Successful—or Merely Popular?

kim-kardashian-2
Anton Ivanov

The new season of “Black Mirror,” a “Twilight Zone” TV program now produced by Netflix, opens with an episode nicely terrifying for our Facebook/Twitter/Instagram times.

Starring the adorable Bryce Dallas Howard, the show depicts a near-future dystopia in which everyone and everything is evaluated all the time. People rate on their phones every encounter of their day—from picking up coffee to going on a date—and one’s status rises or falls like a stock price. Indeed, one’s actual worth rises and falls affecting everything one does, from what level of car one is allowed to rent to what privileges one has at the airport: You are your popularity.

This is the world trying to keep up with the Kardashians. This is the world in which a 26-year-old mother of two makes upwards of a million dollars a year merely arranging her life to be photographed, and then puts it up, hour by hour, online.

This is the world in which the most remarked-upon feature of our prime minister’s first post-inauguration encounter with the American president was the optics of the arm-wrestling of the first handshake.

We need a way out of this preposterous hall of mirrors, this relentless quest for “likes” so that one’s vacation, one’s wedding, even one’s suffering must be validated by one’s “friends” one click at a time.

So who would be the opposite of Kim Kardashian, a person I understand to be famous for contributing precisely nothing to the world but the entertainment of a posh, silly life?

The easy answer is “Mother Teresa,” right?

In the early days of the Missionaries of Charity, Mother Teresa wrote a letter to her spiritual superior, Archbishop Ferdinand Périer, signalling a concern directly at odds with the madness of our times. Here she is, embarked on the work that has become the symbol of selfless love, the paragon of pure charity, and she says this:

“I am afraid we are getting too much publicity. A few things I heard this evening have made me cold with fear. God preserve us. Please pray for me—that I be nothing to the world and let the world be nothing to me” (Come, Be My Light, p. 152).

What made Mother Teresa afraid of being noticed and noted?

She knew, with the instinct of one well aware of the frailty of all flesh, that anyone can be seduced by attention, anyone can be distracted by affirmation, anyone can be diverted from one’s proper work into service to the great god Fame.

Click. Click. Click. There it is, right there as a number on a screen: my worth. The worth of my work. The worth of my life. I am my popularity.

Mother Teresa knew that the work is what counts, not the counting of the work.

Mother Teresa knew, as Kim Kardashian apparently does not, that what one does for others is what matters, not what others do for you.

Mother Teresa knew, as all of us are tempted hourly to forget, that deep joy, rather than a quick dopamine burst, comes from sustained immersion in the need of the world and getting something done, however small, to alleviate that need.

One cannot accomplish “something beautiful for God” if one is focused on getting others to praise one’s own beauty—or kindness, or skill, or success.

I am afraid we are getting too much publicity…and not enough done.

3 I like it
0 I don't like it

John G. Stackhouse, Jr., PhD, serves as the Samuel J. Mikolaski Professor of Religious Studies at Crandall University in Moncton, New Brunswick. A graduate of Queen’s University, Wheaton Graduate School, and the University of Chicago, he was formerly Professor of Religion at the University of Manitoba and held the Sangwoo Youtong Chee Chair of Theology and Culture at Regent College, Vancouver. He has given interviews to ABC, NBC, CBC, CTV, and Global TV as well as to CBC Radio from coast to coast. His work has been featured in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Times Literary Supplement, The Globe and Mail, the National Post, The Atlantic, Time, and Maclean’s. Author of over 700 articles, book chapters, and reviews, his tenth book is scheduled for release later this year: “Why You’re Here: Ethics for the Real World” (Oxford University Press).