What do Michael Jackson and Neda Agha-Soltan, the beautiful young Iranian girl shot through the heart in Tehran earlier this week, have in common? They are mirrors—or what I like to call “perception-givers.” Their lives and deaths reflect to us the tragic effects of our commonly accepted ways of seeing, being, and engaging.
My father, Ben Barrett, was in the music business and recorded a great deal of Michael Jackson’s music—from the early days with the Jackson Five right up to the “Dirty Diana” album (one of the last albums he recorded before his death in 1992). My brother Roman and I spent a lot of time in the studios when our dad was recording; he would even take us with him on the nightshifts. So the two of us spent time with Michael playing video games and consuming “studio snacks” (sugar cubes, Hershey’s Kisses, Melba Toast, and Coffee-mate). Michael was always kind and engaging—never once inappropriate with us, just for the record.
I imagine that just about everyone born prior to 1980 feels an emotional tug in response to the news of Michael’s death. He was, after all, probably the most famous person after Jesus and Elvis. I’m certainly not immune. But what I feel is a tremendous relief for him. I can’t help but feel like Grace released him from the torment of his existence.
For many years, Michael lived with his parents and siblings down the road from us in Encino, California, on a street called Havenhurst just off the main road of Ventura Blvd (famously referenced in Tom Petty’s hit “Free Fallin’” for you music trivia buffs). When he was a kid, Michael and his brothers would ride their bikes up to our house and visit my dad. Just take a moment to imagine Michael as a ten-year-old—that gorgeous little boy singing “My Cherie Amour”—riding his bike around his neighborhood like any ordinary, innocent kid. He was beautiful and, by anyone’s standards, uncommonly talented.
His father, as it is famously documented by his sister Latoya’s memoirs, was a hideous character. He was dominating, violent, and abusive. Young Michael’s truth was usurped by his father’s soul-annihilating abuse. From his father’s behavior and words came the stories and lies (reinforced by those who neither challenged them nor taught Michael to challenge them) that would imprison Michael for the rest of his life. To varying degrees, we have all accepted the stories and lies imposed upon us as children.
Yet, despite this, young Michael’s light shone so brightly. The brighter a light shines in the presence of a bully stuck in darkness, the more desperate that bully becomes to snuff out that light for fear of exposure. Many of us, in our defenseless innocence, have been at the mercy of such abuse. (Of course, these bullies, who have likely been abused themselves, need love more than most. But that is a separate issue.)
Young Michael was natural, innocent, exploding with creativity, and in enough possession of his own soul power to radiate his personal essence—making him and his music positively irresistible. Let’s all take a moment and acknowledge that what he expressed in 1970 in his recordings of “ABC” and “The Love You Save” was his true, irrepressible essence—inspiring, enchanting, and downright magical! That was the real Michael. That was before the world of UNTRUTH had at him. This, I believe, is what his spirit and soul are returning to as he sheds the cage of his physical body and the false stories it absorbed over the course of his life on earth.
Michael and Neda (whose name means “voice” in Farsi) are two innocent, pure souls who demonstrated the lies of our world and what we communally deem acceptable. The painful unfolding of Michael’s public life and the tragic, rapid-fire death of Neda in Iran have showed us the EFFECTS of the CAUSES supported by such a world. What happened to Michael and Neda could happen to any innocent, and indeed does—every second of every day. Dramatic displays of suffering and wasted life can sometimes jolt humans out of our programmed, blinkered ways of seeing so that we can begin to discern the truth. But then most of us get distracted again and fall back into our old ways.
To varying degrees, we are all PERCEPTION-GIVERS: those who reflect through personal experience the truths and untruths of our humanity. We must also pay attention and be PERCEPTION-GETTERS. This is the way of the Peaceful Warrior, who does not draw a machine gun or send out a drone against injustice. The Peaceful Warrior knows there is more power in simply holding a mental posture of attentiveness and knows exactly what to watch for. An effective Peaceful Warrior is fluent in the language of Life—able to discern between that which is life-generating and that which is life-deteriorating—and from there is able to make swift life-generating choices.
How perceptive are you? How adept a Peaceful Warrior? How many of the lies, stories, and life-deteriorating but commonly accepted ideas can you see though? What do you do with what you see? Do you passively pray that the world will change or do you change yourself based on what you discover?
Our world can change only if individuals truly perceive and understand the EFFECTS of every CAUSE, and can discern between life and death. How the term “life” is misused! That which is truly living is harmonious and beautiful. Can we stop going around saying “Well, that’s life!” when something undesirable happens? It would be more accurate to say, “Well, that’s death!”
If Michael was taking substances to ease his inner pain and these substances played a role in his passing, this would bear closer examination. Whether it’s pharmaceutical or recreational drugs, alcohol, overeating, or other perverse forms of consumption like excessive shopping and sex addiction, these numbing behaviors indicate a world of PAIN and UNTRUTH. We must acknowledge that the personal and communal pain is real, neither a minor blip on the screen nor an acceptable part of normal life. Perception-getters know that pain is the alarm bell sounding off against the error of life-destroying causes and actions. Furthermore, error begets error, growing exponentially and multiplying human pain.
Instead of trading one numbing behavior for another—say, drinking for smoking, or smoking for overeating, we must determine what is motivating this behavior. The fact is, like Michael, many people don’t want see the truth and go through the shedding process. But for those of us who do, perception can lead to freedom.
To get really personal, for the first time in a long time I was so overcome with emotion today that I just wept. I didn’t resist the urge; I was grateful no one around to say, “Please don’t cry.” It felt so good to shed my tears. The flood of tears came through me like a summer storm after a long, hot day—it drenched my face, neck and T-shirt. I was not lost in the emotion. Rather, I was able to observe it. I was delighted that what I was feeling (and for whatever length of time I had been holding onto it) was finding a release—an exit from my body.
As I cried, all I could think of were the lies and the suffering those lies were causing. I wept for the beautiful boy, Michael, whose experience is a mirror for humanity. I wept in joy for all of our journeys, for despite how daunting it can be to truly perceive, it is a gift. It enables us to shed our old skins of untruth and renew ourselves. I wept for the gorgeous, young Neda and thanked her for her sacrifice, which has opened our eyes in invaluable ways.
One of my favorite songs is “The Nightshift” by the Commodores. It reminds me of my dad making music-magic in the studios on the nightshift—when most of the biggest R&B hits of the 60s, 70s and 80s were recorded. The Commodores recorded this song as a tribute to two of their friends who both passed in 1984: one was the legendary perception-giver, Marvin Gaye; and the other, the great Jackie Wilson.
I’ve posted the lyrics below as a tribute to Michael’s legacy and the mirror he offered mankind. I suppose this gives new meaning to his 1988 hit, “Man in the Mirror.” His fifty years on this planet were not easy for him. This is for you, Michael, may your pain not be in vain, and may your harmonies bring about greater harmony here on earth.
The “Nightshift” by The Commodores
Marvin, he was a friend of mine
And he could sing a song
His heart in every line.
Marvin sang of the joy and pain
He opened up our minds
And I still can hear him say:
Talk to me
So you can see
What’s goin’ on.
Say you will sing your songs
Gonna be some sweet sounds comin’ down on the nightshift
I bet you’re singin’ proud
Oh, I bet you pull a crowd.
Gonna be a long night
It’s gonna be all right on the nightshift.
You found another home
I know you’re not alone on the nightshift.
You found another home
I know you’re not alone on the nightshift.
Jackie, hey what you’re doin’ now? It seems like yesterday
When we were workin’ out.
Jackie, you set the world on fire
You came and gifted us
Your love, it lifted us higher and higher.
Keep it up and we’ll be there at your side.
Say you will sing your songs forever more
Gonna be some sweet sounds comin’ down on the nightshift…
Aw—just download it and have a listen. It’s one of the greats!