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Could Death Anxiety Be Behind Our Quest for Fame?

Give life to our death fears by making the world a better place

It seems like people will do just about anything for fame..and I do mean anything!. Being famous (and perhaps rich as well) appears to be the number one goal for so many in our culture. What's up with that?

I have to admit that being rich certainly has advantages. Money might not be able to buy happiness but it sure can rent it for awhile. Who wouldn't enjoy some of the things that money can buy (even if one used their financial resources for deserving charities)? As a psychologist and college professor I don't feel that I'm much motivated by money (compared to those in for high profit businesses and industries) but I can sure appreciate having the resources to live in a nice home, have a lovely vacation now and then, provide a comfortable life for my family, and not have to worry about where the next meal will come from.

Yet observing what people will do for fame is truly amazing and head scratching. For example, the troubled young man who recently killed 6 people in Tucson and injured so many others seems to have been at least partially motivated by fame according to many sources in the press. Commentary about so many assassins, such as the man who killed John Lennon in 1980 (by the way, I'm purposely not using their names to avoid contributing to their quest for fame) wanted to be famous. Even the two young men who murdered so many at Columbine High School in Colorado had described in detail who would be good movie actors to play them in a post-Columbine movie.

Many will do anything to appear on reality television shows or on programs such as Dr. Phil (where they are often totally humiliated). I can never figure out how anyone would want to voluntarily disclose their deepest and darkest secrets, reveal their skeletons in the closet, expose their dirty laundry to a national TV audience on Dr. Phil and related shows.

Why does fame seem to be so alluring?

My theory is that it is a byproduct of death anxiety. We want to matter. We don't just want to be (as the old popular song goes) "dust in the wind." At some level we all know that we are going to die someday and that in the grand scheme of things, we don't get to live for a very long time. We want to matter and we want to leave our stamp on the earth, for good or for bad, to be eternal. Perhaps that is why we want to have children, to have our names on buildings (if we are rich enough), to become president of various clubs, organizations, and perhaps even the United States. To have people say at our funeral that we mattered and that we'll be remembered. That's why we want to name things after ourselves like our business or children. And perhaps, that is why for so many fame is so alluring. It gives us some hope of immortality. Long after our deaths, we sort of live on when we have achieved fame.

Doing the right thing for ourselves and others means perhaps channeling our death anxiety and our desire for fame into something positive that will be in the common good making the world better in some way. If only these young assassins, such as the fellow in Tucson, or even those who appear on reality TV shows or Dr. Phil might put their desire for attention, recognition, and fame into making the world a better place for others and for all....that would give life to our death fears in a way that really would matter.

So, what do you think?

More from Thomas G. Plante Ph.D., ABPP
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