A Sacred Teacher’s T-Shirt

It’s one thing to find Mr. Hoffman’s untimely demise painful. But to find his death surprising is dangerous.

Steve Roberts color photo: heron at edge of pond with frog in beak

As we reflect on the passing of Philip Seymour Hoffman, the celebrated actor who died recently at 46, reportedly with a needle of heroin in his arm (and after 20 plus years of sobriety), let us deepen our appreciation for the sacred teacher that addiction can be for us all.

In many more ways than the intoxicants we snort, shoot, swallow and smoke do we allow addiction to shape our lives: power, sex, anger, appearance, gambling, intelligence, possessions, beliefs, blame, worldly achievement, hiding from conflict, nicotine, being liked, working out, and of course good old food hardly get the list going.    

Certain addictions, yes, are special teachers, the way a hand grenade is a special teacher.  They can rip your heart out suddenly, violently, whereas the danger in most other forms of addiction is only a withering of spirit marked by quiet desperation.  Either way, death is not always the worst thing that happens to us.  

If there is a fundamental activity at the heart of being a healthy human, I’d say it is “paying attention”: being mindful of the choices we make and their impact on ourselves and the world around us.  Everything ennobling, everything worth passing on to our grandchildren, starts there: love, compassion, kindness, understanding, hitting a curve ball, baking a pie…and for those of us who claim to be alcoholics or addicts in the traditional sense of those terms, this includes living sober.  

I find it useful to presume that every circumstance, every moment, has within it the potential to help us pay attention: a reminder or a lesson of some kind about what furthers our well-being and what does not.  

Though to be teachable we must be present.  Running from pain, among the more common addictions, limits our ability to pay attention, and therefore to learn from our experience.  It’s no small irony that a big purpose of any addiction is to achieve the impossible: keep pain at bay by denying that it is a natural and invaluable part of life.

Phil Hoffman, a fellow with so much––fabulous performer, seemingly very nice guy, smart as anything, universally admired by his peers, father of three young children, already sober for two decades and, according to the friend who found him dead, “…against every aspect of drug use”––played the equivalent of Russian Roulette.  Of course he did!  That’s what we addicts do!  There is no level of insanity that is foreign to us.  That’s why they say addiction is cunning, baffling and powerful.  And why, left unattended, leads to incomprehensible demoralization.  

I’ll be sober 25 years in a couple of weeks, which means that, until his recent relapse, Mr. Hoffman and I had been sober roughly the same length of time.  I’m sure I’m not the only person in recovery who feels a certain perverse gratitude for the reminder his death provides.  

It’s one thing to find Mr. Hoffman’s untimely demise painful.  But to find his death surprising is dangerous.  It means we’re unaware of, or forgetting, addiction’s nature.  To be survived, addiction demands ferocious vigilance.  The kind required by a frog in our pond last summer when a heron was hunting for breakfast.

Anything that demands of us that level of presence is a sacred teacher, one wearing a t-shirt that reads: “Pay Attention or Suffer.”



  1. Hi Steve, I read this when you first published it on your blog just after Phil’s heartbreaking, tragic passing, and it was a great comfort to read, though I was reeling from a broken heart, over Phil’s death, as I hoped and prayed it was a hoax, that he wasn’t actually dead, but suffering at the hands of some online troll. This is a beautifully shared insight, that yes, addiction is a powerful foe, but it takes a great teacher, as you are Steve, to change the discussion over Phil’s death, and help reshape our perspective about addiction, especially as you have lived with the teacher of addiction, for 25 years: congratulation on your journey, my friend! And thank you, Steve. Thank you so very much.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

"I honor that we are killing the earth for the same reason I consider being an alcoholic a privilege: it is a doorway to the profound self-understanding required to make truly healthy choices."

The Essay: Honoring the Killing of the Earth