Understanding Our Own Fears Through Mel Gibson

Lessons We Try To Avoid When Celebrities Fall From Grace

Posted Jul 22, 2010

Mel Gibson has been accused of anti-Semitism, racism, sexism, murderous rage and domestic violence. Having once been a big star, these accusations have led to his fall from grace. The media has highlighted these character deficits as being beyond mere foibles. And the public has responded with interest, disdain and a desire for justice in dealing with this former superstar. Yet, beyond these moral concerns and abhorrence of Gibson's behavior is a commonly seen emotion: delight in the misfortune of someone of previously held in high esteem. The latter has been called "Schadenfreude": a term borrowed from German to indicate delight in the misfortune of others. As much as we might hate the thought that we could possess such a perverse and almost macabre sensibility, this phenomenon is complex and deserves closer scrutiny if we are to understand ourselves better. While the issues is complex I will discuss several fears associated with Schadenfreude and relevant questions we can ask to move beyond being spectators in our own lives.

Fear of success: While this is a counterintuitive fear, many of us fear our own success for a variety of reasons. One reason is the simple fear that the higher you climb, the harder you fall. Gibson's fall from the heights he has climbed serves as a subconscious reminder of this possibility and provides a justification for why we avoid our deepest desires and success.
Recommended questions to ask yourself: Ask yourself if you fear the heights of success because you fear the fall from those heights and the waste of the effort in the climb? Do you know yourself that you may also have foibles that could grow into major character flaws if you were in the public eye? Do you have regrets about your own indiscretions and fear public exposure?

Fear of being in touch with your own prejudices: Nobody likes to be thought of as prejudiced. And we often think that we know of our prejudices. Yet, studies have shown that even when we report that we are not prejudiced, our subconscious prejudices may activate the brain's fear center (the amygdala). In fact, consciously reported prejudices have no correlation with activation of the amygdala.
Recommended questions to ask yourself: Have you come to terms with your own explicit prejudices in life? Do you have subconscious prejudices that hold you back from your own successes because they activate your brain's fear center and keep you "frozen". You may adapt around your prejudices, but you are adapting around your fears of letting yourself move in an integrated world. Should we, as a society, have a more nuanced view of prejudice? Rather than always eschewing it, perhaps we should also reflect on reducing the fear in others through education. Is punishment the only form of education or does it breed more hate?

Fear of our own anger: You see Mel Gibson's anger, and you think "what a jerk!" Yet, approximately 1.3 million women and 835 000 men are physically assaulted by an intimate partner annually in the United States. In fact, nearly 25% of women and 7.6% of men were raped or physically assaulted by a current or former spouse. Of females killed with a firearm, almost two-thirds were killed by their intimate partners. Clearly, this phenomenon is not as rare as we would like to believe.
Recommended questions to ask yourself: To what extent does fear of your own anger make you want to judge others. Does societal prohibition of early anger lead to a much more dangerous later anger? Are there times when anger is useful and times when it is not? How can we come to understand our anger better so that it serves us rather than works against us? Studies have shown that constructive anger can be helpful while destructive anger is not. Perhaps we ought to be more nuanced about our understanding of anger as well.

How do these fears impact our lives? Our delight in the imperfections of stars highlight the fact that we hold ourselves to very high standards but fear what this stardom may bring. Clearly, being constantly in the public eye is a stress for many reasons, not the least of which is the scrutiny that challenges the fact that we are "perfect" or "in control."

Major Lesson: Rather than gloating in the failures of others, the media might want to actually want to promote lessons that are more than "watch out" or "can you believe this?" I wonder what a more lenient eye on these kinds of societal transgressions would look like? Clearly we cannot tolerate hatred and putting other people in danger. But can we really deal with this by imposing our own hatred on others- and for selfish reasons even-using this hatred and desire for justice to avoid our own obstructions to success. Would we get more from including steps beyond "justice"? Can we help in the resurrection of others and in turn reduce our own fears of falling?