I must confess at the outset that I’m not much of a celebrity worshiper. I couldn’t care less what Kim Kardashian is doing, what Jennifer Aniston is wearing Saturday night, or what Ashton Kutcher and Mila Kunis have planned for the weekend. But Robin Williams was one of those rare talents who was unusual even among celebrities. A genuine comedian to the core, he was also an incredibly convincing actor, and yet he was also a surprisingly humble soul when giving interviews.
But now he’s gone, and this is one celebrity that probably most of us will truly miss. He kept us entertained, and he kept us laughing, but he never taxed our sensibilities in the process. That’s a talent that very few people ever master is any capacity in life. He had so much talent that he didn’t need to be ugly or outrageous. For that reason, most of us know far less about his personal life than we do about celebrities of far lower status.
That’s why the news of his apparent suicide is such a shock.
I also must confess that the only time I ever write about celebrities is when one of them dies. Here and on other blogs I’ve written about Michael Jackson, Farah Fawcett, Whitney Houston, and Paul Williams – shortly after the death of each.
What strikes me most about celebrities isn’t usually their talent or their notoriety, but the adoration and outright worship they receive from the general public. When one of them dies, it can seem downright unnatural, as if an unwritten contract with human existence has been broken.
We may not ever verbalize that feeling to others, or even to ourselves, but at some level it seems as if it’s important for us to believe that some people have actually achieved the coveted better way in life.
Perhaps that holds open the possibility that we can too.
No – Celebrities Don’t “Have It All Figured Out”
Fame and a fat income don’t make a person superhuman. If you look closely at the lives of most celebrities it becomes clear that they have flaws just like the rest of us, and often a few more.
What do we know about Robin Williams, now that he’s gone? Probably more than any of us ever knew while he was still alive. It seems that had been married four times, and he had three children with two of those wives. Reports are coming out that he battled depression, alcoholism, and drug use through much of his life.
It’s now coming out as well that he was in the early stages of Parkinson’s disease. If he had been battling depression all of his life, it may have been that this diagnosis put him over the edge, driving into the point of suicide.
The pattern of personal flaws, difficulties, and unexpected negative surprises, are common among celebrities. They’re common to all of humanity. But I think we like to believe that celebrity status renders human problems as mostly harmless. Rest assured it doesn’t.
The next time that you’re tempted to idolize a celebrity, recognize that no one, no matter how successful or popular, can or ever will overcome their inherent humanity.
I’m On Top of the World – But I Don’t Feel Any Different
Feel free to disagree with me on this point, but I’m of the opinion that the use of alcohol and drugs is largely about bridging the gap between fantasy and reality. I think this is why so many celebrities have these addictions.
When you come out with a blockbuster movie, or you fill the concert halls, or companies are waving rich endorsement opportunities in your face, and the media is proclaiming to the world how great you are, it’s probably more than a little bit overwhelming.
Celebrity Status Leads to Celebrity Problems
While the whole world is shining light on you, you’re privately dealing with the paradox that your last relationship ended in disaster, that your expenses are even higher than your outrageous income, that you don’t necessarily like the people you’re working with, or maybe that you live with chronic pain in your spine, your hips, or your knees.
In the back of your mind, you know that despite the public worship, that you’re all too human. But you can’t let the world see THAT side of your life – it would compromise the illusion!
So you become depressed, and you look for ways to fill the void – between who the public thinks you are, and who you know yourself to be.
No matter how glamorous the celebrity lifestyle may appear on the surface, I believe this is the reason that so many celebrities deal with chronic depression and substance abuse throughout much of their lives. It probably also goes a long way to explain the typically long histories of broken and estranged relationships, as well as the kind of overspending that lands many of them in bankruptcy court.
Though they’ve reached what many believe to be the pinnacle of life, they often don’t feel any better for being there. I often wonder how many reach the top and are forced to confront the question Is that all there is?
That can be overwhelming to contemplate no matter how successful you are.
Success and Happiness Are Two Very Different Things
Call me crazy, but I’m of the opinion that there are ordinary people in life – and plenty of them – who are happier about their lives than many celebrities are. For example, a teacher who has a passion to teach kids, may get more satisfaction out of his or her work than a celebrity does from theirs. While the celebrity entertains people, the teacher is training children for life. If that teacher also lives within his means, has at least adequate savings, rich personal relationships, and a deep spiritual life, she can be far happier than a celebrity whose life lacks any of those anchors and is largely out of control.
We tend to underestimate this possibility, probably because it’s beyond our socially-induced paradigms to believe that a person can actually be happy without wealth and at least some measure of public notoriety.
At the risk oversimplifying things, celebrity status mostly allows you to automate your life. You can earn more money, have more influence, and have a lot more “friends” than the average person, because your status increases the numbers and speed that govern your life.
But often the money disappears in a labyrnth of expenses (or by people who are not trustworthy), your influence is more superficial than genuine, and the friends that you have are mostly business associates, “hangers-on”, groupies, and politicians and other celebrities mostly interested in extending their own influence.
In the end, many celebrities are truly alone in a crowd. They eventually become actors on the stage of their own lives. But you and me, as regular folks, have a real shot at happiness – satisfaction from the work we’re doing, surrounding ourselves with genuine people and relationships, obtaining some measure of financial independence, and pursuing the life experiences that we choose.
Celebrities don’t always have those options, and that’s why they don’t achieve happiness – no matter what surface factors may indicate.
“For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world, and forfeit his soul?”
That question was posed by Jesus Christ as recorded in Mark 8:36. He asked the question 2,000 years ago, and it’s a question that we still wrestle with today – or at least we need to.
I’m not trying to imply that Robin Williams lost his soul, but it’s clear that he lost something important in his life, something he couldn’t recover.
I believe that many celebrities, and many in the public eye in general, do exactly what Jesus warned us against – they forfeit their souls to gain the approval of the world. Attention is of course the currency of celebrity; without it there can be no fame. But many times the price paid for that attention is greater than the benefits, especially in the long term.
I’m sure that there are celebrities who have achieved some level of legitimate happiness in life. But I also believe that a disproportionate number of them are trapped in a living hell. Their lives are complicated by the fact that they’re supposed to be perfect, and in their own minds they know that they‘re not. Perfection is too heavy a burden to carry, even for allegedly perfect people.
The Lessons for the Rest of Us Mere Mortals
So what’s the take away of all this for us regular folks? For starters, if we even think that we might be bordering on hero worship when it comes to celebrities, we need to do some soul-searching to find out why we’re drawn to that. And as counterintuitive as it sounds, we should count our blessings that we’re not among them.
There are even a small number of Christians who advocate that we pray for celebrities. I agree. So many celebrities are lost in so many ways. Worse – if their public pronouncements are any indication – few of them have anything that looks like real faith, especially the Biblical variety. Many of them are raised in the faith, but abandon it either by personal choice (it “limits” their personal creativity), or by the peer pressure of their crafts, that seems intent on flushing faith out of every corner of society.
If I’m facing the dark circumstances that many celebrities eventually do, I’d much rather do so with faith than without it.
That’s why we need to celebrate the ordinariness of our own lives, and yes, maybe we even need to pray for these people.