On August 31, 1997, the world cried when Princess Diana died. “Such a tragic loss.” “She was a great humanitarian.” From children to adults, the response was universal and overwhelming. Yet Diana contributed less to the betterment of the world than dozens of other contemporaries.
On September 5, 1997, less than a week later, Mother Teresa also died. While the devotees and many others wept, there was not the public cry that was heard when the princess passed away. Yet Mother Teresa had devoted the vast majority of her eighty-seven years to serving the poor of India.
Why do we identify so strongly with Diana and not with Mother Teresa? Part of the reason is the glamor and beauty associated with royalty and, in particular, this young princess. What fosters the sense of identification is the stress and strain supposedly imposed on her by her marriage and her apparent devotion to her children. Many women related to marital problems and many men admired her physical attractiveness. She was public property.
Mother Teresa, on the other hand, had several negatives associated with her, particularly for non-Catholics. She was far from physically attractive and worked in relative obscurity. Few identified with her.
However, Diana is only a lightning rod for the power of vicarious life. A whole world of people depends on every word and action of their favorite movie star, sports hero, or singer, regardless of that person’s moral flaws or negative stories. Think of Elvis, Kobe Bryant, Charlie Sheen, or Tom Cruise. The world’s Tom Hanks, James Stewart and Steve Nash, positive role models, are admired, but rarely adored.
To a large extent, we live vicariously through these high-profile characters, and without the excitement and glamor they seem to radiate, we live our lives vicariously through them. More specifically, we revel in their exploits, as if to say, “Ha, I wish I could do that too.”
Time and again, local police in North American cities are baffled by the support that outlaw motorcycle gangs receive, although it is well documented that many are involved in the most heinous crimes. Lives are ruined by drug trafficking, prostitution and other vices, crimes for which many motorcyclists have been committed. However, many people really admire this so-called rebellious spirit. He is less rebellious than deviant. Tens of thousands of middle-aged men can hardly wait for the day when they buy their own Harley and pretend to be tough renegades.
Social psychologists suggest that we choose this indirect way of living through others because we want the excitement, but not the risk. We love the romance of outlaw life, but we wouldn’t dare to think about being a part of it. And we seek this release because we have caught ourselves in a life that is not inspiring.
At most, we buy the luxurious sports or luxury car, or the elaborate technology. We devote our attention to it, as if it represents a great release and escape for us. To some extent, it does. We want freedom and stimulating experiences, but our ability to engage in that life is limited. We follow the same path in our lives every day, but we feel frustrated by our helplessness.
Reading about those superstars or celebrities allows us to imagine, without spending the effort or taking the risk of really getting involved in the world. As long as we choose to be armchair athletes or recliner risk takers, we sacrifice little except our own chance for a fulfilling life.
If we admire Diana, why not participate in charities and emulate her? If we think highly of Eli Manning, why not participate in the training of a youth soccer team? If we love Lady Gaga, why don’t we get together with friends and have a little karaoke? We don’t have to be superstars in any field, but we become stars in our own lives when we get involved, rather than letting anonymous celebrities live our lives for us. Life should not be lived indirectly. It must be lived with vivacity, with effervescence.