We non-celebrities are prone to project our personal anxieties, insecurities, and judgments onto public figures. We are also apt to project our hopes, dreams, and aspirations onto public figures who delight us. In an age of mass media when entertainers and politicians intrude upon our psyches in powerful ways, the urges in this direction are nearly irresistible. Public figures are enormously present in our private lives.
Consequently the death of a celebrity like Michael Jackson or the discovery of infidelity on the part of a politician like Sen. Ensign or Gov. Sanford draw us into a puzzling blend of public and private discourse. The boundaries between public and private worlds become fuzzy.
The spiritual danger here is that given the public roles of the persons we feel they are fair game for judgment so that we maintain the public standards of appropriate behavior. At the same time, given the way in which they have entered our private worlds, they become objects of gossip that is emotionally engaging in a way that allows us to feel morally superior.
My guess is that there is little chance that in an age of mass media that the public/private boundary will return. In the midst of these ambiguities let us reflect on the sins of celebrities not only with the public judgment that may be appropriate, but also with the knowledge that each of us has our own questionable corners and vulnerabilities to temptation. A helpful prayer I have found in Phyllis Tickle’s adaptations of The Offices of Daily Prayer:
God of justice, God of mercy, bless all those who are surprised with pain this day from suffering caused by their own weakness or that of others. Let what we suffer teach us to be merciful; let our sins teach us to forgive. This I ask through the intercession of Jesus and all who died forgiving those who oppressed them. Amen.