people were not well parented to deal with their emotions and this shift to ‘I approve of myself’ is not as easy as one would imagine. It takes time and requires the support of others but, ultimately, we learn to trust ourselves.

As adults, we are our own parents. And it is our task to do a good job of this. A good enough job. And this simply means – being kind to ourselves. Encouraging ourselves. And trusting that we can deal with life’s challenges.

Marilyn Monroe was one of many artists who have taken their own lives. I think the pain these people have felt stems from a sense that they are inadequate. And this seems to be an epidemic in our community, driving people to strive to feel successful. While this drive can lead to great achievements, it comes at a cost. This striving seeks to win approval, and yet, it is only by approving of ourselves that we grow into adults. This is not an easy transition, but it involves parenting ourselves. Trusting that we have the inner resources to deal with life. And, above all, being kind to ourselves.

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