Even staid old newspapers like the Wall Street Journal have their "fun" columns. It used to be the middle column on the first page. My husband's favorite was the recent one about the problem of methane caused by the belching of sheep. But another recent piece (04/22/09) wasn't funny at all. It was in the Leisure and Arts section, entitled "Where Fan Mail Goes to Get Answered."
It was the story of a business that handles the thousands of pieces of mail that celebrities receive, and how they respond in ways they deem appropriate. The letters range in their content "from fans who want to express approval/disapproval of their idols' political stands, religious beliefs, recent headline-making behavior, taste in mates or taste in movie roles. From fans who want to express sympathy or support when there's been a death in the celeb's family. From straitened fans seeking cash (five-and-six figure requests are not uncommon) and from fans seeking a far more precious commodity: a date for the high school prom. 'What surprises me is the intensity of the expectations,' said Ms. DeAngelus (a psychotherapist who is now the office manager of Mail Mann, Inc.)..."
That's when the article veers from cute to poignant, from humorous to painful. What is missing in so many people's lives that this is where they turn?
And from where do they derive these fantastic (with reference to the word's root in "fantasy") expectations?
I don't know the answer. Although I like to think I am capable of empathy, this is a situation beyond my imagination. I can't even begin to conceive of a situation in my life where I would turn to someone who I've never met but who happens to be a movie star for personal help.
However I do have some guesses. The first and simplest cause probably lies in the glorification of celebrity. It's impossible to purchase groceries these days (there's no really reliable and efficient online delivery service) without confronting the latest celebrity gossip. In magazine after magazine at the checkout counter they clamor for our attention. There are special magazines devoted to their clothing or their homes while others depict their vacations and the ins and outs of their romantic lives. (Whatever the outcome their lives are always "romantic"!)
We have created a society with heightened and inappropriate expectations.
But the second and more profound reason can be found in Ms. DeAngelus' comment about the "intensity of the expectations." Due to many and varied causes -- recent affluence, the self-esteem movement, hovering and rescuing parents, to name a few -- we have created a society with heightened and inappropriate expectations.
Kids with BA's expect top managerial positions and scoff at working their way from the bottom up. Parents support their children long into adulthood, not just financially but by writing resumes and calling present or potential employers. Few limits are imposed on behavior, and when some are, they are resented and deemed the result of totalitarian instincts.
So we are left with our inflated sense of entitlement -- with those on the extreme end who think the rich and famous will send them money or be their dates, while others just expect financial advancement, respect, honor and the ability to "call the shots" without paying their dues, without putting in the hard work and long hours first.
We have hurt ourselves by creating this illusory world. We have not prepared our children for the reality of daily life and its pressures and demands (perhaps providing another explanation for this escape into celebrity fantasy). We have created a society of children waiting for their fairy godmothers (read: celebrities) to wave their magic wands and solve their problems. Somebody has watched too many Disney movies.
This isn't destructive solely due to our absurd expectations. These expectations can paralyze people. Why work hard when any day Richard Gere will lift you out of poverty into riches? Why invest in your marriage when a relationship with Reese Witherspoon is in the offing? The power of fantasy knows no bounds – and it is all too frequently accompanied by a diminishment of real life involvement. Remember that Woody Allen movie where the heroine lost herself in the life of the screen?
One way to deal with this dilemma is to focus on the acceptance of responsibility. More than a famous date for the prom, this woman's daughter needs to take action to make herself into a desirable and productive human being. And I don't mean a hair and clothing makeover. She needs to work on her grades, to get involved in community service, to be kind to her friends, to refine her character. She'll be too busy to go to the prom and too proud of her accomplishments to worry about whether she has a date or not (well, perhaps I'm the one indulging in a fantasy now).
By encouraging unrealistic expectations, we relinquish our responsibility as parents and let our children down.
But we can turn it around. Instead of letters to celebrities, let them write letters protesting injustices in the world, standing up for the Jewish people, defending America and Israel.
The only outsized expectations we should have are the ones we have of our own ability to grow and accomplish.