As is considered good practice in mindfulness I have paused for a long time before writing this piece. Caroline Flack took her own life two weeks ago.
The first reflection is of course sadness and deepest sympathy for what her family and friends are suffering. The loss of someone you love is painful. An unexpected loss even more so. An unexpected loss of someone young even more so. And the pain that comes from the suicide of someone you love must be unimaginably hard to endure.
But then we must surely reflect on the loss of her life itself. Often in our non-mindful state we forget what has actually happened when someone dies. They are no longer alive. Now, that seems too obvious a statement to make, but we don’t get it. We just don’t get it deeply enough. Something – someone – no longer has this unknowable, mysterious, but astonishing thing we call “life”.
Of course life is all around us, in the trees, the grass, the soil, as well as in our homes. Tiny, like the ninety trillion microbes that live inside our body, making us a universe to them. All of this is amazing if we just stop to really notice.
And one human version of life ended when Caroline Flack took hers.
If we are truly mindful we must regret, maybe mourn the loss of a life, regardless of whether that life is someone famous, someone we “like” or not (despite only knowing them through a screen or other media), or a microbe. Life is life is life. It is the precious state changing from one moment to the next, with some versions of it enabling feelings, sensations, thoughts, and ultimately even self-awareness and practical intelligence to find out more about existence.
So one reflection is about life itself and how we might most appropriately respond to a loss.
My other major reflection is on the nature of fame and its seeming inverse correlation to stable contentment. So many famous people – Elvis, Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston, River Phoenix, Amy Winehouse, and many others – have died either through suicide, self-neglect, or overdoses of substances that people take when they are out of control of their lives.
This is at first glance a paradox. People generally want what we call “success”, as in being well-known, admired, and financially well-off. Fame gives you all three. Yet famous people seem to be more susceptible to strong negative moods than the population at large. So what is going on in their minds.
I’m speculating here, but hopefully from a perspective of deep observation of my own mind, and readings of the research on the mind in the past twenty years. I think wanting to be recognised and admired is a genetic trait, more so in some people than in others. At its extreme it is an impulsive yearning for attention.
Once you start getting recognition, in a public-facing career, it starts to act like an addiction. You need another hit. Eventually you need more and more to give you the same effect of being admired or adored.
At the same time, at the highest levels of celebrity you start to be recognised in negative ways by the press, by fans who have mental health issues, by people who hate you simply because their minds are prejudiced against the type of celebrity you happen to be.
All the while, unless you have been very, very wise, you have never been feeding your inner life. All the time what you want to make you feel of value and meaning has come from public recognition and career success. So you are filled from the outside and have nothing robust or deep inside. It’s like eating only junk food; although you may be getting more than enough calories you are getting no minerals, vitamins or proteins to keep you alive.
Therefore when things go wrong, or you hit a bad patch in life, which is inevitable at some point, no matter how successful you are, there is nothing inside you to keep you strong, resilient and wise enough to see that the current problem is just a blip in a long life.
I think this is what happens to so many famous people, and could be related to Caroline Flack's life.
The desire for fame implies a lack of inner confidence and peace. The attainment of fame fuels the external – as opposed to internal - source of your life satisfaction and happiness. Fame brings doses of unwarranted attention and mental instability because of its tendency to impose extreme experiences on the famous person – mass acclaim, lots of lavish occasions and locations.
And then the massive jolt of an accusation of assault came along. There is not enough inner resource to handle what would have been for anyone – not just famous people, but anyone, including regular criminals – a traumatic episode. All the acclaim, the money, the success, provides not an atom of protection or care in the circumstance; and because all of the person’s “needs” have been met by the empty calories that fame and celebrity bring, there was no space for silence, quiet space, deep reflection, time in nature, appreciation for the everyday things in life, or gratitude for the hundreds of things in a normal person’s life that we should be thankful for.
These things ground us, nurture us, and build up a worldview that shores us up when bad times happen. Famous people tend to get drawn to fake versions of what a good life is, and their money increasingly goes on expensive junk. Life becomes a form of mental self-harm through excess of what is unhealthy, and an absence of what truly nurtures.
All around the world people, especially young people are drawn like moths to a light by the possibility of fame and wealth. Some, though not all, reality programmes are deeply destructive of mental health. Some are almost designed to mock and humiliate the most unstable or extravert participants. The programmes then become a form of shallow voyeurism.
This, I think, may have, to some extent, been something like what Caroline Flack got sucked into, and if so, it is not only a terrible tragedy, but a problem with our society and our entertainment industry. It needs to be looked at closely and changed.
May she rest in peace now, and may her family and those who loved her find peace and acceptance in due course.
28 February 2020