A Star has flashed across our collective inner sky. A genius has left an enduring legacy. He was bigger than life. He was a giant in the entertainment field. He wowed us with his music and his moves. So what is the relevance of Michael Jackson to our lives?
The first thing that comes to mind is the early childhood discovery of a huge talent for music. Jackson was clearly a gifted entertainer who wasted no time in perfecting his artistry. From the perspective of a life coach, it is a huge blessing in life to become aware of our calling. That Michael Jackson did this so early in life set him on a clear path. He was precocious in his art beyond his years. Many have remarked how he sang as if he had years of experience behind him. Of the seven intelligences in Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences, Michael had access to two unique intelligences: a musical intelligence which contains the capacity to produce and appreciate rhythm and forms of musical expression, and a bodily-kinesthetic intelligence which demonstrates an ability to control one’s body movements. One might even argue that Michael accessed a third intelligence: a linguistic intelligence which demonstrates a sensitivity to the sounds, rhythms and meaning of words But with this success came some serious problems: a loss of balance – loss of childhood, a stunted education and conflicts with his father, resulting in early parent-child relational issues. These can have a devastating affect on one’s psychology.
From a psychological perspective, Michael had to respond to his childhood trauma of physical and emotional abuse and also to the condition of body dysmorphic disorder. In addition, the loss of a normal childhood was irreparable even though Michael tried so hard to make up for this by entertaining underprivileged and disabled children and their families at his Neverland ranch.
Childhood trauma, intentional or accidental, can result in long term psychological and even physiological disorders. Depending on when in childhood such trauma may have occurred, one can anticipate a loss of self-esteem. If Michael was emotionally abused during what Erik Erikson would identify in his model of human development as the psychosocial stage of the latency years (age 6-11), he did not have an opportunity to develop self-esteem through normal peer interactions, since he did not have the benefit of a normal childhood. In the latency years, an individual needs to resolve the conflict between “industry” and “inferiority” before one progresses to the next stage of human development in the life span. His multitude of adoring fans clearly could not make up for the need for normal emotional and psychological development, which is why Michael was so fixated on his childhood issues.
Body Dysmorphic Disorder historically known as dysmorphophobia is a preoccupation with a perceived defect in appearance and can cause severe psychological distress. Whether this was as a result of the 1986 diagnosis of vitiligo, which is an auto-immune disease that causes a loss of pigmentation, or whether vitiligo was concurrent with his body dysmorphic disorder is unclear. Nevertheless, that Michael was able to avoid social isolation which is a typical response to this condition speaks to his strength and courage to treat it and overcome it, in his own unique way. Individuals with this disorder often pursue and receive general medical, dermatological or surgical treatments to rectify their imagined defects. To his credit, Michael found a way to make this a part of his mythic persona.
The life of a celebrity often reveals an inner wasteland because one spends so much time pleasing the fans and getting stroked by an adoring public. This too can lead to a huge imbalance, even though the positive projections from his fans may have compensated a little for his own experience of self-loathing as reported by his long-time friend, Dr. Deepak Chopra. Chopra also revealed that Michael was suffering from Lupus, an auto-immune disease, although there is one report that suggests he was in remission from this.
This level of deprivation of a cultivated inner life can often lead to depression and a “loss of soul.” Surprisingly, Michael was able to compensate for this to some extent because he was clearly receptive to inner promptings in the creation and expression of his music and dance. His best-selling album “Thriller” may have been the outcome of Michael’s capacity to touch and connect with his shadow side. On the other hand, it is also possible that Michael’s emotional development was arrested in his “genital” psycho-social stage, which runs from adolescence to adulthood. During the genital psychosocial stage, an individual works towards resolution of the conflicts between identity and identity diffusion in adolescence, between intimacy and isolation in young adulthood, and between generativity and self-absorption in adulthood. This perhaps explains his less subtle sexually suggestive moves on stage and his complete lack of personal boundaries with children, especially when he dangled his son from the balcony of a hotel room. The final concert series indicates that Michael was moving into the generativity psycho-social stage of his life.
It does not appear that Michael was able to fully overcome his deeper depressive symptoms because he had to treat some of his somatic symptoms with prescription medications to which he became addicted. Michael had been admitted into various programs for chemical dependence and one wonders whether there was ever a serious consideration to receive consistent psychotherapy for his psychological and emotional well-being. Yet, despite this constant struggle with his inner demons, he was able to engage his world-wide public by bringing joy, ecstasy and a sense of human connection that transcended race, culture and ethnicity.
His lyrics evolved from expressions of romantic love (“I’ll be there”) to self-transformation (“Man in the Mirror”) to the unity of humankind (“We are the world”). Deepak Chopra revealed that the music for his final concert tour included environmental themes. So, clearly, despite his many personal trials and tribulations, psychological, legal and financial challenges, Michael was able to give the absolute very best of himself as the King of Pop, and possibly even as a father. He left an indelible impression on the lives of millions of people through his chosen vocation, creative self-expression and re-invention. One might go so far as to say that he achieved a remarkable degree of self-actualization. That is his greatest legacy.