Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Keeping Up With The Joneses

I am constantly amazed by our society’s fascination with celebrities. Everywhere you look, from newsstands to television to the internet, the gossip on these people is ever-flowing, and there are new tabloid outlets springing up every day.

And while I concede that the lifestyles of the rich and famous can be intriguing, I sometimes question the demand to know about the wardrobe of Brad Pitt’s son or that Jennifer Love-Hewitt got a haircut.

(In honor of Larry David) Having said that, I am not above getting sucked into this world from time to time. If I find myself in a doctor’s office, and there’s a People Magazine on the table, I have no problem flipping through it as I wait for my name to be called (although I will make sure no one is looking before I grab it).

Most of the “news” is as boring as I would expect – what is interesting about the sight of anyone lugging shopping bags or taking out the trash? – but like many, I’m a sucker for scandal, and the stories of divorce, infidelity, bankruptcy and catfights are entertaining.

But beyond filling my guilty-pleasure void that’s vacant whenever The Bachelor is not in-season, reading these torrid tales serves a more personal and somewhat sinister purpose:

They make me feel better about myself.

I know, I know…admitting that I take pleasure from the anguish of others isn’t exactly politically correct, but it’s the truth.

From afar, these stars appear to have the perfect life, living in a different universe from the rest of us. They’re gorgeous. They have bank accounts the size of Dolly Parton’s chest. They date people who are equally attractive and wealthy. They have entourages who attend to their every need. They’re worshipped by an adoring public.

Just typing that last paragraph made me want to call my therapist, so seeing them struggle is a nice change of pace. It gives me a slight sense of superiority, even if it’s only for a fleeting second.

And really, isn’t that one of the main attractions of gossip? Yes, everyone likes being kept in the loop, but when it comes down to it, don’t we get some payoff from hearing about who’s going to be fired or who’s getting dumped or who had to call the doctor for a four-hour problem – and knowing that it’s not us?

Of course, the gratification we experience is nothing more than malicious and shallow cattiness, the vengeance of our inner Lewis Skolnick (Revenge of the Nerds), and it’s best to just brush it off as such.

What we don’t want to do is put too much stock into it, so that it becomes a pillar of our confidence, something that we derive our identity from. Because when our self esteem is dependent on the actions and abilities of others, we’re asking for trouble.

On a recent, lazy Saturday night, I was messing around on my computer when I stumbled across a website that mentioned the rap group N.W.A., the group that featured the unknown versions of the now-famous Ice Cube, Dr. Dre and Eazy E. Their album “Straight Outta Compton” was the soundtrack of my fourth grade bus rides – even though I had no idea what any of the explicit lyrics meant – so I decided to take a trip down memory lane.

I read about how they got started and watched a few videos. I enjoyed several so-that’s-what-they-were-saying epiphanies while listening to their old songs. And through a stream-of-consciousness search of the Internet Movie Database, I ended up on the biography page of John Singleton, the man who had written and directed Ice Cube’s movie debut, Boyz N The Hood.

As I scrolled down the screen, I couldn’t help being impressed by all that Singleton had done. He’d graduated from the prestigious USC School of Cinema-Television. He worked on a number of music videos, including one with the late Michael Jackson. He dated Tyra Banks. The man had really lived.

But the notation that struck me more than any was this one:

“Youngest person ever to receive an Academy Award nomination for Best Director (at the age of 24).”

24? He was nominated for an Academy Award when he was 24-years-old? Really?

When I was 24, the only way I was going to walk on a red carpet was if my parents installed one in the room of their house where I was still living. The state of my union was a mess. I spent my days working as a substitute teacher and my nights worrying that I’d eventually be that forty-something hermit who never left his mother’s basement. Every date I went on inevitably turned south when the girl realized I had no money and no prospects. I’d been out of college for two years, and the little league trophies stuffed in my closet were representative of my achievements: in the game of life, I had done nothing more than participate.

Suddenly, I felt completely inadequate.

It didn’t help that Singleton was a writer, the craft that I am currently pursuing. I mean, he had written one of the defining screenplays of his time (Boyz N The Hood) before qualifying for car insurance; and here I am, eight years older now than he was then, and the best I can do is post a blog that’s only read by people who would be invited to my birthday party.

My visit to the good ol’ days had turned into a nightmare. And the worst part of it was the glaring revelation that my self worth was on such shaky ground. Sure, I could get a confidence boost by reading through Tiger Woods’ salacious text messages, but I could just as easily get crushed by hearing about another man’s accomplishments.

As I picked up the shattered pieces of my ego, I wondered why I expended so much energy comparing myself to everyone else. It’s an easy trap to fall into for sure, especially when things aren’t going your way, or when your life doesn’t match up with your expectations, or when you see people enjoying something that you lack, but still…this was not healthy, and I knew it wasn’t getting me anywhere.

Because the fact is that we each have our own path, one that is completely independent of anyone else’s. And when we fail to honor and respect that, we allow our self esteem to fluctuate with the failures and successes of others, with the “woulda-coulda-shouldas”, with whichever way the wind blows.

But self esteem is an inside job, and the only way that it can be a true foundation for us is to feed and nurture it from within. We have to value ourselves. We have to be complimentary and encouraging. We have to be kind and gentle, while still being honest and tough when the situation calls for it. We have to have our own backs. We have to be our own best friend.

The temptation will always be there to pick ourselves up or put ourselves down because of what’s going on around us, but doing so will only make us feel worse or give us a “fool’s gold” sense of assurance.

In other words, it’s a harmful, detrimental waste of time.

Of course, looking outside ourselves doesn't have to be a bad thing…we just have to do it with a positive frame of mind. For someone who wants to be a writer, a great book can serve as inspiration or a source of motivation. For someone who wants to get married, the sight of a gushing bride can be a sign of hope. For someone who is feeling empty, the homeless man on the corner can be a reminder to live a life of gratitude.

And for someone who is interested in other people’s hygienic habits, an article about Jessica Simpson’s hairstylist’s Brazilian wax treatment can be an informative piece of journalism.

About Me

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"It's not a lie, if you believe it." Those were the words of one of my generation's great sages, George Costanza, and the more of life I experience, the truer they ring. And while I still haven't found what I'm looking for, the search for my own personal "truths" is never-ending. Care to come along for the ride?