This past week was a banner one in terms of pulling back the curtain of popular culture, and being able to truly see the driving forces behind a couple of gods — one Olympian (Bruce Jenner) and one rock (Kurt Cobain).
Well, at least get a closer look at how mere mortals can use their illusions to not just mask, but also fuel, pretty grand ambitions.
Bruce Jenner’s magic trick was convincing the whole world he was the epitome of manhood when he won Olympic gold for his Decathlon performance in 1976. For a while, he was even able to convince himself that the urge to express himself as a female that started from a very young age could be tamped down and ignored.
While his athletic career clearly wasn’t solely formed by a painful secret, it was, according to Bruce, the driving force that pushed him harder than anyone else and propelled him to become a world champion.
That he pretty much concealed such a gigantic revelation through 425 episodes of Keeping Up With the Kardashians — “The one true story in the family was the one I was hiding and nobody knew about it,” he told Diane Sawyer — was a feat perhaps even more spectacular than his earlier athletic achievements.
Also among his impressive accomplishments? Humanizing Kanye West and making him sympathetic even, as he was the voice of reason to convince Kim that being authentic is the most important thing in the world (“Look it, I can be married to the most beautiful woman in the world, and I am. I can have the most beautiful little daughter in the world. I have that, but I am nothing if I can’t be me, if I can’t be true to myself. They don’t mean anything.”)
While Bruce’s story might just get a happy ending, on the other end of the spectrum is Kurt Cobain, whose inner life is powerfully and intensely revealed in the new documentary Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck. (It only had a super limited theatrical release, so if you missed it, you can catch it on HBO on Monday, May 4th.)
Kurt’s struggles with addiction, chronic pain, and depression are pretty well-documented, but filmmaker Brett Morgen manages to dig deep and paint a portrait of a hyperactive child who, destroyed by the disintegration of his family and rejection of his parents — especially his mom but also his dad and stepmom — became an out of control, angry mess who channeled his dark emotions into art and music.
Like Bruce, Kurt’s ambition was sparked and intensified not by thinking happy thoughts but by deep-seated feelings of shame and self-loathing. And like Kurt, Bruce was at one point during his transition suicidal: “…wouldn’t the easiest thing to do right now is go in the other room, get a gun. Pain is over. Done. Go to a better place.'”
This is where their stories diverge, as curiosity about “how this story ends” was for Bruce Jenner enough to banish those darkest thoughts. While he used his illusion to get to this point, he’s now moving forward without any pretense to live his truth.
Kurt, on the other hand, clung to the idea that misery was his muse. And while the seminal music of a generation spewed out of that heinous well, it landed him a role that he never asked for and totally rejected as a revered mouthpiece for his peers.
“Why are you the good one and I’m the bad one?” Courtney Love teased her husband about how the media portrayed them. “I used my illusion,” Kurt said.
What is so interesting about both Bruce Jenner and Kurt Cobain is how the magic happened through pain and suffering.
This is not to say that is the best and only way as a means to a successful end BUT it’s certainly worth noting.
Especially for GenX.
We are perhaps more devoted than any generation before us to make things “perfect” for our children.
As if they are creatures that grow up because of us, not in spite of us.
Last week I wrote about whether or not we are still in The Breakfast Club, eating our guts out in stony silence, choking on our insecurities, and convinced we are dining alone… until one day we realize that this is all a part of the human condition.
I think about this stuff a lot when my kids go through something difficult, embarrassing, or upsetting. I’m not saying that I don’t want to comfort them… but I do fight the urge to “fix,” be a smothering caretaker, or otherwise try to shield them from cold, harsh truths.
And while Bruce and Kurt are very extreme examples of how personal problems can drive people to accomplish impossible goals, there is a kernel that relates to all of us.
What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger, and all that jazz.
On the flip side, as you stand by and watch hard things happen to people you care about, the only place to go is to unconditional love. And hope, faith, and a lot of letting go.
So if you see me repeating the mantra, all in all is all we are, just know that there’s no need to apologize for using your illusion. As Elizabeth Kubler Ross once said, ‘The most beautiful people we have known are those who have known defeat, known suffering, known struggle, known loss, and have found their way out of the depths. These persons have an appreciation, a sensitivity, and an understanding of life that fills them with compassion, gentleness, and a deep loving concern. Beautiful people do not just happen.”
For some beautiful moments (and horrible, and compelling, and thought-provoking, and a reminder of how damn good Nirvana’s music is), check out the trailer for Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck: