The Common Good
November-December 1997

Celebrity and Substance

by Jim Wallis | November-December 1997

St. Augustine said there is a God-shaped hole in the human
spirit.

St. Augustine said there is a God-shaped hole in the human spirit. It is a vacuum that must be filled...by something. Being a Christian theologian, Augustine believed that hole is best filled by God. The early church father famously intoned, "Our souls are restless until they rest in God."

We can easily observe that vacuum in other human creatures, and even honest agnostics can detect it in themselves. Human beings need to pay homage to something outside of themselves—something higher, something deeper, something more significant. If not God, the hole can indeed be filled with something else: a noble cause, a national patriotism, perhaps one's career, or certainly one's children. To have a commitment beyond oneself has fueled religious and social movements throughout history. Martin Luther King Jr. put it rather bluntly, "If a man has not found something worth dying for, he is not fit to live."

In the post-modern age, it is celebrity that often fills the spiritual vacuum. Celebrities have become our modern gods and goddesses. We pay them homage through our insatiable fascination with lives that, while so different from our own, offer us an endless source of fantasy for our vicarious living. At the same time, we relish the media-created illusion of intimacy with celebrities that makes a famous person feel like "one of us."

I WAS IN PARIS the day Diana's car crashed. The day before, my English fiancée and I had walked hand in hand along the right bank of the Seine River, right next to the Pont de l'Alma tunnel underpass that would soon command the attention of the entire world. We left Paris just six hours before the midnight accident and were back in London the next morning when the news awakened a stunned British public. What I witnessed the following week was simply extraordinary.

Until that morning of August 31, I had paid little attention to Diana, Princess of Wales, and knew only what no one could avoid hearing in the din of the popular culture frenzy about her. I'm sure the American puzzlement over British royalty added to my lack of interest. The only articles I had ever read about Diana were recent pieces about the attention she was bringing to the campaign to ban land mines, which seemed very positive indeed. I certainly wasn't prepared for the outpouring of human emotion that followed her death and the singular way the attention of Great Britain (and the whole world) would become so focused on the 36-year-old woman Tony Blair would dub "the people's princess."

I soon learned that most Britons, including the Anglican priest I'm about to marry, were amazed at their own emotions. The English "stiff upper lip" totally collapsed. Wandering through the enormous maze of gorgeous flowers and human throngs of every age, class, and race at Kensington Palace, I tried to understand.

Even the BBC, probably the news organization I most respect in the world, went over the top with Diana. By week's end, we were hearing words like "saint," "icon," "idol," "conscience of the nation," "great humanitarian," and "the brightest star in our constellation." It was left to her brother, at Diana's funeral, to bring us all back down to earth.

I've never heard a more courageous speech at a funeral, but not so much for the reasons the press reported. The media focused on Earl Spencer's swipes at the Royal Family and attacks on the media. But the much more significant words of Diana's devoted younger brother were about her, words that made the world's princess seem very human again. He asked us not to canonize his sister, that she was noble enough in her flawed humanity.

Diana once told her brother, he said, that it was her own suffering that opened her heart to the sufferings of others. And, he said, it was her own sense of insecurity and unworthiness, vulnerably citing her eating disorders as an example, that helped motivate her to reach out to those in need, in part to find significance for herself. Diana's life was a paradox of inconsistencies, which is probably the key to understanding her extraordinary posthumous appeal. It was the only real way she was "like us."

THE REASONS DIANA originally became a world celebrity had absolutely nothing to do with humanitarian concerns, yet those concerns were the most commonly cited reasons people gave when interviewed about the depth of their emotion over Diana's death.

I watched footage of one of the first royal visits to Australia made by Prince Charles and his new bride. Diana was the absolutely beautiful princess and queen of fashion who also held a future king of England in her arms. What a combination! And, almost from the beginning, Diana had the most important gift of the modern age—she was so telegenic. She had that look, that smile, that style that works so well in front of the camera.

And she knew it. For all of Diana's expressed and real torment at the hands of an unscrupulous media, no one knew how better to use it when it suited her own purposes. The same woman holding a tennis racket to shield her face from the press didn't hesitate earlier this summer to wear a leopard-skin bathing suit in front of them to draw attention away from Camilla Parker Bowles' birthday party with ex-husband Prince Charles.

"Fame is a nasty Faustian bargain," said Lance Morrow reflecting in Newsweek's commemorative issue on Diana. He wrote, "Instead of selling one's soul to the devil in order to know all things, as Faust did, one sells one's soul in order to be known....The outcome is not happy." Diana found that out. She knew how to be a celebrity and, indeed, worked very hard at it. But, by her own admission, that celebrity status never could bring her the happiness she sought.

But increasingly, it seemed, Diana was reaching out to others, in part to find the satisfaction that had eluded her in her celebrity lifestyle. Diana the celebrity, it appears, was on a journey toward becoming a woman of substance. The most famous woman in the world was on the way to also becoming somebody important. As my wife-to-be Joy Carroll put it one day, "Diana was on a journey toward integrity. She seems to have become a symbol of mediation between the place we aspire to get to and the mess we actually experience."

The week after Diana died, I saw just-released footage of her recent trip to Southern Africa on behalf of the anti-land mines campaign. She walked through refugee camps and talked to people who had been victims of land mines seeming both comfortable and savvy, naturally relating to poor women and children, while asking all the right questions of those in charge of the camps. I've been to camps like that, and one could easily tell that Diana knew what she was doing and why. She was very knowledgeable, articulate, and especially compassionate. Diana was no longer the beautiful and famous royal showing up for a charitable photo-opportunity. During the week leading up to her funeral, several directors of London AIDS hospices and homeless shelters told of Diana's quiet and secret visits to their people when the cameras weren't around.

But she was promoting others' good work rather than doing it herself, and had become more of a fund-raiser (arguably the most effective in the world) than a humanitarian in her own right. Also, her contradictions continued. Royal historian A.N. Wilson remarked that while Diana was always rich (having been born into one of the oldest aristocratic families in England), in her later years "she was extravagant on a scale that would have made Marie Antoinette blush." Diana never lived like one of us, and she was in the midst of a romantic affair with a man about whom weeks of intense media coverage failed to turn up anything more than his being a very wealthy 42-year-old playboy. Dodi Fayed's family made its money in relation to people like billionaire arms dealer Adnan Khashoggi, a contradiction for a land mines crusader that the media somehow didn't pick up on.

BUT IT WAS HER contradictions, vulnerability, and disappointments that made people so able to identify with Diana. Women especially could easily relate to a woman who had been betrayed then rejected by a man, suffered internal turmoil and eating disorders over her self-image, was divorced, endured several failed love affairs, and faced the world as a single mother (and by all reports, a very good one). Celebrity and vulnerability is such a volatile combination. And the fact that Diana was now trying to do something significant with her life made the mixture all the more powerful. Now, she will forever be remembered more for her causes than for her dresses, which we expect would make Diana happy.

It was especially poignant that Mother Teresa's funeral came just one week after Diana's. Probably the two most famous women in the world died within a week of each other and, in the media, their images faded together. Each was a celebrity in her own right, yet their lives were lived on opposite ends of the human spectrum. The two met on four occasions, and their concerns were moving more closely together. While Diana was surely not a saint, Mother Teresa may be canonized with record speed.

It is ironic now that both were most praised for the same thing: the quality of their service to others. Mother Teresa's death generated worldwide admiration, while Diana's prompted global grief. An old and loving woman who was ready to die inspired in people more respect and awe than personal identification. The untimely death of a young woman in her radiant prime struck rawer emotions by reminding people both of their human flaws and their best aspirations.

But the global media response to both deaths also reveals one of the most dangerous things about the modern age—the habit of vicarious living through others, especially our celebrities. Admiring and grieving are simply not enough to honor the deaths of these two women. Only appropriating that which we feel and admire about them for our own lives will be sufficient.

The legacy of both these very different women is that what lasts are the things we do for our brothers and sisters, especially those who need the most. It is that connection to other human beings that brings us closer to the heart of God, and it is such an understanding of life that begins to fill that God-shaped hole in every human spirit. Because both women had discovered that truth (one for many years and one just beginning to), their lives each offer, in the words of Malcolm Muggeridge's biography of the Calcutta nun, "something beautiful for God."

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