Two celebrities at the Golden Globes this month created quite a stir. One was the talented Ricky Gervais, ruthlessly exposing the bankruptcy and sanctimony of those who were there to celebrate themselves. The other was the talented Michelle Williams, expecting and receiving applause for having aborted her child to become a person on a stage being applauded.
We might know more about the private lives of celebrities now than ever before, and it is often not a pretty picture. Addiction, betrayal, ego—I suppose that can describe much of humanity. But it is a truism that a person’s vices will almost inevitably be augmented when he is elevated to the status of a cultural god. No circumspect person can think fame actually brings happiness. We know it is a mirage, but the mirage seduces us.
So seductive is this mirage that we have democratized it. Instagram is rife with influencers enjoying a slice of celebrity by collecting followers. Interestingly, while the upper echelons of this medium can make money, most do not but still want the followers regardless.
This is not necessarily bad, and it certainly can be a tool for something good. But having eyes on us can be alluring, as can be the urge to amass an ever-increasing number of those eyes. Being seen has become irresistible. But being seen and being known are different things.
Recently, I caught myself gazing at my husband in public while lost in thought of him. He is a good man, heroically so, but my gaze wasn’t because he is faultless nor because his faults and humanity are hidden from me. Rather it was because he is deeply known to me, while still being altogether other. Intimacy with another is terrible and beautiful; it forces us to both see ourselves and get outside of ourselves.
Years ago, when my water broke at 20 weeks of pregnancy with our twin sons, we were desperate to hold hope that they might survive and too stunned to know that was unlikely. They did not.
A priest came to the hospital to give us holy water. My husband, upon delivery, named them and baptized them. We held them for hours, and the hours were stupidly inadequate. We dressed them. We recognized their faces. Theirs were faces that were known to us, and they were known deeply.
We can’t love what we don’t know. There is a particularity and a vulnerability to love. The things we wish were not there cannot be wished away when someone else really knows us. We become people who think with reality in a way that is both humbling and hopeful. We become aware.
The unaware person is always fractured—consumed with projecting who he or she wants to be and concealing who he is, all the while hoping the projection is the reality. But something is always gnawing at him that the projection is not real—that he cannot be known because he cannot countenance himself.
I think this fracturing is why we have become so preoccupied with convincing ourselves that we are worthy of esteem. We tell ourselves that we are beautiful and strong and powerful, but what if we are mean and weak-willed? We sort of see it but we distract, affirm, and squint away from it.
So desperate are we to triumph our desire for how we want to be seen over the reality of who we are that we turn away from the other or see the other as a mere means for affirming our projected selves. We remain bifurcated, fractured, seen but not known. And we want the parts of us and things we have done that we suspect might be gravely and mortally wrong to be justified. So we justify them and ask that others do too.
Michelle Williams averted her eyes to the reality of her act and the humanity of her child, a child whose face she could not see, an other whom she would not know. But although she does not know the child, the child is known, as is she. As are we. And that is a terrible and beautiful thing to face.