What About Him?

A couple clips of Rebecca Walker’s article on meeting Michael Jackson at 14, on experiencing life to his soundtrack, on gawking at his sordid personal implosion, and, finally, on responding to his death:

Why Michael approached me in a room full of superstars after the show I will never know. Perhaps because I was the youngest in the room, and at 14 didn’t have a big name, a big career or a powerful company. I was a kid, easy, with few expectations. I was not old enough to demand, even silently, that he live up to anything. Perhaps he felt that with me he could be, in a sense, free.

He shook his head and out crept a smile so open and vulnerable that I wanted to hug him, and probably would have, if he weren’t Michael Jackson. But he was, and I had no way to reach across the boundary of celebrity that put us on opposite sides of an invisible fence. Michael was, as he described himself in a song years later, untouchable. I believe that is what killed him. A human being can only live so long without the touch of another and can only breathe manufactured air for so many minutes.

As a young girl, I kissed a boy furtively as Michael’s song, “Rock with You,” played on my cassette player. My first real boyfriend stood for hours in front of a full-length mirror in my bedroom practicing his Michael Jackson dance moves. In quieter moments, we lay on my bed listening to “She’s Out of My Life” on the record player, both of us close to tears and full of reverence for Michael’s heartfelt emotion.

The lawsuits began to surface, one after another, and then the trial and the faces of the young boys with sorrowful tales of abuse. I sat transfixed before the television and trolled the Internet for sordid news. I watched, ridiculed, judged and tried to hold on to the unsullied image of the man I met. But the stage had been set. Michael’s life was already one giant Rorschach.

And then he died…

I watched one of Michael’s breathtaking performances of the song “What About Us” on YouTube. In the beginning, Michael emerges from a giant earth, surrounded by children and proceeds to build the song to a feverish pitch. The lyrics ask all the right questions: “What about sunrise? What about rain? What about killing fields? Is there still time? Did you ever stop to notice, all the blood we’ve shed before? Did you ever stop to notice, this crying earth, this weeping shore?”As the song soars toward the crescendo, Michael asks again and again, “What about us?” “What about us?” People in the audience scream and weep. At the end, spent, victorious and miraculous, he gathers the children, and they walk slowly back into the giant earth at the center of the stage.

Initially, I was speechless, overwhelmed by his mastery of his form and the power of his message. And then, without thinking, I turned from the computer and said out loud, “What about us? What about him?”

Because that’s the real story, isn’t it? It was always all about us. Who came with that level of passion and commitment on Michael’s behalf? Who offered their lives to him the way he offered his to us?

But even in the question, we glimpse the conundrum. We use his death, as we used his life, as a mirror. There is no room for Michael. It is still, tragically, all about us.

Perhaps that is Michael Jackson’s final song, his parting gift. We must have a bigger heart, a bigger vision.

It’s not all about us.

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About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.