Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Whitney, Michael, Heath: And the Mirror Effect

Dr. Drew: The Mirror Effect

Heath Ledger, Michael Jackson and most recently, Whitney Houston, all suffered from the same thing: the burden of fame. For some celebrities it can be fatal, for others, it destroys and yet for others, it has no apparent effect other than to ruin their family life. Oh! It may not seem like a burden to outsiders or even to those who first experience their first fifteen minutes of fame, nevertheless, it is important to bear in mind that fame is both addicting and oppressive. Addicting, because of the illusion of love that it casts on the celebrity; oppressive, because it imposes the day to day burden of unwanted attention.

Adulation from the multitude can, at first, seem like your best friend. It has the thrill of excitement and the grandeur of making you believe that you are important; perhaps, even more so than others. But as Fred A. Allen, a 1940’s radio comedian, once said, “A celebrity is a person who works hard all of their life to become well known, and then wears dark glasses to avoid being recognized.” Indeed, fame involves an impossible contradiction: the moral-spiritual need to see oneself as being no better than others and the narcissistic desire to be regarded as an important person among many. For this reason, celebrities can be, and often are, the unhappiest of people. And the unhappiest of all the effects of fame is that it breeds the “mirror effect” of narcissism.

Dr. Drew Pinsky, the former MTV psychologist, is not known to be Christian or conservative. In fact, he has made known his socially liberal values from time to time. But as my former theology professor, Dr. Scott Hahn, once said to his students in one my Theology 101 class, ”I love a good liberal.” What he meant was that he can respect a liberal who, although misled in terms of his values and ideology, will follow the truth wherever it leads. Although I do not know a lot about Dr. Drew Pinsky, I find him to be one these “good liberals” Dr. Hahn was referring to.

In any event, Dr. Drew Pinsky's book, “The Mirror Effect: How Celebrity Narcissism Is Seducing America,” speaks to the growing phenomenon of narcissism. And according to Pinsky, the demographic that suffers from this moral disease in epidemic proportions are celebrities. To be sure, there is an undeniable correlation between fame and narcissism. The scary thing is that this narcissism is being communicated to the rank and file in society quite effectively through the entertainment industry. According to one report, for the first time in history more people want to become famous over that of being rich. A few years back a survey in London of ten year olds revealed that most boys and girls in this age bracket wanted to become famous more than anything else.

But what is always left unsaid by the media and those who fawn over celebrities like Matt Lauer from the Today show, is the devastating narcissistic effects on the person. Celebrity-narcissism does not have to be overt; it can be quiet. Dr. Drew calls this a “closet narcissist” or even “narcissist.” This is what he said about it:

“This kind of narcissist is very sensitive to criticism or slights from others and will respond with harsh self-criticism. They may seem humble or unassuming and avoid being the center of attention. They may also feel guilt or shame for their ambitions or accomplishments, although they may relentlessly pursue them without genuine regard for others. They may also hide their striving or accomplishments for fear of triggering envy in others. Closet narcissists know envy well; they suffer intensely from it, even as they fiercely disavow it. They can be difficult to identify, because they're not arrogant and openly aggressive, but may manifest their narcissistic traits with overattentiveness and exceeding vulnerability. Nevertheless, such narcissists suffer from a lack of self-esteem and a deep sense of shame; their attentiveness should not be taken for empathy, as it's as difficult for them to connect emotionally as it is for the classic narcissist.”

These are the kind of people you do not want in political office but I am afraid that Washington D.C. is full of them. It is telling that narcissists suffer intensely from envy; this, being one of the worst of the deadly sins. “But by the envy of the devil, death entered the world, and they who are in his possession experience it.” (Wisdom 2:24) And is not that logical consequence that class warfare is preached from the pulpits on Capitol Hill? Or perhaps even from the Oval Office itself? Envy is worse than jealousy. Jealously is born from a discontent over not having something that someone else has. But sin of envy goes beyond this. Envy is born from a discontent over the mere fact that someone else possesses something and is enjoying it. A rich and powerful man can be just as envious as a poor or weak man. Indeed, his unhappiness results from the happiness of others. This is why the book of Wisdom teaches that the sin of envy is of diabolic origin. That's right! In America, envy has permeated both the political and entertainment world. Is this not why so many celebrities love dictators?

But I digress: Narcissism and envy is a hard thing to shake. Indeed, it is a difficult task to change from being narcissistic person to a selfless, virtuous person. As Dr. Drew said, “And such change is difficult for those who are highly narcissistic because their narcissistic perceptions and interpretations of themselves allow no alternative explanation.” Alternative explanations are rare indeed because celebrities and politicians are always surrounded by “yes” people; that is, those cronies who constantly stroke their ego. Absent is that needed accountability as well as the daily check and balance from loved ones and friends.

Another thing to consider: Fame promises something it can never deliver; and that something is an interior peace and joy of soul. It is like a vapor- it goes just as quickly as it comes. And many a celebrity do their best to hold on to it even at the expense of their health, like actress Demi Moore. Recent tabloid reports abound about her languishing appearances. And if pictures tell the story, Ms. Moore is not a happy woman. And in regards to Whitney Huston, it is most unfortunate that signs of her stupor began to manifest itself within the last decade. She never did hide her drug addictions. And over time, it took a toll on her voice and sadly, on her very life. Many of these celebrities simply do not have the tools to carry the burden of fame when it comes. Bu just as importantly, they do not have that needed detachment fame when it goes. Indeed, fame plays right into the worst instincts of human nature; and those weak human instincts are innate in every human being.

Catholicism has an explanation for the cause of these selfish and narcissistic instincts: Original Sin. Catholicism also has an explanation for its cure: The Cross! Perhaps, this should be an agenda item for the New Evangelization.

Theology of the Mirror Effect:

Adam and Eve were created to be God-centered, virtuous and selfless. We can say that before they bit the apple, they saw the world as it really was- revolving around God. But when they allowed themselves to be seduced by the Evil One- when they committed the Original Sin –it was then that they began to suffer from the illusion that the world revolved around them. And is this not what parenting must purge away from each child that is born into the world? Every good parent must the inherent, inborn inclination of narcissism in every boy and girl. Have we not inherited this self-centeredness from our first parents, Adam and Eve? To be sure, the first words of a child are not “mommy” but “mine!” Fallen human nature manifests itself at a very early stage in one’s life. Each child has to be morally trained to share toys because of his or her selfishness. As parents, what we do not have to worry about is that our children will be overly generous in giving their toys away for some charitable cause. Consider this: If a child’s will is never contradicted from day one to, let’s say, age seven, he or she will be more than a spoiled brat. That boy or girl will be, even at age seven, evil! Yes, evil! You see, narcissism is Original Sin at its worst when it is unchecked and unpurified.

Yet fame runs counter to the need for every human being to be less selfish and self-centered. When the red carpet is rolled out before you, when people are taking your picture and wanting your autograph and when the press is lauding your latest movie or album (or cd), who would not get caught up in all of the accolades? Who would not suffer from the illusion- even in a subtle and subconscious way -that he or she is better than everyone else? Even in the classic movie, Wizard of Oz, the Wizard tells Dorothy that it is not how many people you love that is the important thing, but how many people love you. What the Wizard did not mention was this: The number of people who love us is forever outside our control. This is yet another reason why celebrities are the unhappiest of people. But our love, that is, how much we love and how many people we love is always something within our control. For this reason, love and happiness are within reach of every human being. This is why Our Lord will judge us, when we die, according to how much we loved. He will not count the number of people who loved us. As stated, we will have little control over that! As Mother Theresa said, with our love for God and His love for us, even the little we do takes on infinite value.

I can recall several testimonies of people who have clinically died, experienced the Light and/or heaven, and lived to tell about it. One common thread running through these testimonies is that they experienced incredible love, not only from God but also from the people who came to greet them. It was as if they were famous and well-loved by everyone in the afterlife. It was as if angels and deceased souls rejoiced over the fact that a soul was saved or was on the threshold of being saved. It got me thinking. Maybe heaven is the only place where we can be loved so much by so many people without it destroying us. In fact, such love pouring out from the multitude of the elect will be a big part of that of the eternal bliss we hope to one day enjoy. It cannot be emphasized enough that this kind of love from the multitude, that so many covet nowdays, is to be part of our reward in heaven. If we seek this love before then, we are bound for disappointment and even self-destruction.

Until then we are to do as Christ did, to do as the Blessed Virgin did and do as the Saints did. And what was that? To flee from fame, human applause and popularity! Holy men and women throughout the ages contented themselves to be known only by God. No doubt, they needed the love of their parents, siblings and community. But once they found the love of Christ, the superficial love and esteem that comes from public honor was of little importance to them. Nay! It was a burden! This is why they sought after the Christ and Him crucified. And although the world deemed it to be foolish, they embraced it as the source of their happiness. The cure, therefore, of that selfishness which comes with Original Sin and the narcissism that comes with fame, is the Cross of Christ.

To accept the Cross is to see ourselves as we really are before God and before others.

To accept the Cross is to accept both love and contempt from our neighbor. To accept it is to accept strength and weakness. For St. Paul says, “I will rather boast most gladly of my weaknesses, in order that the power of Christ may dwell with me. Therefore, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and constraints, for the sake of Christ; for when I am weak, then I am strong.” (II Corinthians 12:9,10)

To accept the Cross to accept our vocation as the servants of all; never seeing anyone as being beneath us. Again, St. Paul says, “For by the grace given to me I tell everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than one ought to think…Have the same regard for one another; do not be haughty but associate with the lowly; do not be wise in your own estimation.” (Romans 12: 3, 16)

Being a celebrity is not inherently evil; but like the rich man, it is difficult to be selfless and virtuous. Our Lord taught us the greatest irony of life: "For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it." Finding oneself, focusing on oneself and to seek the attention of others is not the key to happiness. Rather, it is losing oneself in Christ and self-forgetfulness that is the passage way to happiness and personal fulfillment. But the river currents of fame, popularity and power run to counter this virtue. That's why it takes a well disciplined person to keep one's head above the waters. As for Whitney Houston and all of the deceased and living celebrities, they showed us that they were all too human. It is precisely for this reason they were in greatest need of Jesus Christ and His Cross. More than anyone, the rich, the powerful and the famous need to hear the Gospel. And woe to us if we do not preach it to them. After all, the mirror effect, that being narcissism, is not just a celebrity thing anymore.