On August 31, 1997, the world wept 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 devotees and scores of others mourned, there was not the public weeping 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 glamour and beauty associated with royalty, and, in particular, this youthful princess. Furthering the sense of identification is the reported stress and strain that her marriage placed on her, and her apparent devotion to her children. Many women related to the marital issues, 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 toiled in relative obscurity. Few identified with her.
However, Diana is only a lightning rod for the power of vicarious living. A whole world of people hang on every word and action of their favourite movie star, sports hero or singer, regardless of the moral failings or negative tales of that person. Think of Elvis, or Kobe Bryant, Charlie Sheen or Tom Cruise. The Tom Hanks, James Stewarts and Steve Nashs of the world – positive role models – are admired, but seldom worshipped.
In large measure, we live vicariously through these high-profile characters, and, lacking the excitement and glamour that they seem to exude, 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, locals law enforcement in cities across North America are baffled by the support that outlaw motorcycle gangs receive, even though it is well-documented that many are involved in the most heinous of crimes. Lives are ruined through drug running, prostitution and other vices – crimes for which many bikers have been committed. Yet, many people actually admire this so-called rebellious spirit. It is less rebellious than deviant. Tens of thousands of middle-aged men can hardly wait for the day when they purchase their own Harley and pretend to be tough renegades.
Social psychologists suggest that we choose this vicarious way of living through others because we want the excitement, but not the risk. We love the romance of the outlaw life, but wouldn’t dare to think of being part of it. And we seek this release because we have trapped ourselves in a life that is not inspiring.
At most, we buy the fancy luxury or sports car, or the elaborate technology. We lavish our attention on it, as if it represents a major release and escape for us. To some degree, it does. We want freedom and exhilarating experiences, but we are limited in our ability to involve ourselves in such a life. We follow the same path in our lives each day, but feel frustrated by our powerlessness.
Reading about those superstars or celebrities enables us to imagine, without expending the effort or taking the risk of actually involving ourselves in the world. So long as we choose to be armchair athletes or recliner risk-takers, we sacrifice little, except our own chance at a fulfilling life.
If we admire Diana, why not get involved in charities, and emulate her? If we think highly of Eli Manning, why not get involved in coaching a youth football team? If we love Lady Gaga, why not get together with friends and do 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 vicariously. It should be lived vivaciously, with effervescence.