It was a slow news cycle this Christmas season. That’s not a bad thing, it means the absence of tragedy, at least as far as the western press imagine. I tend to get my news from the CBC website, which is not a celebrity-culture focused site. However, it is not immune from what is being talked about around the western media so there on the top news stories was the death of 53 year old George Michael, former WHAM singer, solo artist, one of the early celebrities to come out of the closet. Of course the immediate reaction was to try and figure out Michael’s cause of death. We are all voyeurs.
Of course following celebrities is not new to our time. Newspapers and other media sources have always been interested in the lives of the rich and famous. I watched a podcast over the holidays about Queen Victoria who had more than her share of attention through a time very different than ours, a long time ago. Yet people then speculated on her private life, her weight, her interests, her opinions on all matters under the sun. We have always liked a good story, interesting personalities and the drama of how persons live out their lives.
What is different about our time is the illusion we can be that person. Some might say this is the victory of western capitalism, the triumph of individualism, that anyone and everyone is born with the possibility of greatness and possibility. It is certainly what I hear at graduations, the Principal of the school standing before students and parents and telling them that there is nothing that separates them from their dreams, only hard work and imagination.
There is some truth in these words. My daughter will have the opportunity that my mother did not, back when young girls could be secretaries, teachers and nurses. So it needs to be said that we live in a better time of opportunities, at least to put a halt to the nostalgia we sometimes hear about the past. But the income disparity of our time still reminds us that the world is not a level playing field. It is not as simple as hard work and playing by the rules that gets you to your dreams.
But the illusion of social media gives people the impression that we are one lottery win away from having our own reality TV show, away from the dream home in California or owning a Caribbean island. What concerns me here is the distraction of these dreams, how they move us from who we are and who we might be to some rather dull mindset of riches. As a Minister I have had the privilege to know people from all income groups and I am here to tell you the rich have their share of problems. Whatever money George Michael garnered from his talent and hard work and good looks it did not prevent him from having “troubles”. The castles, the private jets, the lovers, none of these things made his life “perfect”. Sure, to someone watching this from a homeless shelter it looks pretty good. But for those of us with less than Michael and more than the homeless man the opportunities for meaning and delight and lasting joy are within our grasp and lingering on the fumes of celebrity culture is not just a fun pass time, it can be the source of real bitterness, of “why not me” taking root in our soul.
My prayer this 2017 is that all these young, and not so young, people who follow the celebrities of our time, will not imagine “I could be just like them” but rather “I could have a good life” and focus on that with imagination and discipline.