Whitney Houston: Let Our Actions Define Her Legacy


Whitney Houston’s family laid her to rest yesterday.  It was the final farewell in what has been eight days of remembrances, TV specials, and anguish for her family.  It was sad and it was sobering, but for me, a huge level of regret hung in the air.  From those initial hours after learning of her death and watching the media converge on this moment of tragedy turned opportunity, I felt a tangible sense that Whitney Houston deserved more – she deserved more when she was alive. 


I don’t write this as a lifelong fan.  I never attended a Whitney Houston concert nor have I even owned one of her albums.  I paid little attention to her personal difficulties.  However, growing up, I have memories of quiet taking over when her song came on in the family car or she performed at an awards ceremony.  Her outstanding talent burned bright and warmed each of us who felt something when she sang. 


In the songs we all know, her powerful voice gave life to the power of love, yet the gift was not returned to her in her greatest time of need.  One set of questions that kept entering my mind during the past week was why couldn’t the outpouring of love we observed at the time of her passing have been harvested while she was still alive?  Why didn’t we care before it was too late?  I don’t know if it would have led to a different outcome, but I believe it would have made a difference in her life. 


Instead of an outpouring of love and concern, we responded to her difficulties with a distant indifference.  We not only passively observed her downfall, but part of me believes we also supported it.  We bought the newspapers with headlines declaring her personal failures.  We tuned-in when Diane Sawyer sought to expose all of her indiscretions. We didn’t support Whitney Houston; we supported the emotionless machinery that was in place to document her demise. 


There is no simple explanation to why we reacted the way we did.  It’s probably partly because it’s easy to eat what is hand fed to us.  It’s probably partly because our own lives are busy and full of stresses.  It’s probably partly because we believed she had more resources than most people.  It’s probably partly because of the American ideal of pulling yourself up by your bootstraps.  Even more, perhaps our response to Whitney Houston’s struggles is a magnified representation of how most of us feel we must deal with our own battles – alone.


I believe in hard work and personal responsibility, but I also know some hurdles cannot be overcome on our own.  When we all raise someone to such heights of fame and recognition, then we also bear a responsibility to care about them when they begin to fall.  I can’t shake the feeling that there is a better way.  We owed her something more. 


It may be too much to expect that our mindset about celebrity change overnight.  A better starting point might be to engage the people in our lives who are facing their own personal struggles.  It doesn’t have to be hard or time consuming: acknowledge their circumstances, utter a few words of belief and encouragement, and convey that they don’t have to face it alone.  Simply let them know that they truly matter to you while they’re still alive.


If that were to happen as a result of this tragedy, then the legacy of one of the greatest singers we have ever known would be far greater than the range of her impeccable voice.  And we all would benefit from her yet again.