Inspiration from Hypocrites

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We humans looks for patterns in things. I am especially prone to this habit. Patterns help us understand. They help us group. They help us sort things out and try to learn. Sometimes they mislead us. Other times, they light the way.

Following my discovery of the works of Alan Watts – – far too late in life, but better late than never – – I have been trying to reconcile his inspired philosophy with his early death. Here is a man who, from earliest adulthood, spoke with the eloquence and power of a prophet. He spoke of reality, the art of living, and the paradoxes of our existence. He is the sort of man whom you would want to see live past 100 as a revered sage, helping to lift humanity.

But he’s gone. He drank himself to death. Here is a man who spent his entire adult life spreading knowledge and wisdom about a life well lived, and the sot just sucked down bottle after bottle until he croaked at 58 years old. Some example, huh?

I kept wondering if I would somehow talk myself out of listening to the guy. After all, how much does someone have to teach me if he basically committed a slow suicide? How many people drink themselves to death? Percentage-wise, I suppose not that many! And yet the great Alan Watts managed to put himself in an early grave, besmirching his words. The messenger sullied the message.

On Sunday morning, I happened to stumble upon an article from Forbes about the recently-deceased Tony Hsieh. He’s dead now, too. And he was a preacher of sorts as well. His proclaimed his lifelong mission was to “spread happiness.” He also happened to make about $840 million along the way, by way of creating and selling Zappos, the company he founded.

So what happened to Mr. Happiness? Well, the coroner has kindly declared it an accidental death in a house fire, but considering the peculiar circumstances, it seems altogether possible that a despondent and desperately lonely Mr. Hsieh sealed himself in a room and allowed himself to die from the smoke inhalation. This is just speculation, but considering all the circumstantial evidence surrounding his life, it seems possible.

See, I’ve got plenty of VC friends, and after Hsieh died, there was an outpouring of grief. How generous Tony was. How inspirational he was. And yet, at the same time, he appears to have been a man absolutely desperate for human connection. He had no family, but as time went on, he became addicted to alcohol, nitrous oxide, and people hanging around him.

According to the article, he actually reached a point in his life where he bought friendship. He solicited people to come out to Park City, Utah, and he would pay them double whatever their highest salary in life had been, with their only duty being to “be happy” around him.

Can you imagine the kinds of users, lowlifes, and grifters this would attract? The irony is that Hsieh probably spent millions of dollars to acquire “friends” and he got precisely the opposite. And these bought-and-paid-for buddies had no problem with Hsieh guzzling alcohol or inhaling nitrous oxide. It probably made him even more pliable.

So this near-billionaire with all this natural charisma died about halfway through life, leaving no family or even a will, and a bunch of venal sycophants in his wake. How pathetic. How totally pathetic. Spreading happiness, huh? In the end, he sounds like an incredibly rich loser. It’s sad to read, and yet another example of the ancient expression that money doesn’t buy happiness. It sure can buy fake friends, but not happiness.

So what is it with these people? They say one thing and do another. Should we ignore them?

I don’t think so. I picture a magnificent slice of cake. Everything about it is marvelous and perfect. And yet the plate upon which it is served has a big chip out of it, and it’s starting to crack as well.

What’s delivered is the same. Its means of conveyance is imperfect. Yet so we all are. I choose not to let the messenger’s shortcomings eradicate the message. Their words were still true, and turning out back dishonors their efforts.

I’m far from perfect. And I have a message. I wouldn’t want my own failings to eradicate the things I have to say and teach either. Were I to shut my mind to Watts due to his tragic ending, I would be the real hypocrite, not him. So let’s keep learning.