In our modern culture, a huge number of people seem to derive a sense of meaning in their lives through the worship of celebrity (combined with a longing to achieve personal notoriety) and/or the pursuit of idealized romantic love. I’ve discussed these issues in my earlier posts on celebrities and love junkies; my good friend Marla Estes has also done extensive work on the subject of romantic love in the seminars she teaches. I’d like to enlarge those ideas into a discussion of personal values and how we derive a sense of purpose in our lives.
You might have heard about Jake Halpern’s book Fame Junkies. In a survey of several hundred middle-school students in upstate New York, Halpern found that just under 50 percent would prefer to work as a personal assistant to a celebrity over being a university president, corporate CEO, Navy Seal or U.S. Senator. These students valued mere proximity to a celebrity over other kinds of prestigious work. Another poll conducted by the Pew Research Center found that the vast majority of 18-25 year-olds surveyed in 2007 listed fortune and fame as the top two goals for their generation.
I find these results discouraging but they come as no surprise. Grocery store news racks, the ones at the check-out lines, mostly hold magazines with movie and TV stars on their covers. The shopping public seems to have an inexhaustible interest in famous people and their love lives, even though such stories concern the same mundane events that vast numbers of Americans personally experience: dating, starry-eyed romance that leads to an idealized wedding, followed by disillusionment, infidelity and broken families. I’ll bet another survey would show that most people would prefer to be a wealthy celebrity going through a painful divorce than a schoolteacher basically satisfied with his or her marriage. Most people feel that to be famous gives their lives meaning and rescues it from the uninspired realm of ordinary life.
TV reality shows give the average man or woman a chance to participate in that world of celebrity, if only for a brief time. I believe this is why so many people are willing to expose the most personal and painful details of their lives on nationally-televised shows like Dr. Phil or Jerry Springer. Quaint notions of privacy or appropriate shame have no force when overpowered by the lure of notoriety. Maybe my empty life is a total mess, my marriage a shambles and my family alienated from me, but as long as I can be on television, it will nonetheless mean something!
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