I turned on the radio the other day, and the first words I heard on my local NPR station were something like this:
Yeah, well, when I started to get better known, and, really, sort of famous, somebody told me my wife was worried it would all go to my head. As soon as I heard that, I had my people call her to reassure her. For some reason, it didn't work.
I had to laugh. In my own adventures as a public philosopher, I've even had such experiences. I think it was after doing some television commercials for Disney, and an appearance on Regis and Kathy Lee, back in the day of its peak popularity on ABC, followed by a session with Matt Lauer on the NBC Today Show, that my wife gave me a little blue button to pin on my shirt that said, "Almost Famous Person." I think she wanted both to celebrate those improbably experiences with me, and to remind me diplomatically that I was still solidly on the "ordinary person" side of the line in our culture of fame and instant celebrity.
My workout partner sometimes goes to GoodWill stores to look for old books. He recently gave me a novel set in North Carolina and UNC Chapel Hill, beginning in 1954, and then spanning a couple of decades, called Everybody's All American. It was published in 1981 by the prominent sports writer Frank Deford. It's about a great UNC football player who becomes a legend, and almost a myth - The Grey Ghost they call him. He's much larger than life because of his natural talents and tremendous exploits as a running back on the football field. People treat him differently. His girlfriend is the most beautiful woman anyone has ever seen. Everyone also treats her differently, both because of her physical attributes, and of course, since she's with The Ghost. They are a couple who bring larger-than-life glamour and a certain electricity with them wherever they go.
The Ghost, Gavin Grey, never seems quite comfortable with the way people relate to him during his glory days. And yet, when it eventually ends and all goes away, he's desperate to return to those times, or to recreate some measure of it all. He goes to the pros. He flourishes, but then he's injured. They retire his jersey. And he falls from Olympus. He finds quickly that he just can't deal with ordinary life. He shows that he's become addicted to the legend - to the excitement and the action, and especially to the glory of doing something with his distinctive talents, and doing it exceptionally well. This addiction then spirals into others and eventually takes him down, in an act of tragic desperation.
What does a teacher do without a class, a judge without a courtroom, a doctor without patients? Most of us have a situation in our lives where we feel useful, helpful to others, and appreciated for what we do. If that situation comes to and end, as it does at retirement, or for empty nesters, with the departure of a child, or perhaps when business wanes, how do we fare? Are we able to reinvent ourselves and launch into a new adventure, appreciating what's past, but looking forward to what's ahead? Is the source of our self image and our self esteem deep enough to withstand a loss of great affirmation and any positive attention we've enjoyed? Or have we become addicted to something in ways we ourselves may not easily identify or understand?
The plight of the college star who graduates, or the pro athlete who retires young, of the musician whose records are no longer the hits they once were, or the actor who now doesn't get the parts he long enjoyed - these scenarios are well known. Deford does a great job in his book of describing one, in a compelling story of loss and diminishment. But smaller versions of the same problem can come into any life. We all experience hills and valleys. We need to learn to live happily in the valleys, as well as high on the hills. Life is all about ups and downs. Without an inner balance, a center of philosophical equanimity, and a sure place for our own self understanding, we can suffer greatly from those times when the tide turns and the spotlight shifts.
What the Grey Ghost needed to realize, and what we all benefit from knowing, is that the true values of life amount to an inner game that may or may not be manifested in outer recognition or affirmation. We can enjoy that outer good when it comes, but it's best to do so without needing it or becoming addicted to it. This resilience of spirit isn't easy to attain. But those who have it are greatly blessed.