Think Piece’d: Fame, Empathy & Pain

Lamar Odom

“Terrell has 25 million reasons why he should be alive.”

Kim Etheredge was the publicist for, then Dallas Cowboys wide receiver, Terrell Owens and she was trying to put out fires. Days earlier she found Owens non-responsive after taking painkillers, and now she was faced with convincing the sports world he hadn’t attempted suicide. Where she went to make, that argument was the amount of money Terrell’s contract with the Cowboys was worth. While she thought it was a good defense, it is a problematic correlation people make all the time.

When we see celebrities, athletes, musicians, and other entertainers we often see people far beyond us. These people seem to have everything we want, and thus we don’t see any reason why they would be depressed, or have any struggles in life. It’s as if reaching a level of fame strips away the humanity that they inherently possess because they do something that puts them on the world stage.

I remember when the story broke people made light of Owens and whether he was depressed. It became another red flag for people who never shared a moment of time with him. Another talking point for sports radio, and the endless parade of gas bags presented by ESPN or whatever network decided to cover the incident. This mocking doesn’t stop with TO but touches upon anyone who falls short of perfection while in the spotlight.

A few weeks ago, First Take star Stephen A. Smith ranted about Phil Jackson’s failures as the New York Knicks’ President of Basketball Operations. These televised tantrums are so expected from Smith that they are the reason he is one of the biggest personalities on ESPN. What drew the most attention to this rant wasn’t Phil Jackson, but where he went next:

Smith attempted to soften the blow by saying how much he loved Odom and was praying for a full recovery. That love doesn’t lessen the insensitivity of the mention. It makes it worse because that love should allow a friend, or family member, to see the humanity of the one who is hurting. But as I know firsthand that’s not how things often work.

Two weeks ago, Lamar Odom shared his story on the Player’s Tribune. He walked the reader through the death of his mother, his introduction to cocaine, the death of his six-month-old son, the deep darkness he fell into, and how his children are helping pull him through. It was a brave, and raw account of his struggles that we don’t often get to see. He went as far as to acknowledge how he still wanted to get high despite knowing it wasn’t what was best for him.

The major through line of Odom’s piece was how you can’t run away from your pain. It doesn’t mean that you must succumb to it, but if not addressed it will exist right around the corner. A successful career, recognition, accomplishments, or monetary gains don’t cover that. It’s an obvious thing to say, but in the west (and especially in America) we can focus on the external and hope that it will change how we feel inside.

We see the star and say, “if I had that much money I wouldn’t have any problems.” This thinking completely overlooks the fact that everyone has issues. Depression is real, and it isn’t a weakness. Pain doesn’t have a price or success threshold. That is the major point of note here.

In 2017, we saw both Chris Cornell and Linkin Park’s Chester Bennington take their own lives. The news sent their fans into deep mourning. To realize someone who helped them through their own struggles carried a burden so heavy that they chose to end their own lives allowed people to see their humanity. To realize how their fame, success, and notoriety wasn’t enough to erase whatever pain they were carrying.

The news of those losses was met with, almost, universal acknowledgment of the tragedy that suicide is. People responded by posting statuses mourning and sharing the number for the suicide hotline. Yet, if they struggled and weren’t open about what they were fighting against we would see more harsh criticisms lobbed their way.

When looking at celebrities and how we relate to their struggles there is a greater lesson to be learned about how we deal with people in our own lives. That we’re all facing something, and just because it isn’t our struggle doesn’t deny the heft of the cross they carry. That a new job, a raise in income, new friends, graduation, relationship, or location doesn’t suddenly cleanse what is going on inside of us. That while no one is happy all day (and happiness shouldn’t be the goal), we should seek help when we need it and not feel afraid that people will use it as a mark against us.

This isn’t all to say that there is nothing good that comes from the outside but it could just be a layer of paint over mildew.

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