Those who have a ‘why’ to live, can bear almost any “how.”—Viktor Frankl
The findings of evolutionary psychology suggest that most people derive meaning from their loyalties to family, tribe or country. In common with other animals, we are often willing to suffer for the benefit of our relatives, with whom we share many of our genes.
However, many people find this an insufficient source of meaning. Cultures have developed narratives that link human experiences to the universe. Daoists, for example, believe that everything happens in accordance with the unfolding of the Dao which was “the beginning of Heaven and Earth.” Stoics posit that the ultimate source of meaning is Logos or Reason. Marcus Aurelius writes that “All things have their beginning and end in accordance with it.” For much of western history, Christianity has been the ultimate source of meaning for many, providing a narrative that makes sense of life: “‘For I know the plans I have for you’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to hurt you, plans to give you hope and a future,’” the Israelites are told while in exile.
But the scientific discoveries of the past centuries have undermined many people’s faith. We no longer need a creator god to explain the universe, nor is the notion of a divine plan tenable. We are collections of molecules which—in a process we do not, and may never, understand—acquired sentience on a rock in a safely outlying region of a cold and unfeeling galaxy. Science explains that we have a purpose—passing on our genes—but it has removed our traditional source of meaning. It has not, however, taken away our need for it—but the focus, for many in the west at least, has shifted from our relationship with a god or gods to the impact we have on other people, though not necessarily those to whom we are closely related.
Consider Eric Liddell, the 1920’s sprinter and missionary whose struggle to reconcile his two roles is told in Chariots of Fire. In an early sermon, recounted in Duncan Hamilton’s 2016 biography, For the Glory, he tells his listeners, “We must strive to make our faith the perfect work. We are then sincere to ourselves and to God.” It was in relation to the divine that his struggles and achievements gained meaning. (His character in Chariots of Fire says, “God made me … fast,” and “when I run, I feel His pleasure.”)
Contrast this with contemporary sprint cyclist Mark Cavendish’s stated motivation for conquering his mental health issues: “If me being successful can inspire just one more person to get on a bike, that’s worth more than any medal for me.” Similarly, boxer Tyson Fury, who overcame depression and substance abuse, has commented, “Everybody out there who has the same problems that I’ve been suffering with, I did that for you guys. And if I can come back from where I’ve come from, then you can do it too.”
Nor is it just athletes who do this. Pop star Demi Lovato, who has struggled with her body image, has said that she does not want to “look a certain way or fit a certain mold,” since “someone needs to stand up for people who don’t naturally look that way.” Likewise, in an article discussing her miscarriage, the Duchess of Sussex writes, “In being invited to share our pain, together we take the first steps towards healing.”
It is easy to write off such celebrity revelations as whiny, self-pitying bids for attention—but being famous does not obviate a person’s need to feel that her life is meaningful. In each of these instances, a celebrity has chosen to publicize a private ordeal, in the belief that, in doing so, they may be able to help others. What might, then, seem bad for the individual concerned becomes good—not because a beneficent god has willed it, but because it provides comfort to other people.
Where celebrities differ from the rest of us is in their reach. While a teacher, say, who suffers a miscarriage might turn that experience to the good by volunteering for a local charity, or talking to her friends, colleagues or maybe even pupils about it, the Duchess of Sussex has a much bigger platform and it would be strange not to use it, if the impact of our experiences on society is now our yardstick of meaning. The Duchess would help some people if she volunteered for a charity, but she can help far more by writing an op-ed.
This does not necessarily imply a structural inequality in the meaning market whereby celebrities, by dint of their larger audiences, can create more of it. In the olden times, the lord of the manor would contribute more to the communion plate than his estate workers. That did not, however, make his actions more meaningful.
However, while deriving meaning from the impact you have on your family or tribe may be reasonable, it may not always feel like enough. Simply knowing that those you have personal contact with are inspired or comforted by knowing of your experiences may not feel satisfying—because most of us simply don’t have enough such personal contacts. We may decide that we cannot have a sufficient impact on others to make our own experiences meaningful. Even celebrities, with their global audiences, may find the extent of their reach ultimately unsatisfying. Maybe we need something bigger.
By broadcasting their experiences, celebrities perform a semi-divine function akin to that of the heroes in ancient myth. Recognisably human, they provide context for the experiences of others. While they cannot make such experiences good in themselves, they can allow others to relate their struggles to something greater. As Achilles says to Lycaon in The Iliad, “Do you not see what sort of man I am, handsome and mighty? A great king is my father, a goddess my mother yet even so, death and the grip of fate lie upon me.” He might be incomparably greater than other mortals, but even Achilles had to struggle with the inevitability of death. His deeds gain Achilles entry to the Elysian Fields after death but, as he tells Odysseus in The Odyssey, “Just to live, I would choose to serve as the hired hand of another rather than reign as King of the Dead.” (Translations are mine.)
We might be tempted to gripe next time a celebrity chooses to unburden him- or herself to the unsuspecting public, either through a desire for the reticence of old, or a lack of sympathy for the privileged. But in a world in which many people no longer believe in the divine, they are seeking the next best thing.