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I was profoundly moved by this incredible profile of film critic Roger Ebert, written by journalist Chris Jones for the latest issue of Esquire magazine. Ebert, you may know, can no longer eat, drink, or speak, due to a series of surgeries to combat cancer of the thyroid, salivary gland, and jaw. He communicates primarily through his writing and a computerized voice program. Yet, he is more full of joy and in tune with life than he’s ever been. As Jones observes about Ebert:

There has been no death-row conversion. He has not found God. He has been beaten in some ways. But his other senses have picked up since he lost his sense of taste. He has tuned better into life. Some things aren’t as important as they once were; some things are more important than ever. He has built for himself a new kind of universe. Roger Ebert is no mystic, but he knows things we don’t know.

Then Jones quotes this reflection from Ebert himself:

I believe that if, at the end of it all, according to our abilities, we have done something to make others a little happier, and something to make ourselves a little happier, that is about the best we can do. To make others less happy is a crime. To make ourselves unhappy is where all crime starts. We must try to contribute joy to the world. That is true no matter what our problems, our health, our circumstances. We must try. I didn’t always know this, and am happy I lived long enough to find it out.

Ebert, the article says, is slowly dying. And he knows it. Yet the way he’s currently facing life certainly offers lessons on living for all of us.

I was reminded of a post that I wrote almost one year ago reflecting on the tenth anniversary of the death of Gene Siskel, Ebert’s famous partner in film criticism, and the wonderful though often combative friendship that they shared. Jones’s profile references Ebert’s poignant tribute to his late friend, and reading Jones’s article caused me to go back and re-read Ebert’s piece, too. It was time well spent.

I don’t always know exactly what to do after reading stories as heartrending as Jones’s profile of Ebert, or Ebert’s own written memories of Siskel. But I do appreciate Mr. Ebert’s insight: “We must try to contribute joy to the world. That is true no matter what our problems, our health, our circumstances. We must try.”

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Here’s a piece that I posted earlier at UrbanFaith.com.

Let the wall-to-wall Michael Jackson coverage continue. As soon as I heard the tragic news about his passing yesterday afternoon, I knew it would mean nonstop fodder for all the CNNs and WGCIs and TMZ.coms (sorry, Farrah). This will be just like Princess Di’s death, I thought. And for a brief moment, it was just as shocking and unexpected. Then, after a few minutes, the horrible truth sank in: Michael Jackson had already died many years ago. Or at least that’s how it felt.

I posted that thought on my Facebook page and was surprised to see a steady stream of friends chime in with their agreement. “Around ’92, I’d say,” wrote my college friend Christopher. “You got that right, he’s been gone for a good long time,” added Karin, another former classmate. “Yes,” continued my work colleague Bruce, “it feels like we’ve already grieved his death … as sad as the news is.”

Maybe it was around 1992. That’s when the plastic surgeries and ever-whitening skin began to morph him into something more noticeably un-real. Or perhaps it was back in the early ’70s, when, under the harsh rule of a demanding stage parent, he was not allowed to be a child, but then years later didn’t seem to understand how to be an adult, either.

By the late ’90s, the “ABC” – Off the WallThriller versions of Michael Jackson were clearly notions of the distant past. I’ll never forget the day in 1997 that my wife came home from her job as a daycare worker and told me she had overheard a discussion among the 7 and 8-year-olds about Michael Jackson. After she offhandedly referred to him as an African American, the kids’ eyes widened in disbelief: “You mean Michael Jackson is black?”

Many of us used to think that Michael Jackson’s constantly changing looks were the result of his desire not to be black. The narrowed nose, straightened hair, and lightened skin all suggested a person who was attempting to escape his genetic fate. Yet, Jackson always spoke about being proud of his racial heritage. And his continued influence on the black urban and hip-hop artistic communities was immense, despite the fact that he appeared to be running away from his race.

Could it be, as Chicago Tribune columnist Clarence Page has suggested, that Jackson was not trying to escape his race so much as the image of his father that he saw in the mirror?

The truth is, despite all the controversy and dysfunction and tragedy in his life, Jackson was one of the great pop-culture reconcilers of our time. Like Joe Louis, Jackie Robinson, Nat King Cole, and Bill Cosby (as well as many others), Jackson broke down racial barriers by virtue of his talent and ability. I recall seeing white girls in 7th grade walking the halls with the Thriller album in their hands and thinking, Wow, white people like Michael Jackson too? Before that, in my limited 12 or 13 years of life, I had never seen white people so publicly claiming a black pop star as their own. But for the ’80s generation, Michael Jackson demolished the walls. Everyone, regardless of race, talked about the “Thriller” video or Jackson’s legendary performance on the Motown 25 TV special or whatever Jackson’s latest fashion statement happened to be.

Of course, we also talked about his problems and freakish behaviors later on. But my sense is that there always was more sympathy than condemnation for this man whom so many once wildly celebrated.

The outpouring of sadness and grief after the announcement of Jackson’s death yesterday proves that he still occupies a special place in our culture. Folks whom I would’ve never imagined cared about Jackson have chimed in on Facebook, Twitter, and blogs with notes of sympathy and fond memories of “the King of Pop.”

I was about 8 when Elvis died in 1977, and I remember not knowing much about who the guy was until that day. Suddenly, I received a whirlwind education on “the King” and his importance in music and pop culture. In death, Elvis Presley became real to me. I suspect it may be that way for many younger folks today as the tragic figure that Jackson became in his latter years takes a backseat to the musical legacy of one of the greatest entertainers the world has ever known.

No one knows what the condition of Jackson’s spiritual life was at the time of his death, whether or not he’d made peace with God. The assumption is he was still searching, still unfulfilled, still trying to recapture the success of his ’80s heyday while trying to escape the fallout of that same success.

Today, we fondly remember our favorite Michael Jackson songs: “I’ll Be There,” “Rock with You,” “Beat It,” “Black or White.” We celebrate the joy he brought us as an artist. But we also pray that, perhaps in his final moments of life, he was finally able to see things clearly.

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