Oh please, don’t ask me how I’ve been
Don’t make me play pretend
Oh no, oh what’s the use
Oh please, I bet everybody here is fake happy too.
—Paramore, Fake Happy
Until 2014, there was a well-known actor who was successful no matter what role he played. He was a hilarious comedian that could improvise like no other. However, he could also bring an element of drama and realism to any character. Many people were touched by his acting skills. Whether it be in comedic roles such as in Licensed to Wed, Mrs. Doubtfire, or RV, or in more serious roles such as Dead Poets Society or Good Will Hunting, he brought life and honesty to all his films.
In 2014 he shocked the world (including myself) by doing what no one expected. He killed himself. A man who probably made more people laugh than anyone else in the world had committed suicide. Many assumptions about his death shocked me as it unfolded, but I was not asking the one question many people were asking, “Why would someone who was so successful commit suicide?”
The reason I did not ask this question is because it was not the first time something like this has happened—not by a long shot. In the past century, many “successful” people have committed suicide. The list includes: successful poets, writers, philosophers, musicians, actors, bankers, scientists, etc. It is not uncommon for those who have achieved fame and fortune to commit suicide, but why? Why do some who have seemingly achieved the ‘American dream’, suddenly become so miserable and depressed that they want to awake from it?
The reason Robin Williams’ story seems so tragic is that he was by all accounts a monumentally successful comedian. His suicide exposed a little-known truth: comedians can be just as depressed and miserable as anyone else. This seems odd because comedy, in many respects, often helps us to forget our problems. However, we need to consider that comedians (as well as all celebrities) are people too and they have problems just like the rest of us—maybe even more so. In fact, it is often the audience that is the primary problem for a comedian.
In his Netflix comedy piece Make Happy, Bo Burnham addresses this reality on stage in a very surprising way. He finished his act with a song where he sang and rapped about his problems. After laying out his problems with various playful and pedantic realities, he addresses something much more serious:
I could sit here and pretend that my biggest problems are Pringle cans and burritos,
The truth is my biggest problem’s you.
I wanna please you, but I wanna stay true to myself.
I wanna give you the night out that you deserve, but I wanna say what I think,
And not care what you think about it.
Part of me loves you,
Part of me hates you,
Part of me needs you,
Part of me fears you,
And I don’t think that I can handle this right now, handle this right now,
I don’t think that I can handle this right now.
I don’t think that I can handle this right, I don’t think that I can handle this right,
I don’t think that I can handle this right, look at them they’re just starin’ at me like,
“Come and watch the skinny kid with a steadily declining mental health,
And laugh as he attempts to give you what he cannot give himself,”
Burnham may have revolutionized comedy by focusing on something serious in the middle of his comedic bit, but he also exposed the dark realities of being a public entertainer. Why do many entertainers who “make it” seem so troubled? Why do those who achieve the ‘American dream’ seem so dissatisfied?
The honest truth, as far as I can see, is that our society has lied to us. This lie is what I would like to call “successfulism”. “Successfulism” is a seemingly important component of the American dream—that is, if we climb to the top no matter what the cost and leave everything and everyone we know and love behind to pursue our dreams, then we will be truly happy. This is nothing but a lie. It is a lie because it ignores human “teleology.”
“Teleology” comes from the Greek word telos meaning “end” or “goal”, which also carries the idea of “design” or “purpose”. So, what if human flourishing and human happiness were not only directly connected to reason and virtue (as Aristotle would posit), but also to the having of a deep sense of belonging to a family and community. It appears that human beings have been designed to find fulfillment and happiness in a loving community. The lie is that we must leave our family and community behind to fulfill our personal ambitions. In other words, humanity’s current definition of success maintains the potential of destroying families and communities for the sake of individuals pursuing their own selfish dreams. So often whom we perceive as living a successful life is someone who has a dream, moves into some big city to pursue it, then ultimately climbs the ladder to success. The problem with this concept is that it never addresses one very important element: what is that person moving away from? So much of what formulates one’s mind is their family, their hometown, etc. Taking someone out of that atmosphere completely disorients them from knowing where they fit into society. Anyone who has moved from a small town to a big city can attest to this, especially if they did so alone. However, oftentimes it’s not just Hollywood telling us to pursue our dreams no matter the cost, but it’s also parents. Surely parents wouldn’t tell their children this if they understood that ‘pursuing your dreams no matter the cost’ might lead to depression and despair, or something even worse.
This, I contend, is part of why there are so many depressed people at “the top.” Not only are they lonely, but a faceless crowd becomes their pseudo-family, and their whole life becomes about crowd-pleasing. This is part of why anti-depressants are the most commonly prescribed drug in America—the majority of Americans are depressed because they feel out of place and haven’t made it to the top, and the few at the top are depressed because they feel lonely and disconnected. There are, after all, certain things money can’t buy.
David Foster Wallace, one of the great writers of the late 20th and early 21st centuries, in his famous commencement speech This is Water, addressed this sort of purposeless adult slavery, “It is unimaginably hard to do this, to stay conscious and alive in the adult world day-in and day-out.” Earlier in this same speech he addressed the issue of adult suicide. He addressed the way that adults often get trapped inside their heads because of their expectations, and how in some cases this “trapped state” leads to their demise.
Think of the old cliché about “the mind being a great servant but a terrible master.” This, like many clichés, so lame and unexciting on the surface, actually expresses a great and terrible truth. It is not the least bit coincidental that adults who commit suicide with firearms almost always shoot themselves in the head. They shoot the terrible master. And the truth is that most of these suicides are actually dead long before they pull the trigger (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8CrOL-ydFMI).
Three years after he gave this speech, David Foster Wallace, the author who had “made it,” was found hanging from his own patio. He had hung the terrible master.
The ancients Greeks had two words for happiness: euphoria and eudemonia. Euphoria is typically what we mean by happiness. It is a feeling that is fickle and temporary. The Greeks had another word—eudemonia. This word was about a state of being. We so often go in search of euphoria that we forget what it means to be truly happy. It is not until we figure out how to find eudemonia that we will truly be happy.
The missing piece in this puzzle of happiness is not “successfulism”, and it is not the modern American dream. It is also not materialism. Ultimately, it is God. For those who have not professed faith in Jesus Christ, this will be harder to understand, but this is definitely no less important a factor to consider. As the Westminster Shorter Catechism states, “Man’s chief end is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.” Sadly, as a nation, we are moving farther and farther away from our Christian foundation. Even for Christians, our focus nowadays is so easily turned to the wrong things. It is only when we have God at the very center of our lives that we can ever be truly happy.
That being said, one of the most important institutions God gave us to carry out His plan and purpose is the family. Sadly, to our detriment, we are losing sight of the importance and role of the family in our society. Have a conversation with a celebrity, and then have one with a family-man and ponder about which one seems happier. This is why conservatives have always emphasized the importance of family. Without it we are totally alone and miserable. The reason for this is because God made us for family and community. We were designed to function within a family structure. This is why teleology is important. Once we venture to truly understand our design and purpose, it is possible to be truly happy.
This is also why we should not let our passions lead us because they so often lead us away from the very thing that makes us who we are. As Mike Rowe put it, “Never follow your passion, but always bring it with you.” Use your passion as a means to keep God and your family central, because God and the family are the building blocks of any healthy society—not “celebrityism”, and the few who “make it.” In choosing this meaningless rat race and pursuing “the climb to the top”, many end up finding nothing but misery. Be wary of following your dreams. In the end, you may end up finding nothing but nightmares.