At one point during a video series of discussions on the Psalms and faith, U2’s frontman Bono (speaking with David Taylor, assistant professor of theology and culture at Fuller Theological Seminary) says, “I became an artist through the portal of grief.”
There is lots of good stuff to unpack in the video, particularly the information that Bono and his family went to Jerusalem “on a family pilgrimage,” and that he came to an understanding of death while standing at the place where Christ Jesus was crucified—“the place where death died,” as he says—that has forever changed his outlook on death.
His bringing up his mother’s death, though—she suffered a stroke at her father’s graveside when Bono was fourteen—reminded me of something I have pondered often: How much does the early death of a parent (or, equally, the emotional abuse and abandonment by a parent) factor into the lives of prominent people, particularly artists, particularly those artists who sometimes seem to go out of their way to bring attention to themselves, even outside of their work?
I’m thinking of someone like John Lennon, whose mother emotionally abandoned him when he was very small and died while he was a teenager, or Madonna, and Ray Charles, and Rosie O’Donnell, all of whom—like Bono, and also like Paul McCartney—lost their mothers in adolescence; or Frank Sinatra, who confessed himself terrified of a mother who alternatively coddled him and beat him. Or Marilyn Monroe, who was a ward of the state by the time she was seven years old, and seemed to spend her whole sad life looking for validation and love.
In the late 1980s, I attended a Sinatra concert and saw that he needed monitors to help him remember the lyrics of songs he’d sung thousands of times, and I couldn’t help wondering, What is still missing from this man’s life that he still needs to seek out the adoration of the masses, the audience applause? He had formally “retired” in 1971, only to go back onstage a mere two years later.
Similarly, John Lennon “retired” to raise his son, Sean, but was never fully out of sight before creating his last album. Paul McCartney is seventy-eight years old and one of the wealthiest men in Britain, yet he seems bent on touring until he dies. Madonna hasn’t had a hit record in years and yet she keeps inserting herself into events in outrageous and annoying ways for no discernible reason beyond a need for attention. She, like O’Donnell, and Bono, has brought up the loss of a mother frequently in past interviews.
Clearly, it weighs. Clearly, a parental void, most particularly, perhaps, the maternal void—the loss of a mother’s love, whether through death or psychological, emotional absences—seems to create an everlasting hole in the life and spirit of a child, one so deep it seems nothing may ever fill it.
“She left me,” Bono says of his mother’s death, “but she left me an artist.”
Everyone has a story to tell, and all of us really want to tell it, just as children run to their parents with exciting news, or a new idea, or something they’ve imagined for themselves, and expect to be listened to, heard, and appreciated for sharing what they have; what they think and know; who they are becoming.
When we do not have it, where is that essential part of us to go?
What part of individual “greatness”—whether artistic or political or social—has its genesis in that loss, and the need to find a way to fill the abyss left by grief with something else, something that permits the telling of one’s tale, and finds the validation that parental loss denies?
“It began the journey, trying to fill the hole in my heart . . .”
“Finally,” says Bono, “the only thing that could fulfill it was God’s love. And it’s a big hole, but luckily it was a big love.”
Great art, bold initiatives—both seem to come from great love, or from the search for it.
It is staggering to think of how many people who have lost a parent early come to prominence —John Paul II lost his mother at a young age too—and to wonder how much of their ambition (for good or for ill, for better or for worse) traveled through that “portal of grief,” had a connection with that need to fill, fill, fill the void of loss.
I have recently been pondering the history of England and its colonialist establishment, its empire-building, and I can’t help but note that so much of it was forged by sons of privilege, who were sent away for schooling at very early ages; “produced” rather than “raised” and then seemingly hell-bent on overachieving, very often descending into ruthlessness in order to become “great,” which is another way of being seen.
It’s fascinating to think about, isn’t it?
“Our hearts are restless, until they rest in you,” wrote St. Augustine, whose feast we will celebrate on Friday. He was sent away for schooling at age eleven, and lost his father at age seventeen. His mother, St. Monica (her feast day is tomorrow), loved him and advocated for him to God Almighty, especially for the gift of faith, and yet he too knew the void of absent parentage, seeking to answer the churning need of his restless heart through adolescent schemes and petty thievery, academic drive, and sexual promiscuity.
We live in an age where more people are being born to single mothers than ever before in modernity; where divorce has ruptured families and relationships to parents, and multiple generations have lived without the example of an intact family before their eyes. How many millions are shoveling desperately, looking to fill an immensity of emptiness—the big hole that drives so much of what we do, either consciously or subconsciously—but are being directed away from that “big love” of God, toward what is only false, full of empty promise, tempting endless appetite? What can only, finally drag them down into the unanswerable and empty depths?
Just thinking about it makes me want to remember to pray for them, every day. For the parent-grieving multitudes—and maybe for my own parent-grief—that God might speedily reach down while we are reaching up. That what we manage to produce as we stretch our arms toward the only thing big enough to answer our need might be great, uplifting, hopeful, outreaching, and encouraging for each other.
You were within me, but I was outside, and it was there that I searched for you. In my unloveliness I plunged into the lovely things which you created. You were with me, but I was not with you. Created things kept me from you; yet if they had not been in you they would have not been at all. You called, you shouted, and you broke through my deafness. You flashed, you shone, and you dispelled my blindness. You breathed your fragrance on me; I drew in breath and now I pant for you. I have tasted you, now I hunger and thirst for more. You touched me, and I burned for your peace. (Confessions, St. Augustine)
Photo by U2Start.