After nearly five decades pursuing fame, I finally understand that fame is not a feeling. It is the desire for fame, watching others who are famous when you, yourself, yearn for it, that creates the idea of a feeling. Fame is just a state of being that can be bestowed and removed in a heartbeat by others over whom you have no control.
How do I know this?
I think I have always known it, but never realized or understood it clearly until now.
I recently received compliments for some creative work I’ve done. And it didn’t feel like much of anything. Then, I thought back to my close brushes with fame, when I was beginning to be known for some project or other. For instance, I spoke at an event for a health issue about which I’d written a book. It was webcast across the world and there were many people watching. All I felt was nervous and unsure of myself. Afterward, I received extremely positive feedback and gratitude from the audience. I appreciated it and was grateful to be of service. That’s all.
When I get accolades or acclaim, it feels nice for a brief moment, and then I go about my day. In retrospect, I think that because I never got that ultimate “ahhhhh” I expected from worldly accomplishments, I lost the passion for whatever the project was.
But the fact is that I clearly didn’t have a passion for the project itself, but a desire for a certain feeling that I expected based on the reaction from the world. It was all a delusion. As I’ve heard over and over, you need a passion first. It’s the passion that gives you the feeling. Not the fame.
What did I expect to feel?
When I look at someone famous who is doing what I yearn to do, I feel excitement rise up in me. The idea of a feeling of accomplishment and ego-expanding joy.
This reminds me of something Rush Limbaugh once said about his rise to success. [Whatever you think about his politics, I would ask that you set it aside momentarily.] When he started out, he said that he visualized himself doing what he wanted to do. But instead of watching himself doing it, he was inside himself, experiencing it as the “doer.” And he did that for the very reason that he believed it was vital to feel the experience rather than watch it.
That feeling I kept reaching for was like grasping at water. Impossible to hold. But now, when I create art or writing that I love, the feeling I yearn for spreads throughout my body. It is a joy, meaning, and sense of accomplishment. It doesn’t occur when others reflect back to me, but when I am in the experience. This feeling isn’t based on whether anyone sees the work. It is a feeling relating to the work itself.
That is why I can say that my life is more meaningful now than ever before. For the most part, I’m not seeking worldly acclaim any longer, even when I share my work. When I do edge toward that, the discomfort of ego now makes me “recoil from it as from a hot flame” as it says in the AA Hidden Promises on pages 84-85 of the Big Book. Instead, I now find my “fame feeling” in the joy I experience from the work that I do rather than from the public’s reaction to it.
Recently, I saw two interviews with movie stars that struck me as speaking to this issue. Hugh Bonneville, who plays the Earl of Grantham in the PBS series, “Downton Abbey” was asked how he feels about being famous. He said that he feels no different and still wears a sweatshirt to the supermarket.
The second interview was with Hugh Jackman, who is starring in the movie “Les Miserable.” His mother left the family when he was quite young. His father impressed on him the importance of family. They spoke about his career, which he clearly enjoys. But it was when he spoke about how he feels about his family that his eyes teared up.
The bottom line is that fame is not a feeling.
There may be famous people who prance about making the most of their fame, but how many of those end up dead due to drug overdoses or getting divorce after divorce or engaging in other destructive lifestyle behaviors.
If fame were such a panacea, wouldn’t it bring a sense of peace and satisfaction with it? Instead, fame, in the wrong hands, just brings a craving for more, more, more. And maybe as the truth of the fact that fame doesn’t feel like one imagines dawns on the celebrity, that addiction to adrenaline and grasping may push him or her to an escalation of looking outside oneself in a search for that elusive sense of satisfaction.
Just as with compulsive debtors, who crave that ultimate “ahhhh” and live by the delusion that just this last purchase will bring the sensation we crave, so, too, some of us (like me) would continue escalating that search for the ultimate “ahhh” of the fame “purchase.”
What I now know is that the feeling I seek is generated inside of me … by my right efforts and not by what the world thinks of me. There is no ultimate “ahhhh” with spending, which I know because once I satisfied the itch another sprang up to take its place. The big lie for compulsive debtors is that we will stop debting once we have enough money or once we finally get whatever it is that is in front of our craving brain at that moment.
For true compulsive debtors, there will never be enough so we learn to live within our means and find gratitude for what we have instead of using money as a drug.
Helping One or Millions
Is the service we do in our program or, for that matter, any service we do in the world, that touches even one person unimportant because it doesn’t reach millions? To the individual who has gratefully benefited from your service, it makes no difference. The Talmud, a book of Jewish law, states, “And whoever saves a life, it is considered as if he saved an entire world.”
Yes, being a celebrity may be fun and exciting, but ultimately, it is not fulfilling on its own. So for those who seek or experience fame, it is important not to depend on that fickle state to find joy and meaning in your life. For today, know that you can be satisfied and joyous by doing something that brings you a feeling of accomplishment and meaning, whether you are famous or not. It may be art or writing or playing with your child or spending time with your spouse or making an outreach call to someone who needs help or giving service in another way. But remember that true joy cannot be implanted by others for more than a brief moment. Lasting joy comes from finding meaning within ourselves.