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Demons of our own making

I learned the news of Whitney Houston’s death about 4am on Sunday morning.

I was up at the time, engrossed by the film Into the Wild, a true story of a privileged American college graduate who abandons his lifestyle for the Alaskan wilderness to live off the land. It is an intense story of how the grass on the other side appears greener, forcing one to ­identify, or at least feel a need to empathise with, the character’s triumphs and failures in how he chooses to live his life.

Throughout the film I thought about my own life. Am I truly happy? Am I doing the right things? What is the point of this existence? Things quickly became too heavy and I decided to take a break and check my Twitter account.

Boom! as the popular virtual expression goes.

“Whitney Houston is dead. She was found unconscious in a bath at a Beverly Hills hotel by one of her entourage. She was 48.”

It is difficult to digest genuine emotion while reading other people’s pontificated shock and devastation at a rate of 100 tweets per minute, the sincerity of which seems dubious in the face of their smiley avatars.

I was shocked but relieved. She is finally free, I thought. Who are we kidding? We create the monster and poke it throughout its life with sticks of cheers, jeers and judgment. It swells and shrivels before our eyes. And every time it is the same script: shock when the monster reveals itself, in death, to be human.

We have the right to be saddened by the death of a talented individual whose contribution to our childhood memories is incomparable, but we cannot be shocked. She is now free from a world that owned her for more than 30 years. Free from having to be defined by her talent. Free from having to belong to other people. Her death and that of other musical ­prodigies such as Michael Jackson, Amy Winehouse, Kurt Cobain, Jimi Hendrix and Janice Joplin is testament to the eventuality that their ­talent will kill them, assisted by us.

They reach a state of anhedonia — the inability to experience pleasure from activities usually found enjoyable, because it ceases to be about their enjoyment but ours. Whitney is a victim of a culture of deflection — we cannot deal with our own issues and are always looking for an escape or distraction. What exit option do people like her have?

I would also take copious amounts of drugs if everybody wanted a piece of me, if everybody made it their business to be in my business.

After 20 minutes on Twitter I watched the film to the end. It revealed a tragic reality — our inability to find and maintain lasting happiness. Extremes do not work. You cannot survive without society but, it seems, you also cannot survive in society. We are conditioned to believe the promises of a middle ground that exists but is unappealing. There is no promised land. There is no place where the grass is green all year round.

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Milisuthando Bongela
Milisuthando Bongela is the Mail & Guardians arts and culture editor. She is a multi award-winning writer, blogger and collaborator. She has experience in the arts having worked in fashion, music, art and film as well as a decade-long career in consulting, entrepreneurship, blogging and cultural activism. She is also directing a documentary about hair and black identity, a film she calls the report card on the rainbow nation project.

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