Last week, the school I teach at got to experience the latest social media sensation up close. It seems that there are likes, follows, and reposts to be had for vandalizing public property—in this case, destroying bathrooms. Our school has closed about half the bathrooms for student use so that the remaining few can be more closely monitored because students are filming themselves destroying bathrooms in hopes of going viral.
I tried to summon up righteous indignation or just anger over this, but I couldn’t manage it. For one thing, my supply of righteous indignation has been severely depleted over the last few years. All I can muster is tremendous sadness. I keep imagining in my mind the students, crammed into a foul, tile-walled bathroom, hurling their bodies against urinals or mirrors, clawing at bolted-on soap dispensers, believing with a fervency approaching faith that this—what’s happening there in that bathroom—will deliver them what they’ve been longing for, what they haven’t found anywhere else in the world.
I hardly have words to say how profoundly tragic this image is. Flowering youth, an infinity of possible futures—and here it is, flailing away, sweaty in a bathroom, bruised from slamming itself into a toilet. It’s a 21st century picture of hell, the prison where all the locks are on the inside.
Since the beginning, every temptation to sin starts with believing a lie. In this case, that the fifteen seconds of fame gained from viral destruction will mean feeling finally seen, finally heard, finally valuable. Again, I’m left with nothing but deep sadness when I think what state a child must be in to connect these dots.
Maybe we aren’t looking in public bathrooms for that kind of validation, but we’re often just as lost. We believe the lie that projecting a presence or curating a caricature of ourselves in our heavily-mediated relationships will validate us. It isn’t an accident that the jargon of these media align so perfectly with our core desires: to be liked, to have followers. And while this illusory pursuit is more easily facilitated with the technologies we use, it isn’t limited to them. We chase fame in all kinds of places.
I’d like to share some stories about being famous.
This week, I invited a UTD professor to speak to my Research class. I only asked for a quick 30-minute interview, because this woman is highly regarded in her field, and her schedule is always overloaded. But she walked into my small class and held forth for almost 90 minutes. She spoke with conviction about what it’s like to be a woman in a field dominated by men, about her experience as a first-generation college graduate, and her own personal experience with tragedy. When she left, you could just see it on the students’ faces: this woman was famous.
Last week, my little one Sam came into the living room demanding we have a friend over for dinner. I told him that sounded like a fine enough idea and asked who he had in mind. He named a friend or two from his class, then added: “or Justin.” Most of you know Justin, our director of discipleship and—apparently—one of Sam’s best friends. To Sam, Justin is famous.
The contrast is obvious. The hell of selling yourself in the hopes that anonymous millions will push a button that means you’re loved versus the tangible goodness of meaningful, compassionate relationship.
On a recent podcast, author Andy Crouch discussed the eerie coincidence of Princess Diana and Teresa of Calcutta dying only a week apart from one another. As he describes, here were two of the most famous women of their times, yet imagine trying to be like them, to garner fame how they did. We could never be famous like Diana—only she could have that beauty, only she could marry the prince. We have no chance. We wouldn’t even know where to start. We might as well start slamming ourselves into bathroom stalls.
But to be famous like Teresa of Calcutta—well, we could choose that path anytime we wanted. Her way to fame is open to us all the time.
Texan poet Naomi Shihab Nye closes her poem titled “Famous” with these lines:
I want to be famous to shuffling men
who smile while crossing streets,
sticky children in grocery lines,
famous as the one who smiled back.
I want to be famous in the way a pulley is famous,
or a buttonhole, not because it did anything spectacular,
but because it never forgot what it could do.
During this season at Restoration, I invite you find a way to connect with this community. You’ll meet famous people—like Justin. You just might become famous yourself.