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A teaching moment lost

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There is no doubt the death of singer Whitney Houston at the far-too-young age of 48 is a sad, sad tale. Death is always sad, and of one so relatively young, doubly so.

Equally sad, perhaps, is how this event has been embraced by the public and by the media who have been carrying the story for the past few days. Here is a personal tragedy that we should be using to teach ourselves some things about values, about the consequences of choices we make, about more carefully selecting the paths we go down.

The Whitney Houston story is not new; it is the classic tale of fame gone off the rails, of wealth bringing not happiness but pain. In our increasingly fame-centric society, the long, long trail of tragedies nearly identical to Whitney Houston’s doesn’t take a long stretch of memory to recall: Monroe, Morrison, Joplin, Belushi, Cobain — every generation has its symbol.

All of them have found that the talents that have taken them to the pinnacle have not extended to give them happiness, or inner peace. Instead, they found addiction, pain and, in some measure, a self loathing that has destroyed.

You would not consider this, however, if you were watching television or reading newspapers or websites. You would, instead, find paeans to Houston’s talent, wrenching tributes to her in her passing and morbid curiosity about the “how” of this death — but very little about the why.

For young women, this should be a potent lesson about the dangers of bad love, because by most accounts, Houston’s life started its serious downhill trajectory when she hooked up with Bobby Brown. Some relationships are not made in heaven, and the turmoil, both public and private, in this one is played out in households across the nation, and the north country, on a sadly daily basis. In Houston’s case, the public eye was like the gasoline that makes the fire roar.

In the real world, women should never feel compelled to enter into or continue forever a relationship that is physically or mentally abusive. One of the most important decisions women face involve selecting a mate, and that mate should be disqualified if he, or she, causes more pain than joy.

Which comes to the biggest lesson that Whitney Houston’s life can present: all of our choices have consequences. Every time we make a decision, it creates ripples in a pool that spread and cannot be called back. Sometimes the ripples are gentle, as from a pebble quietly dropped. Sometimes, they are seismic, like dropping a bowling ball off a tall bridge. But always at the center of the ripples are the actions we take as individuals.

Houston’s drug and alcohol problems were well documented and by those accounts far ranging. I have heard TV interviews since her death wherein speakers suggested she was getting things under control because she was only taking prescription medication. This is like saying the fire department has successfully saved the house’s foundation. Addiction is marked by the principle of substitution: it isn’t cured by moving to a new substance.

If young people take anything away from the Whitney Houston story, it should be how unrelated wellbeing and addiction are.

Houston appeared to have it all: beauty, immense talent, wealth. But her choices, many of them destructive, were unrelated to what she had. They seemed to be fueled by what she didn’t have: happiness and peace.

And while we should be using her story as a cautionary tale, we appear to be dropping the ball there. Perhaps it is because many people lust for fortune and fame, and its failure is disturbing. Perhaps it is because society has become so numbed to the constant sadness of stories like these, at every economic level, that the tragedy has to be put behind the stardom in Whitney Houston’s case to make it palatable.

There is nothing celebratory about Whitney Houston’s life. In the end, her immense talent and her stunning beauty succumbed to her incredible string of bad choices. And nobody seems to want to reflect on that, because it is far easier to ignore it.

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