We are besotted by celebrity. For most of us, the rich and famous take on a god-like status and our own lives seem small, empty, and hardly worth living in comparison to what we imagine theirs to be.
Fame, we believe, gives someone a life bigger than our own. We live in just one place, anonymous, domestic, unknown, but someone who is famous, whose face is recognized everywhere and whose name is a household word, it would seem, is everywhere, omnipresent like God. No wonder we view them as gods and give them worship.
But there’s more: We also believe that fame gives immortality. Famous people may die, but they live on—Marilyn, Elvis, Diana, we don’t even need last names. Something about them stays, more than a gravestone. Fame leaves an indelible mark. Our fear is that our small lives won’t leave that. We disappear, the famous remain.
So it isn’t surprising that we are so besotted with the famous. They appear to us as gods—omnipresent and immortal.
But does fame really make one’s life larger? If someone’s face appears on billboards and magazine covers everywhere is he or she in some real way everywhere? Does a celebrity’s larger-than-life status indeed make their lives larger than ours? Does fame accord some kind of immortality?
At a superficial level, yes. To be a household name and to leave a legacy ingrained inside of peoples’ consciousness does, in a manner of speaking, make one omnipresent and does give one a certain kind of immortality.
But, being larger-than-life and having immortality, are very ambiguous concepts. There’s something very vaporous and unreal in the kind of omnipresence and immortality that fame brings. You can’t eat it and you aren’t present just because your name is. At the end of the day, fame doesn’t really enlarge you, nor give you the kind of immortality for which you really long. There’s enough loneliness, paranoia, fearfulness, breakdown, bitterness, drug abuse, and flat-out emptiness in the lives of celebrities to more than vouch for this. It’s no accident the three celebrities mentioned above—Marilyn, Elvis, and Diana—died as they did. Celebrity, of itself, doesn’t make one larger than life nor accord immortality.
What does enlarge our lives and give immortality? Compassion and contemplation.
Compassion: All the great religious traditions, from Hinduism to Christianity, teach that what makes our lives small is not place, anonymity, and occupation, but selfishness, self-preoccupation, ego, and narcissism. My life is small and petty precisely when it’s centered upon myself. However, when I can, through empathy, break a little the casings of my own selfishness and connect myself to the feelings and thoughts of others, by that very connection, my life becomes larger.
I know a hermit who has lived by himself for more than 35 years. He lives alone and his existence is known to few people. Yet, paradoxically, his life is really larger-than-life. He’s the most connected man I know. When he prays at night, alone, by his own description, he “feels the very heartbeat of the planet, and feels the joys and sufferings of everyone.”
That’s the very opposite of an experience we so commonly have when, inside the very buzz of social life, we feel nothing but our own obsessive restlessness and the smallness of our lives.
Contemplation works in the same paradoxical way: We connect ourselves most deeply to the world and we taste immortality when we are in solitude, in contemplation. What is that?
Contemplation is not a state of mind where we don’t think of anything, a blankness beyond distraction. Nor is it necessarily thinking lofty, sublime, or holy thoughts. Contemplation is, as Thomas Merton so aptly defined it, a state within which we are present to what is actually going on in our lives, and to the timeless, eternal dimensions inside of that. We are in solitude and contemplation when we are really aware that we are drinking water when we are drinking water.
Here’s how he, Merton, describes a graced moment of contemplation:
[Today] it is enough to be, in an ordinary human mode, with one’s hunger and one’s sleep, one’s cold and warmth, rising and going to bed. Putting on blankets and taking them off, making coffee and then drinking it. Defrosting the refrigerator, reading, meditating, working, praying. I live as my ancestors have lived on this earth, until eventually I die. Amen. There is no need to make an assertion of my life, especially about it as mine, though doubtless it is not somebody else’s. I must learn to gradually forget program and artifice.*
We are so besotted by celebrities because we are always looking outside of ourselves to find what is timeless, what can enlarge us, and give us immortality. But what we are looking for is already inside of us, something we must awaken ourselves to, namely, our union through compassion with everything that is and our tasting of what’s immortal and eternal through being aware of the cold and the warmth inside of our own lives.
*Taken from A Vow of Conversation: Journals, 1964-1965. You can find the larger passage here.