This weekend I heard a remarkable interview on NPR’s Weekend Edition, between host Scott Simon and the legendary singer Tony Bennett. The conversation covered Bennett’s dazzling and durable musical career, focusing particularly on his recent album Duets II, which features a dozen renditions of old favorites that Bennett recorded with other legends—Willie Nelson, Aretha Franklin, Andrea Bocelli, Lady Gaga and others. Bennett was especially gracious, and he commented over and over again how thankful he is to have had the kind of life and career he has had. All in all it was an upbeat and memorable interview full of joy and gratitude. However, when Scott Simon asked Tony Bennett about the recording he did on this album with the late Amy Winehouse, “Body and Soul,” Bennett became uncharacteristically silent and subdued, his voice actually breaking as he talked about the tragedy of Winehouse’s untimely death from alcohol poisoning this past July, what a terrifically talented singer she was, and what the world has lost because of her demise. The emotion in the moment was palpable.
Now, the purpose of this blog, of course, is to see what lessons people of Christian faith might learn from the principles and practices from the 12 Step recovery programs. But in this post, I want to come at our task a little differently. At the risk of a kind of morbid voyeurism, I want to reflect upon Amy Winehouse’s sad story, with a view towards recognizing in each of us the same type of emptiness and brokenness that took Winehouse’s life, so that we might consider the antidote for such emptiness.
First, a disclaimer. Pop culture has not been, and is not likely to be, central to the discussion on this blog. Not only is it outside our normal range of discourse, but I am probably the last person on the planet qualified to talk about it. A niece of mine used to say that, when it comes to popular culture, music and entertainment, I am utterly hopeless, and that, for example, I should not even be allowed to walk down NW 23d Avenue in Portland (the trendiest street in the trendiest part of town), without a tour-guide and an interpreter.
Additionally by way of disclaimer, in addition to my general pop culture ignorance, I really know very little about Amy Winehouse, other than that she was a multi-Grammy winning singer who electrified listeners of all ages—and apparently deeply impressed Tony Bennett. It is true that, even before her death, I had read that she struggled with manic depression and substance abuse of all kinds. But certainly I claim no special expertise to comment on Amy Winehouse’s life or on her death.
Except that I am an alcoholic—which means I know something about self-destruction. And while I never suffered from mental illness—other than the kind that comes from a bottle, that is—I remember like it was yesterday what it was like to act in such a self destructive way that, to friends and family members, it looked downright suicidal.
And so I was hit especially hard last week when I read that the cause of Winehouse’s death turns out to have been alcohol poisoning–her blood-alcohol level was at more than five times the legal limit, which would put it at something like .40%, an astronomical number. Contemplating that figure, I cannot help but wonder whether her death may have been deliberate: most people simply cannot drink that much accidentally.
But whether her death was intentional or simply reckless and hopeless, it matters not for our purposes. For the piece of Amy Winehouse’s death that I cannot shake is the paradox that she was at once a woman of incredible talent, achievement and awards, and yet at the same time she was so apparently empty inside, and could never find inner peace. Of course, Winehouse was not alone in this dynamic. We have all read stories of celebrities and politicians, athletes and entertainers, whose life was full of talent, money, recognition—and yet whose hearts apparently remained so broken such that all of that fame and glory seeped right through the cracks.
Now, whenever such a story breaks, Amy Winehouse’s or any other person prominent enough to be a “story,” I observe that the reaction of recovering addicts is strikingly different from “normal” folks—those who have not known addiction. For people who have not been addicted may shake their heads in sadness at such a loss, but they are utterly baffled at how someone with so much going her way could be so tortured by such inner demons. Meanwhile those in recovery have a totally different reaction. Faced with a story like that of Amy Winehouse, addicts are not baffled at all—only terrified. For they remember, like I remember, what it was like to be caught up in a downward spiral of self-destruction that rendered us wholly oblivious to the good things in our lives. We addicts turn pale with fear to realize that, no matter how good our life once was, or now is, yet without the daily reprieve from our addiction that is the miracle of recovery—as the AA Big Book puts it, “a daily reprieve contingent on the maintenance of our spiritual condition”—without that daily reprieve, we were once, and will be again, sure to live in a self-destructive way, as surely as a moth is drawn to a flame.
So what is the point for Christians to take from all this? It is to notice in us recovering alcoholics and addicts the urgency, the deadly seriousness, about our truest inner condition, and the total acceptance of our brokenness. For though our lives may be great at the moment, though we may be seeing the blessings and benefits of rigorous hard work and complete surrender to a Higher Power, yet we know that we are but one drink or drug, one gambling or sexual escapade, from a return to our former lives of insanity. This realization keeps the recovering addict, I suggest, focused like a headlamp on the path ahead, one day at a time, one step at a time.
And so I suggest that, like the recovering addict, the Christian must internalize his true condition of utter ultimate emptiness apart from the love of God in Christ, and must keep his eyes fixed on the path given by Jesus and the saints and sages of all the ages. For, as we see all too clearly when a bright candle like Amy Winehouse is snuffed out, all the exterior trappings of achievement, possession or recognition are not enough to fill the void in our souls. And though the inner emptiness of an Amy Winehouse is perhaps more explosive, different in degree, than is our own, it is no different in kind. We are all in the same boat: without a daily spiritual reprieve—from addiction, from brokenness, from emptiness—we will die. It may not be from alcohol poisoning, it may be only from emptiness or boredom or separation from the love of God, but in the end, it is all the same.