Our Many Selves: Rocketman
Timing is everything. After writing last week's article, several people recommended that I go see the movie Rocketman, the story of Elton John. In the movie, you can see how he developed different parts inside himself. I knew nothing about the movie when I wrote the previous week’s article. I was amazed at how timely and on point the movie was, illustrating exactly what we were discussing here.
The movie begins with a dramatic scene where Elton John enters a group therapy session dressed in a devil’s costume. He tells the group that he is an alcoholic, cocaine addict, a sex addict, bulimic and a shopaholic. There is much more to him as a person - he is also an extraordinary talented musician who has achieved super stardom. We see in this movie how the different parts of himself compete with one another, creating internal conflict and constant struggle. Finally, the singer can no longer deal with the pain this creates in his life.
What we see of Elton John's life story begins with an incident in his childhood when he is waiting for his father to come home. Once his father arrives, the young boy is anticipating a hug and an acknowledgment. Neither occurs. Finally he stands before his father and asks, “When will you hug me?”. His father turns and walks away.
Close on the heels of that incident, we see Elton sit at the piano and play a symphony he heard on the radio. His grandmother is amazed at his ability and suggest he be given lessons. His mother, on the other hand, is unimpressed. She hesitantly agrees to lessons while making it clear she has no time to help him get there. Again, he is unacknowledged, unseen by his parent.
These two scenes are a brilliant demonstration of how children become wounded and learn that who they are is not acceptable. We can agree that his father’s behavior was, at best, unkind and rejecting. His mother was simply self-absorbed and uninterested in him. Few would call either behavior “child abuse,” however, the damage was done. A series of moments when Elton was given the message that his parents were too busy and too self-involved to attend to him and his needs sent the message that he was not important or worthy of attention from his parents. Like all children, the only conclusion he could come to was that there was something wrong with him.
Even with this message, he survived and became a success, just as many children do. How was he able to do that? His brain was able to create new ways of reacting that adapted to the expectations of his parents. At the same time, another part of his brain was hiding the other pieces of himself that his parents' reactions taught him were “unacceptable”. That wounded child was hidden away. His lost adolescence was covered over with a new identity. He even changed his name to leave the past and create a new future. It worked. He was able to step into this new identity of Elton John and use his talents to find success.
The problem came when he tried to have personal relationships. He could no longer contain the pain that lurked inside, pushing to be seen and acknowledged. His misguided self that had been hidden for so long pushed for more drugs, more alcohol and more sex as a means of survival. In the end, nothing could soothe the pain, quell the anger, and stop the fear and loneliness. The self-punishing parts of himself pushed him until he felt the only solution was to kill himself, trying to do physically what his parents did to him emotionally.
Spoiler alert: we know that suicide attempt did not succeed, as Elton John celebrates his 72nd birthday this year. What did work for the singer? The movie shows him telling his life story, feeling the feelings that had long been buried and finally finding self-acceptance. As the movie progressed, he shed pieces of the elaborate costume he wore. With each piece he removed, he acknowledged a part of his “false self” and let it go. This allowed the space for the person he had been hiding to come to the surface and be recognized.
That is a lesson everyone can learn from this movie. Whether you are an international music star, or a regular person trying to make it to the weekend, finding contentment begins with self-knowledge. Knowing who we have become in order to fit the expectations that were placed upon us is crucial to finding the parts of ourselves that we have hidden in order to survive. Those hidden pieces of our selves can lead us to contentment, but we must allow them to surface.