When the news broke on July 20, 2017, of the death by suicide of Chester Bennington, lead singer of the band Linkin Park, my immediate thought was “surely this is another hoax, like the bogus announcements over the internet of the deaths of Clint Eastwood and William H. Macy.” Sadly, it is true. Chester Bennington took his own life at the age of forty-one. This came as a horrible shock to his family, friends, band mates and millions of adoring fans. He was in the prime of his life, at the top of his game as a professional performer and in between tours with his band in promoting their new album One More Light. It seemed he had everything to live for, yet he decided to end his life. This is, undoubtedly, hard for many to understand and who are left wondering why. I can only surmise that in spite of the fame and success he enjoyed in life, despair got the better of him and he decided he could not go on living. Despair is part of being human and how human beings cope with it or not varies according the individual.
The Oxford Dictionary defines despair as “the complete loss or absence of hope.”
This definition of despair came to mind last summer when I was on holiday in Bulgaria, visiting my friend Plamen when we toured the National Gallery of Bulgaria in Sofia. Of the paintings by Bulgarian artists on exhibit there was one that struck me in its poignancy. The artist depicted a scene out of Bulgarian history. It was a procession featuring Orthodox Christian clerics and a mass of people who were aged, ill, disabled and impoverished. People whose lives were wretched, whose lot in life was one without hope in its starkest definition. In spite of that, they found hope in their faith. They turned to the Church as the believed it offered them the chance of a better life in heaven. Their faith gave their lives meaning despite the misery that was their lot in life.
A more nuanced definition of despair is advanced in the school of philosophy known as Existentialism. The following description illustrates in layman’s terms what constitutes despair in Existentialism:
But for an existentialist who believes that he has given meaning to his life and has become what he is today by his own efforts, which makes him feel proud of himself, is some thing that can be taken away from him at any time for any reason, makes him despair for no specific reason. […] Whenever we make a mistake which may compromise our identity, we feel low, depressed and sometimes hopeless. This awareness of the fact that we may lose our identity or the thing that gives meaning to our life leads us to a perpetual state of despair. Thus despair of an existentialist is nothing but awareness of the fragility of his existence or “the thing” that gives meaning to his life. (Philosophy Made Easy)
In thinking of Chester Bennington and his sad fate, the feature film Educating Rita comes to mind. The protagonist, Rita, wants to raise herself from her working-class existence in Liverpool. She wants “a better song to sing.” She thinks she finds it when she enrolls in a university course in literature and takes part in the university culture. Her tutor, Frank, confronts her with the despairing proposition: “Found a culture, have you, Rita? Found a better song to sing? No, you found a different song to sing, and on your lips, it’s shrill and hollow and tuneless.” (Educating Rita, 1983)
Chester Bennington was a self-made man. Born in Phoenix, Arizona into an average American family (his father was a police detective and his mother a nurse) he dreamed of being a professional performer growing up. After completing high school, Bennington set out to establish himself as a rock singer in the early 1990s, singing with various bands in Phoenix achieving modest success. His breakthrough came when he joined Linkin Park and the band’s debut album Hybrid Theory, released in 2000, was an instant hit. In fact, it sold fifty-thousand copies in its first week, and by 2014 it was reported it sold twenty-seven million copies worldwide. (Download)
What I so admired about Chester Bennington as a vocalist was his ability to take a lyric and make it his own. His singing was not “shrill and hollow and tuneless” by any means. I remember hearing his haunting vocal in Breaking the Habit on the radio in my car for the first time several years ago. He really brought to life the pain and anguish experienced by the character in the song. This resonated with me as it brought up the memory of my own battle with alcohol abuse. I immediately became a fan of Linkin Park.
By the end of his life, he reached the pinnacle of fame and had done very well for himself. In effect, to his millions of adoring fans, he succeeded in finding “a better song to sing.” However, the sad reality is he could not cope with the “perpetual state of despair” that accompanied him in his rise to the top. In the end, he could not overcome the “awareness of the fragility of his existence or “the thing” that gives meaning to his life” and chose suicide. If there is a moral to this tragic tale, it is that you should be true to yourself. Do the best you can regardless of what life throws at you, not be too hard on yourself, be kind to those around you and all the while, try to find joy and happiness as long as you live and breathe.
A fitting epitaph for the life and legacy of Chester Bennington comes from the Linkin Park song Leave Out all the Rest.
When my time comes
Forget the wrong that I’ve done
Help me leave behind some
Reasons to be missed
Don’t resent me
And when you’re feeling empty
Keep me in your memory
Leave out all the rest
Leave out all the rest
May he rest in peace.