“Thou shalt have no other gods before me.” (Exodus 20:3 KJV)
As a little boy I was transfixed, along with the rest of America, by the annual television rebroadcast of “The Wizard of Oz,” starring 16-year-old singer-actress Judy Garland in the role of Dorothy. Her soulful acting, her classic rendition of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” the story’s dramatic final scene (“I’m not going to leave here ever again, because I love you all! And – Oh, Auntie Em – there’s no place like home!”) touched millions.
Garland was so talented, so beautiful. So perfect.
So it came as a shock when my parents told me this gifted young lady was miserable and had died of a sleeping pill overdose. Indeed, when she left this earth at the much-too-early age of 47, Judy Garland had struggled for two decades with drug-and-alcohol addiction, had been married five times, was plagued with self-doubt and had made several suicide attempts.
Of course, there have been many such tragic deaths over the years – from Marilyn Monroe to Elvis Presley. In her day, Monroe was idolized as America’s reigning “sex goddess.” Yet inwardly she grew increasingly conflicted and depressed, finally dying at 36, also from a sleeping pill overdose. The recent death of Monroe wannabee Anna Nicole Smith was eerily reminiscent of her idol’s tragic demise.
Elvis Presley was undoubtedly the most worshipped man on earth. He had wealth beyond imagining and was literally idolized by millions worldwide. Yet at age 42, full of inner conflict – evident in his drug addiction, weight gain and increasing isolation – his legendary drug use finally caught up with him. In fact, during the last year of Presley’s life, 1977, one physician alone reportedly prescribed 10,000 hits of amphetamines, barbiturates, narcotics, tranquilizers, sleeping pills, laxatives and hormones for “the king.”
For every self-destructive superstar who dies such a sad, early death, there are hundreds of Hollywood celebrities who live profoundly dysfunctional, conflict-ridden lives. Drug and alcohol abuse are commonplace and divorce almost the norm. Yet these people seem to possess everything most of us secretly covet – talent, fame, good looks, wealth, adoration.
So what goes wrong? What secret curse afflicts them?
I don’t wish to oversimplify. Each case has certain unique contributing factors, such as, in Garland’s case, the fact that as a child star she was routinely given amphetamines to get her going and barbiturates to help her to sleep. This obviously played an important role in the addiction and tragedy that were to come later in life.
Yet, there is one powerful dynamic – rarely discussed – that is common to virtually all dysfunctional Hollywood celebrities, and which does indeed become a curse to them.
Andrew Breitbart and Mark Ebner, in their scathing expos? “Hollywood, Interrupted,” take a stab at answering the question of why superstars are so often full of conflict and their family life so disastrous:
“The short answer,” claim the authors, “is ego. Insatiable ego. Constantly massaged ego. 24-hour-a-day concierge ego. 400-thread-count linen at the five-star luxury dog kennel ego. Trading in your pre-fame spouse for a world-class model ego.”
What does it take to be a superstar? According to Breitbart and Ebner:
… Every celebrity, by design and necessity, is a narcissist. The desire to become a star requires an incredible appetite for attention and approval. To achieve fame and its accoutrements takes laser-like focus and a nearly commendable ability to stay self-centered in the service of the dream. Maintaining celebrity is a 24-hour-a-day process requiring a full-time staff to solidify the star’s place at the top of the social pecking order. An impenetrable ring of “yes” creatures – including assistants, publicists, managers, agents, hair and make-up artists, stylists, lifestyle consultants, Pilates instructors, cooks, drivers, nannies, schedulers and other assorted caretakers – work round-the-clock to feed the star’s absurd sense of entitlement. Celebrities focus on the minutiae of self all the time – and they make sure that no distractions like airplane reservation snafus or colicky babies interrupt this singular focus. This often extremely lucrative self-obsession invariably becomes downright pathological. …
Massive ego and narcissism may be the primary ingredients for achieving and maintaining Hollywood success, but they are also the No. 1 cause of the grandiose foibles in their storied, disastrous personal lives. The full-time job of parenting requires absolute selflessness. In contrast, the full-time job of celebrity requires absolute selfishness. The two by definition do not naturally co-exist. Yet, because of their fame, money and social power, stars somehow think they can defy the odds and maintain a high level of professional success, and still raise healthy families in the process.
No wonder so much rotten fruit is hanging from the dysfunctional celebrity family tree.
All true, but we need to go a whole lot deeper. The closest the authors come to identifying the “curse” is with this observation: “The desire to become a star requires an incredible appetite for attention and approval.”
The problem is, living off approval and applause, and deriving your sense of self-worth from the praise of others, may feel great, but it also produces great problems. When it comes to being worshipped, human beings just don’t make very good gods, something the Good Book warns about repeatedly. Worship is meant for God alone. But when humans are idolized and worshipped – and when they lower themselves to accept that homage and bask in its glory – major conflict mysteriously appears within the idolized “star.”
Let’s take a close and unflinchingly honest look at this subject. When we’re done, we’ll not only see why so many Hollywood celebs are basket cases, we’ll also understand something very important about ourselves that might well have escaped our attention until now.
Those 2 impostors
The longer I live, the more I realize that the most crucial, life-giving truths – those truths that would be the most valuable and wholesome in helping people find true happiness within themselves and harmony in their relationships – are virtually never talked about.
And I do mean never. Not talked about in the popular culture, nor academia, nor in journalism (my field), nor in psychiatry or psychology. Even our modern churches rarely touch it.
So, let’s talk a bit about it here.
What could possibly be wrong with the good feelings we get, the ego warmth, the inner glow to our pride that we derive from basking in the approval and adulation of others? And how could celebrities overdose and self-destruct on large quantities of this “drug” of false love/praise?
Before we launch full-bore into answering this question, let’s set the stage by recalling the line from Rudyard Kipling’s stirring poem, “If,” where he says:
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same …
“Impostors”? How can triumph and disaster both be impostors? Hold that thought, while we skip down to the last stanza:
If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with kings – nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you …
Wait a minute. We all know to watch out for “foes,” but how can “loving friends” possibly hurt us?
To understand this mystery, we have to do something very foreign to modern man. We need to venture beyond our own feelings. As I explain in “The Marketing of Evil,” our feelings are exactly what all the “evil marketers” appeal to when making bad things appear to be good, and selling us “corruption disguised as freedom.”
After all, if you think what feels good is good, and what feels bad is bad, you have a problem, because lies often make you feel good – and so does heroin, and so does sex with a stranger. You also have a problem with truth – because truth often hurts.
The common-sense understanding that we shouldn’t just blindly follow our feelings over a cliff becomes even more essential when we remember that, unlike animals, human beings have two natures: We have a noble nature and an ignoble nature. The noble nature is patient, kind, honest, courageous, unselfish, thoughtful and temperate. The ignoble nature is angry, resentful, selfish, lustful, greedy, cowardly, envious and vengeful. And of course, following the feelings of this dark side is what gets us into trouble.
All of us are saddled with both natures – to different degrees, with different variations. And both of these natures within us are being appealed to, day in and day out, by people tempting us toward the dark side of the force, or inspiring us to follow our higher, unselfish instincts. We’re also appealed to within our own minds, from just beyond the edge of our three-dimensional existence – from heaven and hell. After all, good and evil are everywhere in this life, and each of these has a spiritual source that beckons to us, without words, to follow its leadings.
Now here’s the key question: As we journey through this wonderful adventure of life, as we grow up and interact with people, learn, work, play, marry, have children and affect those around us for better or for worse – what precisely is it that enables us to grow so this noble side of us enlarges and dominates our lives, and the ignoble part grows smaller until it withers away and dies?
The greatest being who ever walked this earth, Jesus Christ, answered this question in His very first recorded word of ministry: “Repent.” (Matthew 4:17)
“Repent?” Good grief, isn’t that one of those archaic Bible words that means we have to wail and gnash our teeth and clothe ourselves in sackcloth and ashes?
No. To repent just means you simply look honestly in the mirror and see your own flaws and weaknesses and don’t make excuses for them, don’t deny them, blame someone else for them or justify them. You also don’t condemn yourself for them. But rather, you just plain old acknowledge your faults honestly and allow yourself to experience the natural sadness and contrition that accompany your awareness of them, and quietly cry out to God to help you to change. And change comes.
But – you cannot change for the better (and I don’t mean superficial change, but rather, transformation at your very core) if you don’t repent. And you cannot repent if you can’t see wrong in yourself. And you can’t see what’s wrong with you if you are high on the anesthetizing “drug” of false love.
Perhaps you’re more familiar with that other feel-good “drug,” which has the same effect of making you invulnerable to seeing your own faults. It’s called hate.
For example, the main reason Islamic culture is so notoriously non-introspective, blaming everyone and everything else for its own gargantuan problems, is because so many Muslims (though obviously not all) have been pumped up with hate. Hatred for Jews in particular and all “infidels” (non-Muslims) in general, as well as hatred and blame toward women, or toward the other varieties of Muslims, and so on, renders them literally unable to see themselves and their faults. Their hatred acts like a narcotic drug that takes away their conscience-pain and recognition of their faults that would otherwise naturally impress itself on their minds. They are filled instead with the ecstasy of false righteousness based on infidel-hatred.
OK, we all know that, don’t we? Hate can make you “high,” and blaming and resenting others “blows your mind clean” of any awareness of your own problems.
But do we also recognize that getting high on the “drug” of false love, adoration and unconditional approval – everybody telling us how wonderful we are all the time, and our believing it – also can render us virtually unable to see our own flaws?
Since we’re exploring these emotional “highs” of hate and false love by comparing them with drugs, let’s remember for a moment why people want to get high on drugs in the first place. Whether illegal substances like heroin, or legal pain-killers and sleeping pills, or alcohol for that matter, the reason we take these sorts of drugs is the same: to relieve pain and conflict. And the approval of other people – if we drink it in, nourish ourselves on it and build our sense of value from it – acts on us exactly like a drug, anesthetizing us from feeling the pain of our problems. And we become addicted to it.
In fact, it’s a wicked cycle: Being less aware of our problems because of our reduced consciousness from being high on this “drug” of approval, all of our problems naturally tend to become worse, increasing the need for the “drug” of approval – or hate, if that’s your “drug” of choice. This syndrome can descend into madness, or suicide. It’s the reason hate often boils over into violence (when it doesn’t eat us up and destroy us inwardly instead), because it has nowhere else to go, being ever-growing. The despair celebrities feel when they’re surrounded with what seems like goodness and praise – but which is actually hurting them – creates a terrible emptiness that leads them to search for answers in Scientology, Buddhism, New Age religion and so on.
Remember, getting high on either of these emotional “drugs” (of false love or hate), we become deluded, egotistical and prideful, and very, very blind to our faults – making us blind therefore to pretty much everything else.
Fortunately, the opposite is also true. What I’ve discovered in this life is that if you are sincere enough to face yourself and patiently bear the pain of seeing your own imperfections on a moment-to-moment basis, you’ll pretty much understand everybody else – at least as much as you need to understand.
It’s as though God just wants us to look at ourselves honestly and to repent of our sins and seek Him and His righteous way – and as a fringe benefit, He is happy to “throw in” an authentic understanding of everything else in life. No extra charge. It’s the icing on the cake – the cake being our own, sincere self-examination.
Well guess what? We cannot have that twin blessing of understanding ourselves and others if we’re coked-up on the praise of others. Again, it’s not the praise and worship itself that hurts us, but the way we deal with it. If people praise you for something you’ve done, but you don’t stoop down to “suck up” the praise and build your self-image with it, then you won’t be hurt by it.
I’ll tell you how I know this so well. As a young person growing up during the ’50s and ’60s, I was known primarily as a talented classical violinist. As a teen I was always concertmaster (first chair) in the orchestras I played with, won all the contests, was featured as the solo “artist” performing concertos with various orchestras and so on. Everyone thought I was wonderful for what I did, and my sense of self-worth came to be based on what other people said about me.
Some may respond: So what? You excelled at something, people naturally praised you for it, and you soaked it up. What’s the problem?
Here’s the problem. Inwardly, I became increasingly accustomed to the approval and applause of others. Actually, the music world swept me up in two ways: One was the “love” and adulation of others, which filled up my emptiness. And the other was the fact that music became a whole world of fascinating, beautiful and complex distraction into which I could escape, unaware of my problems, angers, insecurities and so on. Between these two factors – the intense approval of others for being a little “star,” and having my head filled non-stop with the music itself – I was pretty blind to myself as a teen.
It wasn’t until I reached my early 20s and had finished 17 years of schooling that I came up for air. And when I did – when I finally put the music aside and slowed down the pace of my life – I discovered the real me who had been lost in all the excitement and super-ambition of my earlier years. I found that, whereas I once craved the applause of others, now I thrived on an inner spiritual fulfillment that came naturally as a result of simple clean living, honest self-examination and quiet prayers and reflection. One result of this change was that I discovered all the problems within me that I had been blind to during all the years I was “high” on the approval of others. And that was the beginning of my “reborn” life as a Christian. I quietly found God, right where He’d always been – as close as a sincere, repentant heart.
‘I’m soooooo proud of you’
Let’s personalize this tricky subject to make it as clear as possible. Have you ever been praised so excessively that you felt uncomfortable? Think about it for a minute.
You didn’t know how to respond, how to act; you felt awkward. You might even have replied by saying something stupid, feeling so completely off balance. In the same way that a cruel, thoughtless comment can affect you emotionally, so can too much praise affect you emotionally – and adversely.
But this is a very confusing experience, because after all, you’re not being criticized or condemned, but are being praised – and that’s supposed to be a good thing! So why are you so uncomfortable?
Let me ask any celebrities reading this: Why are you so uncomfortable with the praise that surrounds you? Why do you even tend to resent or have a subtle contempt for the fan going overboard in his or her praise of you?
I think this personal story will shed some light: Recently I took my family out for the evening and I noticed that my teenage son was reluctant to walk ahead and open the building’s door for his mother and sister. But isn’t that just good manners? He normally does lots of chores and is a conscientious, smart and thoroughly decent boy. So why the problem with opening up a door for the opposite sex? It didn’t make sense.
A bit of discussion unearthed a previously unknown (to me) morsel of family history: It seems several years ago, he had quite naturally opened the door for a couple of women, but one of them praised him so lavishly for his wonderful, gentlemanly manners that he became awkward and embarrassed. He actually resented the person who overdid the praise, and in an unconscious effort to avoid a repeat occurrence of the discomfort he felt, he steered clear of opening doors for women thereafter.
Silly? Don’t laugh. This type of response is much more common than we might imagine. There’s a violation of our spirit when someone serves up inordinate praise. No wonder celebrities get so messed up.
Kupelian, you’re drivin’ me nuts. Are you now saying we should never compliment people?
Of course not. There’s a huge difference between saying, “Good job, son, that was great!” and saying, “Son, oh my wonderful son, you are so awesome. I’m soooooooooooooo proud of you. You are just so, so, so great and talented and special.” That kind of praise is corrupting – unless of course we’re mature enough to handle it and just let it roll by without building our pride. Because whenever we build our pride, we’re growing in conflict with God.
In case your reaction to all this is still a big “So what?,” here’s something else to reflect on: If you are sensitive to people praising you – that is, if you “accept” and “drink in” the praise – not only will you become more and more addicted to it, but you will also become sensitive to people criticizing you. The more approval-oriented we are, the more we will feel hurt by criticism – and to the same degree. You can’t have one without the other. So if you’re going to allow yourself to feel buoyed up by the applause of others, understand that you will also feel wounded by the cruel comments and put-downs others make.
I think it’s pretty clear that allowing our pride to get bloated by approval can make us blind to our problems. But how could that lead celebrities – or us – to the kind of conflict, dysfunction, anger, rage and depression that might lead to drug addiction or even suicide?
Well, how do you think Elvis Presley really felt toward all his hysterical, adoring, worshipful fans?
On the surface, of course, he seemed to love them (“Thank you, thank you very much. You’re a fantastic audience, thank you, ya’ll are fantastic“). But just think back to a moment in your life when someone way overdid it when praising how wonderful, generous, beautiful, smart or talented you were, and recall the feelings of embarrassment and awkwardness and confusion you felt – and then multiply that by, oh, about 10 million and lay it on poor Elvis. If we take that “drug” of worship into us, it just enlarges our problems.
Remember, what keeps us sane, happy and moving in the right direction in this life is living in the light of constant, good-natured self-awareness. And that self-awareness – with our conscience brightly shining through it – becomes the regulator of our life, and makes our perceptions and decisions right and wholesome. It’s like magic – God’s magic – providing manna from the invisible realm, which appears in our lives to nourish us just when we need it, as long as we are transparent and honest.
When we worship a celebrity as a god, like millions did with Elvis, we’re robbing them of this precious relationship with the real God. Although a part of them loves (is addicted to) the “drug” of praise, another more innocent part of them longs to be treated normally, honestly, soberly.
After all, you have to admit, it’s just crazy what we do: We take these people who sing songs, or tell jokes, or who make their living by acting like heroes, pretending to be something they’re not, and repeating lines others have written for them – and then we worship them. We call them “stars.” Is that nuts or what?
But we can learn something from what happens to those humans we worship. It’s not a coincidence that Hollywood celebrities so often become dysfunctional, ultraliberal weirdos. Our worship of them is hurtful – to us, but especially to them.
Haven’t you ever wondered why so many of the royal families of Britain and Europe throughout the centuries were full of intrigue and murder? Royal brothers and sisters always seemed to be plotting or poisoning or stabbing or betraying each other. But they had wealth behind imagining, power, prestige – why weren’t they happy? As I said, humans don’t make very good gods. Worship destroys us. No wonder celebrities live cloistered lives, sympathizing with each other for what they commonly endure – fans.
As with all problems, there is always a way out. Celebrities don’t all become basket cases as a result of fame, fortune and the adoration of the masses. In fact, there are many famous entertainers, actors, sports heroes and music superstars who have stayed perfectly sane. Although their fans may have inadvertently served up the drug, these “stars” accepted it gracefully, but apparently didn’t swallow it.
A while back, I had a conversation with Sean Hannity – certainly a media “superstar” – outside the Fox News building in Manhattan after I had been a guest on “Hannity & Colmes” for the launch of “The Marketing of Evil.” When I brought up his career and phenomenal success, Sean had this to say (closely paraphrased): God has blessed me. It’s been great, and I appreciate the position He’s put me in. But I don’t take credit for it, and I know it could come to an end at any time.
He had exactly the right attitude. Humble, grateful, both feet firmly on the ground, and recognizing that “Triumph” and “Disaster” are both impostors. It’s what Kipling was pointing to when he wrote:
If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with kings – nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you;
If all men count with you, but none too much,
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And – which is more – you’ll be a Man, my son!