A defining feature of life today is we have a lot of celebrities. We live in a world of information, and much of that information is about specific people. We have celebrities in just about every area of life ranging from broad areas, such as entertainment, sports, and government to more obscure tasks such as noodling catfish (i.e., is catching them by hand) and baking cakes.
Think about it. How many people do you know a lot about via the media even though you’ve never met them? Quite a few, I’d wager. And if you want to learn about someone, it’s usually pretty easy on-line.
There’s nothing wrong with this, per se, but it can cause a problem in how we evaluate our own lives. Celebrities are often known for doing something really well, and we naturally gravitate toward those celebrities who are experts in areas that we’re interested in ourselves. As I blogged about last week, we understand ourselves, in part, through processes of self-comparison.
The problem arises when we compare ourselves against celebrities. If they are among the best at something, then we’re making quite an uphill comparison, and it’s difficult not to become discouraged. Even if we think we could be as good as the celebrity, their having tens of thousands of people watching them makes them just seem more important than us.
For example, I enjoy photography, and so I read a lot of books about how to take better photographs. On one hand, I learn to be a better photographer by reading these books, but on the other hand I’m constantly exposed to people who are just a lot better than I am (and may ever be). They travel to the best locations, with the best equipment, and with decades of full-time experience. How could I possibly compare? As a result, I look at my photographs—even my best ones—with a tainted eye.
This dynamic maybe be even more salient among young people, whose self-images are being formed. They compare themselves to celebrities who are rich and talented and beautiful and with perfect bodies (at least after photoshop), and how can they help but have concerns about themselves?
This is where the information age comes into play. Certainly social comparison has been around as long as humans have been, but the range of it has broadened widely. In previous generations, who didn’t have access to such a wide range of information, they would make more manageable comparisons—the good best athlete or the most attractive person in the school rather than someone on the other side of the country who has their own reality tv show. Somehow these earlier comparisons seemed more manageable.
This process works with the Christian faith as well. To illustrate, Tim Tebow has received a remarkable amount of publicity in the past few weeks, and richly deserved as far as I can tell. He’s a world class athlete and maybe an even better Christian. He donated his signing bonus to build a hospital for the poor, and each game he hosts a disabled or sick person as his guest. His acclaim inspires us to be better Christians, but if we can’t do all that he does, it’s possible to not to want to even try. If we can’t do everything that he does in his life (and few of us can), than does it really matter if we do what we can do?
Likewise, a good friend attended a big Christian conference recently. They had the best teachers and worship leaders, and while he enjoyed the experience, it was also a bit disheartening. When we’re exposed to the best at something, we evaluate our day-to-day life differently. In this case, he was keenly aware of how the services at our small church just don’t measure up.
This may fuel frequent church shopping. The best known pastors and churches can leave us with expectations for church that aren’t met by our local church, so we keep searching for the experience that we know is possible.
The power of this celebrity culture is not to be underestimated. Americans watch an average of 30+ hours of television a week, and much of what we see is about celebrities. Either about their own lives, as per reality television or entertainment news, or we see them performing on our favorite television shows or movies. Many Americans probably spend as much time watching the lives of people on tv or the magazines as they do their family and friends.
This makes celebrities a powerful comparison group, for both good and bad.