“You too will be famous!”
How those words cause starry-eyed young hearts to flutter! What great fortune have they who achieve this pinnacle of worldly aspirations. And to what great lengths go so many souls to be able to claim it for themselves. But how many consider that something valuable might be lost in the quest?
Deep within the heart lies the desire to be known, admired, and loved, and fame is the greatest fulfillment the world can offer for this desire. But like all worldly enticements, as glamorous as it appears, it misses the mark of that for which our human nature truly yearns.
Your personality is sacred. This means that it is special, distinguished, set aside. It is also susceptible to defilement. So how does one go about defiling one’s personality? Is it not just as much a part of you as your eye color? What damage can be done?
There are secrets to your person that are intimately tied to your dignity. The obvious ones are the reason for a thriving fashion industry. But we are spiritual beings, so our personalities go far beyond instinct-driven animal temperaments. As much as we might want to be known by others, no human can know us in our innermost depths. We have no way to communicate this knowledge – it is reserved for God alone.
We can only give to others out of love that which first is ours to give. Conversely, we can only make it ours to the extent that we are willing to give it away. Our God-given talents are meant to be shared because they bring glory to God when they are used as intended: “… your light must shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your heavenly Father.” (Matthew 5:16) The fact that not everyone will look beyond our unique gifts to their Bestower does not negate our directive to use them. And yet there are many ways of sharing these talents that inherently do not bring glory to God.
As Thomas Merton points out (book “No Man Is An Island”, chapter “The Inward Solitude”), the forbidden fruit of the tree of knowledge brought us the inclination to know and love falsely, apart from God rather than through Him. The alternative to consecrating all we know and love to God is consecrating it all to ourselves. This corrupts our very means of knowing and loving, because all is seen in the false light of our ego rather than the true light of divine grace: everything becomes an illusion. Our lives become a futile pursuit to claim what we can never truly possess – to adorn our personalities with shallow frivolities while starving our souls.
As Merton also notes, our own true personalities can only be nurtured by the ever-renewed consecration of ourselves to God in quiet solitude, also known as prayer. As we grow in the knowledge and awareness of the incommunicable depths of our being, we better distinguish ourselves from one another and what is ours from what is theirs, and so can better give of ourselves in love. We know and love others more truly insofar as we recognize the deeper secrets of their personalities, but only after having discovered them in ourselves. Thus we form bonds with others while showing reverence to the dignity and secrecy of their own personalities. As John Henry Newman highlighted in his sermon “Christian Reverence”:
No one really loves another, who does not feel a certain reverence towards him. When friends transgress this sobriety of affection, they may indeed continue associates for a time, but they have broken the bond of union. It is mutual respect which makes friendship lasting.
In ages past, most public figures were able to command the respect of their fellows because this reverence to the person was pillared by an intimated reverence to God. But as God has been exiled from the public consciousness, so has this reverence. What came naturally to our predecessors is no longer inferred. The perceived value of praise and admiration has increased while the value of what makes us inherently praiseworthy and admirable has diminished.
What garners public praise in a culture of disintegration is flattery, which, as Josef Pieper notes (book “Abuse of Language – Abuse of Power”), makes us believe that what is inherently shameful in ourselves is really of no consequence:
What the world really wants is flattery, and it does not matter how much of it is a lie; but the world at the same time also wants the right to disguise, so that the fact of being lied to can easily be ignored. As I enjoy being affirmed in my whims and praised for my foibles, I also expect credibility to make it easy for me to believe, in good conscience or at least without a bad conscience, that everything I hear, read, absorb, and watch is indeed true, important, worthwhile, and authentic!
The more convincing the flatterer, the more he is commended by the world for freeing us from our self-inflicted bonds of abasement. The less we reflect on ourselves and our own condition, the less our affliction from our faults. So those who most desperately seek fame and prestige in our day expose themselves, making a spectacle of their private lives and their faults for public consumption. This phenomenon is most evident in the “reality shows” so many know and love. We offer the praise they crave for what is not truly praiseworthy while consuming them without reverence, drawing ourselves out of our own depths and seeking personal worth and fulfillment in the traits they exhibit which are mere artifacts of their own egos. They become shells of the people God intended them to be, and they invite us to shed our dignity and join them.
“You too will be famous!”
Behind the desperation that drives these charades lies the need to be seen and recognized. But again, the pursuit can go one of two ways: with God or without God. It is the latter that perverts our quest into seeking fulfillment from emptiness.
For something deep within us knows that we will eventually be exposed for who we truly are. The force of God’s presence at our chosen hour will render our free choice of the will powerless. We will forever retain the state in which God finds us. Moreover, at the universal judgment all people will see us and our unabridged earthly lives just as God does. I will know you better than you now know yourself, and (Lord have mercy!) you will know me in the same capacity. We will both be revealed for what we are in the divine light. Everything will look so different then. There are many whose personalities appear so worthy of commendation who will then struggle to cover their emptiness to no avail. And many quiet and unknown souls will shine in splendor because they are truly great in God’s eyes.
May we recognize any worldly praise we receive as the gift that it is, and be ready to discard it in favor of the trials that can make us truly worthy of praise before God.