Some weeks ago, I went to a couple of events at the Great Southern Writers’ Festival, where I listened to various authors talk about their craft, their stories and their experiences. It was a real insight into the different ways in which writers work, and with which aspects they struggle, and which they enjoy. It was also quite inspiring, being in such close proximity to Real Life Published Authors, but at one point, when listening to the panel discuss their books, I had an epiphany.
Well, it wasn’t really an epiphany. More of a thought, really:
These people are just people. They’re people just like me.
This seems blatantly obvious to others, I’m sure, but this thought was a really new one, because I am very good at putting people on pedestals. Of course, that’s a bad idea, because more often than not, they fall off. And it’s almost contradictory to what I believe: that we should respect each other based on how we perform as humans, not our positions in society. But sometimes it’s hard to look at those you admire, who have done well in something you are trying to do yourself, or would like to do, and not put them on a pedestal. Especially when they’ve been involved for a long time in an industry in which you’d like to work, and thus have experience to share, and advice to offer. What I realised when sitting in the audience, listening to these writers, is that their experiences might not marry well with my own. They had advice to offer and it wasn’t always going to work because our situations are different.
This is also obvious, of course, but it’s taken this long to dawn on me. And I wonder about how we tend to have such an attitude nowadays, in particular, with celebrities, who sometimes are not even famous for anything in particular, other than their wealth or their social status. They’ve not worked up through an industry to gain respect and notoriety; they’ve not written amazing songs or books; they’ve not trained for months and years to win a sporting event. They’re even more ‘just like us’ than others who are famous for achievements.
The internet’s made it possible for ordinary people to get famous for very ordinary things, and once they’re in the public eye, we want to hear their advice. We want to know what they eat, where they shop, their political beliefs, their views on the world. But really, why should it matter?
I was reading this post about the ways in which we almost expect to be offended, and how many on the internet are looking for a reason to be upset about what others are saying or doing. It’s along the same lines as this interview with Jon Ronson about his book, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed. (Some of you might remember I mentioned this book in the weekly links post a few weeks back). We want to admire people, to elevate them above all others as shining examples of what is good or funny or heroic, and when they don’t meet every single (unrealistic) criteria, it’s not so much that they tumble from that pedestal – it’s that we claw and push and rock at it until we knock them off.
Why do we even need to admire people in this way, I wonder? Surely it is much more interesting and fascinating that actors or politicians or artists or sportspeople are doing extraordinary things, but are really, in fact, just like us. Surely that is even more inspiring than imagining that they are infinitely more talented or clever? When I realised that the writers I’d spoken and listened to struggled with the same kinds of problems as I do, it was heartening, and it made sense that sometimes what worked for them wouldn’t work for me. They weren’t some kind of demigods, and that made them all the more appealing.
I suppose it might be easier, at times, to think of famous or successful individuals as having some quality or opportunity that the rest of us lack, which gives them the edge. It’s easier because that way, we don’t have to imagine that we could be them, if only we had the drive. I’m not arguing that anyone can do anything — of course we need to play to our strengths. And I think that luck often has an enormous part to play in success, as does knowing the right people and having the right connections. But even allowing for all that, royalty and world leaders and multimillionaires are still just people. They’re like me.
Far from feeling overwhelmed with the idea of not being able to live up to the success of others, I relish the idea that I, too, could be successful. Not necessarily in the same ways that others are, perhaps not with the same level of fame (and quite happily so), but still good at what I do, and content with what I can achieve. It’s not some weird alternative world in which celebrities live. It’s ours, and they’re just like us — whether or not they want you to think that!