Thursday, October 11, 2007

Starring...Mom

Americans have a tremendous capacity to absorb and reflect celebrity gossip.

Consider how the life of a young and dysfunctional mother, and her loss of her children in a custody battle, generated more news coverage than any of the presidential debates has so far managed to garner, and you can see the truth of what I just wrote above. Mind, I'm not saying it's a bad thing that the press hasn't so far paid more attention to a handful of lackluster candidates in what is shaping up to be the least interesting election since 1888. But it's not really a good thing that so many Americans know more about what their favorite star eats for breakfast than they do about the issue of genetically modified food, or that many Americans would find it easier to name the stars of every C.S.I. iteration than even one member of the President's Cabinet.

The allure of celebrity has been with us for a long time, of course. But in our twenty-four hour news saturated lives, with constant access to the least and most trivial data about any celebrity we might admire, we have the ability to know so much more about our stars than previous generations might have known about stars of the Golden Age during their lifetimes; they were bigger than life when they lit up the silver screen, but I think they also knew there was a line between the fans' wide-eyed fascination, and the fixed stare of a crowd who is just as excited to see you suffer as to share vicariously in your success.

Unfortunately, all this attention we pay to celebrities has a way of distorting our view of the world. We can find ourselves in the position where relatively minor claims to fame become riveting and fascinating; we can discover in our souls the very shallow ability to attach ourselves to people based more on their "celebrity status" than on any actual connection we might have to them; worst of all, we can start seeing this celebrity status as something desirable, something worth striving for and achieving, something worth cultivating.

It's human nature, I think, to feel a slightly idiotic thrill when you discover that some unknown person you've been chatting amicably enough with on a forum or blog is actually someone you've heard of, quite outside of the Internet: maybe she's written a wonderful book on homeschooling, or maybe he writes for a major-market newspaper, or maybe you attended a religious conference at which he or she was a keynote speaker. It's wonderful to encounter such a person, especially if they've paid you a compliment on your own blog or about your own comment; it's perfectly natural and human to feel pleased and flattered on such an occasion.

Sometimes, we find ourselves in a position of getting to know one of these minor celebrities quite well, of moving beyond that "Wow!" moment to a place where we make a connection, find common ground, and even become friends, to the extent that that is possible on the Internet or over the phone. That's quite nice; but it's also quite rare. I tend to think that such a friendship imposes rather heavy duties on the non-celebrity in terms of respecting boundaries and privacy to whatever extent is necessary; a true friend doesn't ever make public what is shared privately without permission, anyway, but that issue is even more sensitive if one of the friends has even a slight level of fame.

But sometimes, if we're truly honest with ourselves, we'll discover that we're prone to exaggerating our connection to minor--or even major--celebrities, people we don't necessarily even care much about as human beings, in order to bask in their reflected glory, or to achieve some level of fame ourselves. Or worse, we'll set ourselves up as rivals to these people, sure that our own ideas, writings, talents etc. are as good or better than what these "celebrities" have to offer, certain that we, too, can achieve fame, that fame is something we should want and that we deserve to get.

Pride is the deadliest of sins, and thus it is the devil's favorite weapon to use against us. Our honest admiration of someone who has achieved something we might dream of doing ourselves can be turned in an instant into the bitter, destructive poison of an Iago. Blinded by our desire for recognition, thwarted by our inability to achieve that celebrity status, we might begin to lash out at those who have done what we wish to do, belittling them, tearing them down, muttering darkly about how we had the same idea for a book/movie/composition/award-winning cookie recipe etc. long before he or she did, and that, in fact, considering an e-mail we sent him or her several months ago which we've most unfortunately misplaced, we believe that he or she all but stole our idea.

If we go around convinced of this and willing to pour out our grievances to anyone who will listen to us, we'll get recognition, all right. We'll be recognized as the truly small people we actually are.

Fame isn't a sign of God's favor, and celebrities don't really live the lives of alternating glamor and controversy as portrayed in the gossip shows and magazines. As far as the minor celebrities we admire and sometimes encounter, they live lives entirely like yours and mine, except that once in a great while a total stranger will find out who they are and say a kind word or two about some accomplishment for which they are known. Craving that sort of attention as something good in and of itself is a sign, not that we're destined for greatness, but that either we need a few more kind people in our lives who are willing to give us those small measures of praise, or that we need to learn to be more willing to accept that sort of praise not from strangers, but from our own biggest fans--the ones we cook and clean and care for on a daily basis.

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