On the Deaths of Prince and Ali: Even More Anxiety Chronicles

Gilbert Gottfried had a joke that included the land of the one-name people—there was also the pretentious first initial people, I think, like F. Scott Fitzgerald—and there was a time I thought the joke was brilliant, especially in the context of Gottfried’s delivery.

But not today.

I have been planning to write about Prince’s death, and the role of chronic pain in that far-too-early passing.

I was sidetracked by nerd-panic over Captain America, and then Ali died as well.

I cannot claim to have been a fan of Prince. What I can say is that I was, from the very first moment I heard and saw Prince, in awe of Prince—the enormity of his gifts, the size of his presence.

Ali was a completely different story because he was an iconic target of the racism within which I was raised. I was brought up to scorn Ali.

From young adulthood until today, I have worked diligently to make amends for those facts of my life that were not my decision, but for which I still feel responsible.

Today, now, as the world has lost both Prince and Ali, I can say without hesitation that I live in awe of both men—I am driven to cold chills and tears because of the grandeur of their lives, their living.

But that Prince fell victim to chronic pain and Ali lived a deteriorated man for years hurt me to the core in a way that I understand in ways I wish I did not.

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Boxing great Muhammad Ali, right, pats the head of the Artist Formerly Known as Prince during a meeting in Washington Tuesday, June 24, 1997 prior to a news conference where they were to announce plans for a benefit concert in October. The World Healing Honors will be a grand benefit concert to promote international harmony and tolerance. (AP Photo/Karin Cooper/Rogers & Cowan)

Along with my lifelong battle with anxiety, I suffer under the weight of chronic pain—and I have no real way to separate the two since I think the anxiety and chronic pain are working in tandem, a brutal cycle.

How does someone of Prince’s talent and fame end up dead and alone, fallen by his battle with chronic pain?

I don’t know the facts of Prince’s life, but I do know that anxiety and chronic pain are the twin cousins of a much more powerful and dangerous force: embarrassment.

As a tremendously privileged white male, I am not writing a pity party here, but even my privileges work to create an even greater bubble of embarrassment.

My anxiety and chronic pain make me feel weak, inadequate, and hopeless—less of a man, less human because I cannot enjoy my mortal shell.

Even on the best days and during the most wonderful moments—moments public and intimate—anxiety and chronic pain tag along, hover there, tap me on the shoulder.

In Scarcity, Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir argue that the ultimate tragedy of poverty is that people living in scarcity cannot take a vacation from poverty.

That is the anchor of anxiety and chronic pain—there are no vacations, even when we stoop to proper and self-medication.

If we find ways to numb the chronic pain, we still know it is there, that it will return. Chronic pain is chronic, it isn’t a wound or affliction that will heal.

Along while Prince’s pain, I am petrified of the natural deterioration of aging, held before us by Ali’s struggle with disease.

When the mighty fall, we all must be more aware of our shared humanity, a frailty that cannot be ignored forever.

Ali was vilified for his bravado, that scorn a base code for rejecting the nerve of a black man to demand with words his own and other’s dignity.

I live in the shroud of embarrassment created by anxiety and chronic pain, but my heart is drawn to Prince and Ali as they lived, as they celebrated themselves as evidence that we humans can be glorious if we so choose.

Their public selves were the antithesis, the antidote to embarrassment for simply being ourselves.

Today, I am sad, yes, but I also feel fortunate to have been gifted these possibilities of living life freely and proudly—as Ali demanded: “You must listen to me.”

One comment

  1. Michael Paul Goldenberg

    I understand what you’re doing here, but I’d have left the Gilbert Gottfried reference out for a number of reasons. First, it’s a great bit. Second, he never included Ali (can’t recall if he mentioned Prince). Third, Ali didn’t name himself “Ali” or refer to himself as “Ali.” He named himself “Muhammad Ali.” It was much of the world that came to call him “Ali” because even though it’s a common Muslim name, there was only one man on the planet who people thought of as ALI! It just feels wrong to me to suggest that Gottfried or anyone would suggest that Ali was one of those PRETENTIOUS one-named people, perhaps the most obvious examples of whom in our lifetimes would probably be Cher and Madonna (or put your favorites in). As an aside, that Gilbert routine also included a visit to the land of pretentious THREE-named people, e.g., Jan-Michael Vincent and myself.🙂

    As for the issue of pain management, it feels like a peculiarly American problem that reflects yet again how hypocritical we can be as a nation. Drugs are great as long as they are approved by Big Pharma. We are bombarded daily with ads for drugs old and new (the list of warnings for the latter making me less than excited about nearly all of them). But pain management for chronic and terminal illness-related pain is another matter. There is so much needless suffering as a result, and as we see in the case of Prince, many needless deaths. People more familiar with these issues and how various groups and individuals in the medical, pharmaceutical, legal, and governmental/regulatory categories deal with them are better positioned than I to comment at length, but my sense is that we’re still not ready to come to grips with how crazy we are about allowing easy, open access to reasonable management of pain. My own experiences with extended bouts of physical pain have centered on my lower back, and I reached a point where regular medical treatment wasn’t helpful. Luckily, I found some non-traditional approaches that worked very well. I’ve been blessed not to have back problems for most of the last decade (no idea why but not looking that gift horse in the mouth), but I know how horrid it can be to be literally incapacitated by physical pain.

    As for anxiety and depression, don’t get me started.

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