This post is the second in a two-part series dealing with a struggle I feel between my ideal of living for truth, goodness and righteousness and my desire to be loved, admired, approved and accepted by other people. In the following essay I explore the relationship between fame and friendship and try to get at why we need the approval of others, hoping that by being thoughtful about our need for approval we can get free it to some extent:
When we think of fame and the desire to become famous, we tend to think of a little vice characteristic of a small group of people. Perhaps everyone has the potential to become obsessed with becoming famous and maintaining fame, but very few of are placed so that fame is a real possibility. So we don’t think we need to arm ourselves against it. What is the desire for fame? Or what does one desire in wanting fame? Fame is the condition of being known and admired by people whom you do not know. Fame can be measured quantitatively, but the exact line between obscurity and fame is difficult to mark. In desiring fame, then, one wants to be known and admired by many people, many more than one can engage with as friends, even more than one can ever meet.
Fame is related to friendship. Friends know us and think well of us. But friendship must be mutual and among equals. Fame is neither. But some of what we want in friendship we look for also in fame. Friends are insurance against want in times of need, and a band of friends is stronger that an individual. Fame also brings economic benefits and other types of power. Our friends’ acceptance enables us to think well of ourselves. Perhaps, then, the desire for fame is a variant (on a lower ethical level) of the desire that drives us to seek friends. Its lower ethical level is obvious. The lack of mutuality and equality is clearly less noble. But the desire for fame has another imperfection: fame is only loosely based on truth. Friendship is a bond between persons who relate in truth. The relationship between the fan and the celebrity is based on a fantasy in the fan’s mind that has been created or occasioned by the celebrity. (Or do fans create celebrities?) So fame possesses a certain superficial resemblance to friendship, but the substance is missing. The fans mistake their fantasy for a real person and famous people mistake the adulation of their fans for love and admiration. Fame floats on a cloud of fantasy while friendship walks on the rock of truth.
But desire for fame and friendship are instances of more basic impulses that are exemplified in other ways. Let’s speak first of the psychic level of being. We want to be heard, seen, and noticed by other human beings. We want to be objects of their consciousness, to be included in their psychic field. First of all, we must take into account that interaction with others can be negative as well as positive. Overwhelmingly, we want others to experience us positively, as admirable, worthy and attractive. We want them to smile, to speak to us, to touch us. When this field of psychic interaction is positive, we feel similarly about the other person; and we feel good about ourselves. When the other person frowns, growls, curses or acts aggressively we feel angry or ashamed or afraid; and we feel the urge to defend our dignity to ourselves. The other person says in effect, “You are rejected, not worthy of the friendship of others, an outcast.” We can tell ourselves this is not true; but we can be only partly successful in convincing ourselves. Why is this? Because the very definition of being an outcast is that one is cast out! And in this case one has been cast out. Our only defense is to remember the acceptance others have given us in the past or to get away from the enemy and find one’s friends to experience again their acceptance. Merely telling yourself that this person is wrong and thinking of your positive qualities can have only limited success in removing the impact of rejection. Doubt remains and this doubt disturbs our sense of well being.
Why are we so dependent on others’ opinions of us? The simple version may go something like this: I exist and my identity is constituted by my relationships to others. If those relationships are broken or threatened, my existence and identity are threatened. But I know that I evaluate things and make judgments about them in view of their effect on my health and joy. I want to experience good and beautiful things because I need them to maintain myself. We intuitively believe others think the same way. They too evaluate everything in their field of experience as good or bad, pleasing or unpleasant in relation to themselves and act accordingly. In my reflexive relationship to myself, I want myself to be pleasing to others because, if I am not pleasing to them, they will reject me. And if they reject me, my existence and ability to enjoy life will be greatly diminished; and this calls the value of my existence into question.
We tend then to base our judgments about ourselves on how we believe other people see us. We don’t have any other obvious vantage point from which to judge ourselves, for our judgment concerns whether or not we possess qualities that please others. If we don’t think we please others, then what other judgment can we make than that we don’t possess pleasing qualities! And if we believe we do not possess pleasing qualities, we cannot believe others will accept us. We then see ourselves as rejected and deprived of the possibility of a sense of well-being. But if life presents no possibilities for joy, why live?
But we are not merely passive. Since we are uncertain about whether or not we possess pleasing qualities, we become proactive and attempt to make ourselves pleasing to others by acquiring or pretending to possess qualities we think they would like. They of course are doing the same thing! In this way fashion and prejudice become incarnate in a crowd and no one has a basis in truth on which to live. Fame is a particular form of this phenomenon. In seeking fame I seek redundant confirmation that I possess pleasing qualities. Some people may simply fall into fame—though those who attain fame accidentally soon become addicted to it—but many seek it. And they seek it by becoming, acting and dressing in ways designed for no purpose other than to attain and maintain fame.
But none of these strategies work to give us real dignity or identity. Human judgments about the value and dignity of other people are usually superficial and prejudiced. Human beings cannot assess all the qualities of other human beings and all their relationships. Many qualities are hidden within and hence inaccessible to us. We can judge only the present, and knowing the place of a person in the total matrix of the world would require omniscience and eternity; only from such a vantage point could definitive judgments be made. And as I pointed out above, we cannot judge our own dignity or the status of our qualities from within. We need an external criterion.
Only God can judge our dignity, our usefulness and fitness for life. Our desire to be approvingly known, so that we can accept ourselves, will be frustrated unless we direct that desire toward God. God knows us as we truly are and as we shall be. But God’s knowledge of us is not based on mere observation. God knows us because in his love for us he takes account of us. God knows our sins and weaknesses—we don’t have to hide and pretend to be something we are not—but has other plans for us. God plans to make us beautiful, significant and worthy. If we seek to be known by God, to know God and to know ourselves as God knows us (not as the crowd knows us), our desire will be directed to the only place where it can be fulfilled. We can never be satisfied until we know we are known and loved by one who knows all things and cannot be mistaken. Not until we know who we are and why we exist will the restless desire for attention and admiration find its end.
Now we live in faith and hope. However, if we believe we are known and accepted by God, we can begin to experience freedom from slavery to the judgments of others. We can minimize the number and intensity and futility of the things we do for no reason other than to please others so we can think well of ourselves. If rather we love ourselves because we believe God loves us, we won’t seek fame, and even if it comes anyway we will be less likely to be deceived by it. Our energies can be directed toward real things, good and truly beautiful things; we can live for things that matter, things that last rather than the ephemeral fantasies of the crowd.