Three Things We Can Learn From the Life and Death of Philip Seymour Hoffman

The Story:

Glance at any article documenting the life and death of Philip Seymour Hoffman, and you will read that he was the greatest actor of his generation. With critically-acclaimed performances in Capote, Doubt, and The Master, as well as countless brilliant stage performances, the onus is on the dissenter to prove that Hoffman was not indeed the most brilliant actor of the last two decades.

A.O. Scott, film critic for The New York Times, writes that Hoffman was “distinguished by how far he was willing to go into the souls of flawed, even detestable, characters.” Hoffman’s memorable and masterful performances are so highly regarded precisely because his restless intelligence and relentless drive, in the words of A.O. Scott, motivated him to probe the psychological depths of every character he played.

So often, Hoffman’s characters were morally dubious and tremendously conflicted, torn between pride and self-loathing, ambition and integrity. Hoffman’s capacity to play a wide range of characters in an equally broad range of genres is evident when you take a cursory look at his best film clips. Even a mediocre film like Along Came Polly was salvaged by Hoffman’s comedic performance (the scene with Stiller and Hoffman on the basketball court remains riotously funny). With an unwavering dedication to his craft, Hoffman improved the quality of any film he was in.

Perhaps the news of Hoffman’s death has produced a tinge of sadness in even the most nominal film fans because Hoffman was better than any other actor at inhabiting the characters he played, revealing to us their innermost longings, their pains, and their travails.

When describing Hoffman, host of Inside the Actors Studio, James Lipton, lamented, “[Hoffman was] absolutely cursed by his addiction. I hate drugs. I consider myself a liberal person on most issues; on drugs, I’m very conservative. I’ve never been amused by anyone drunk or drugged, and I think they cheat themselves and they rob us, and in the end, drugs have taken from us [the finest actor of this generation].”

Is drug abuse a rational choice — a moral issue?

At age 46, Hoffman was found dead with a syringe in his arm, surrounded by bags of heroin in his Greenwich Village apartment. Having battled addiction before, Hoffman was sober for 23 years before relapsing in 2013.

According to Dr. Joseph Shrand, a Harvard professor, Hoffman is not fully responsible for his enslavement to heroin. “This didn’t happen because he was weak,” Shrand said, “this was an actual physical thing driven by the brain, and his addiction didn’t go away just because he didn’t use for such a long time.” Shrand claims that addiction is a lifelong battle and that after the first few experiences with the drug, the brain begins itching for heroin.

A study by the National Institute on Drug Abuse shows that relapse is relatively common: Between 25 percent and 50 percent of substance users resume drug or alcohol use within two years after finishing treatment. Twenty-five percent of heroin users relapse after 15 years, according to the findings of one long-term study.

Drug abuse, then, does result in changes in the brain, which are tremendously difficult to counteract. Does that mean that users are victims of changes in their brain chemistry, who bear no responsibility for self-destructive behavior that leads to a premature death?

Kevin Williamson, a writer for National Review, believes that we, as rational actors, choose to submit to the enslavement of drugs. Indeed, people are well aware of the addictive nature of narcotics like heroin and that reckless, unabashed use of these drugs will require them to become so dependent that they begin to organize their lives around the life-giving syringe.

Williamson writes, “It is hard to develop a rational-choice explanation for junkies unless we consider the very short term, in which case people use heroin for the same reason they use alcohol: They are bored, they are depressed, they are lonely, they cannot sleep, it is a social convention within a certain milieu. … It is not the case that no one plans to become a junkie.”

The consequences of choosing to use drugs are well-known. Those who begin such a journey are cognizant of the dangers that lie ahead for them. Losing such a gifted actor is a tragedy, especially for Hoffman’s three daughters. As horrible as it is, we must readily admit that the drugs took Hoffman because Hoffman took the drugs.

Sermon Insights:

Hoffman exhibited true empathy and viewers responded (Romans 12:15).

Philip Seymour Hoffman’s uncanny ability to explore the mind of another person is second only to the empathic abilities of Deanna Troi from Star Trek: The Next Generation. Through his willingness to consider the passions, the feelings, and the motivations of his characters, Hoffman expressed a love and an appreciation for humanity’s depths, beauty, and nuances.

In Romans 12:15, Paul says, “Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep.” In this passage, Paul is advising Christians to sympathize with others, to respect their situations and consider the contexts in which they find themselves. By trying to understand the dilemmas, fears, and trials of our neighbors, we are better able to love them, care for them, and minister to them. In many ways, Hoffman’s willingness to find the humanity in even the most disturbing sinners is similar to Jesus’ efforts to associate with outcasts in an effort to give them life.

We, like Pharaoh, bear full responsibility for our actions (Exodus 9:12).

When Moses asks Pharaoh to allow the Israelites to leave Egypt in order to serve God, Pharaoh hardens his heart and rebuffs Moses. After hardening his own heart multiple times, however, it is God who begins to harden Pharaoh’s heart. Some readers are disturbed that Pharaoh is morally responsible for something that God made him do. But God hardened Pharaoh’s heart only after Pharaoh had made the decision — several times — to reject God’s demands. Pharaoh, through his own conscious choice, became stubborn, and subsequently he became enslaved to his own stubbornness. While drug addicts are indeed enslaved, it seems as if they, like Pharaoh, are complicit in their enslavement. While those who suffer from addictions are deserving of our assistance, our support, and our prayer, we all must acknowledge the consequences of our choices and work to create a culture in which drug use is unacceptable. Of course, each of us is enslaved to sin, and can find freedom only through the work of Christ.

Freedom in Christ requires full-fledged, daily commitment (Titus 2:14).

Paul writes in Titus 2:14 that “[Jesus] gave Himself for us, that He might redeem us from every lawless deed and purify for Himself His own special people, zealous for good works.” Michael W. Smith, a Christian musician who overcame a drug addiction, said, “I began to be enticed [to believe] that you can play with the fire [and] you won’t get burned. … Little did I know that I would be in the biggest pit of my life and feeling like there was no way of escape.” The primary factor in Smith’s recovery was the peace he felt about his identity in Christ. He was a new man whose life centered on Christ, not drugs.

Hoffman described himself as a believer, who prayed from time to time and had a very positive approach to Christianity. Sadly, and perhaps wrongly, the circumstances surrounding his death will lead to him being viewed as a tormented genius, overcome by his demons, rather than a man redeemed and purified by Christ and zealous for good works. Bondage to wealth, honor, drugs — or any other temporal pleasure — is never far away, for the devil prowls constantly, looking for someone to devour (1 Pet. 5:8). Let us look out for the well-being of our neighbors, especially those who suffer from addiction, in order to help them break their habits and enjoy freedom in Christ. Had Hoffman been a member at a church, we should like to think that, through the efforts of his fellow believers, he could have been spared this fate.