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!
Next to being famous, falling in love offers the next best hope of salvation. Gauging from the continuing popularity of romantic comedies and romance novels, huge numbers of people long for a perfect, happily-ever-after kind of love despite the pervasive evidence that nobody has ever had such an experience. Sleepless in Seattle exemplifies the dream: two people who experience a spark of magic when they first meet in the movie’s final scene, recognizing that they were meant for each other. Living happily ever after, that’s what life is all about. No wonder the divorce rate is so high. How are people to cope with the realities and disappointments of real relationships when love is supposed to offer salvation?
As you may know, romantic love is a fairly recent invention in human history; to this day, marriage in many cultures remains by necessity an economic partnership rather than a means to personal and emotional fulfillment. Of course, we’d all agree it’s better to have an intimate relationship with your partner where you experience love and understanding, but to expect romance and marriage to make your life feel ultimately meaningful is to burden them with demands they can’t possibly meet. An intimate relationship is but one source of meaning within one’s life, not the be-all-and-end-all of the human experience.
Many people derive a larger sense of meaning through their religions, others through commitment to improving society via philanthropic work or community service, but these are not the only sources of meaning. I believe you can also derive meaning by participating in almost anything larger and more enduring than yourself: a profession whose traditions and values you respect; a skill whose hard-working practitioners (like you) have been confronting the same challenges and experiencing similar rewards for ages; a tradition whose values are handed down from generation to generation, where you are one point in a
line from those who came before and those who will come after.
I believe that true meaning in life derives from participating in something larger than ourselves, whereby we can experience pride in fulfilling that tradition’s values, but also a sense of humility that we are not the most important person in the world. Something larger than us will endure after we are gone. The cults of celebrity and romantic love, with their emphasis on personal fame and fulfillment, seem to offer just the opposite: narcissistic self-exaltation, the feeling that one has achieved a unique and superior state of perfection known to but a few, and it will last forever.
Finding Your Own Way:
How do you derive a sense of meaning in your life? If you’re the sort of person addicted to Access Hollywood and American Idol, you might want to do a little soul-searching.
Not all of us are fortunate enough to have a job or career that provides such meaning; we may need to look elsewhere for fulfillment. I study a musical instrument, participating in a long line of students and teachers going back several centuries. My teacher passes on lessons she learned from her own teachers; I confront the same technical challenges students before me have confronted and students yet to come will eventually face. It feels deeply meaningful to me; humbling, too. What about you? Do you have similar hobbies or interests you view in the same way?
I’m skeptical of people who insist that meaning comes exclusively from religion or public service. Too often those people strike me sanctimonious. I believe an athlete (and not just Olympians or NBA stars) who devotes him- or herself to honing skills over years can feel that the endeavor holds meaning. Many people derive a sense of meaning from belonging to a cultural organization, learning to master the art of French cooking or developing an intimate knowledge of the wildflowers of Glacier National Park. During his life, my father-in-law, though he professed to be a Christian, actually derived his sense of meaning from sitting on the boards for local arts and educational institutions he valued, satisfying his intellectual curiosity with extensive and life-long reading about history, and through his passionate involvement with concert music as an audience member and director on the symphony board.
Maybe your involvement with similar loves and interests helps make your life feel meaningful. The sources of meaning are endless.