Last night I caught a bit of the Golden Globe awards on television. It was appropriately glitzy and glamorous, as such events always are. I hadn't seen any of the nominated films, but I knew all the faces and names in them. I could likely rattle off the names of their spouses, too, or at least name another film I'd seen them in. I knew that Dick Clark was missing from the red carpet for the first time in a long time, and why. I inadvertantly gasped a couple of weeks ago when I learned that Brad Pitt and Jennifer Anniston had broken up, before stopping to realize that I didn't, in fact, care.
In 1961, about the time that the Kennedy family was at the height of their White House celebrity, historian and social critic Daniel Boorstin wrote: “Celebrity-worship and hero-worship should not be confused, yet we confuse them every day, and by doing so we come dangerously close to depriving ourselves of all real models. We lose sight of the men and women who do not simply seem great because they are famous but are famous because they are great. We come closer and closer to degrading all fame into notoriety.”
It took 15 years for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to receive a day in his name. In 1983, actor-turned-president Ronald Reagan signed the Martin Luther King holiday legislation into law. Today, as I participated in events honoring the life of this great civil rights leader, I was moved by the presence of so many community members coming together, linking arms, raising voice in song. Upon further reflection, I lamented the absence of others - the knowledge that Dr. King may well have faded into celebrity - a series of well-known video or audio clips, a day off work, a shadow of his true former self. Regarded as a great man who came and went all too quickly. The man who had a dream that was never realized. The end.
Except that there isn't a Hollywood ending to this story. The power of this hero of American civil liberty is not in his memory but in his legacy - the responsibility of ordinary people to be great for themselves and for others, not to sit and idly worship a few well-known faces.
In "Letter from a Birmingham Jail", Dr. King wrote the following words about his generation (and, as it turns out, ours as well): "We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people." Silenced by a manufactured sense of inadequacy, willing participants in manipulation by consumerism, suspended in illusions that momentarily fufill fantasies and desires. Remind yourself today that you are great - an ordinary person capable of the extraordinary, not for fame or money, but for yourself and for those you love. Not just you, either - the people you pass on the street, the person sitting next to you in the coffeeshop, the people you work with every day. The extraordinary in your every day. The triumph of your spirit over love lost; death; hatred; pain; the bitterness, harsh words or actions of others. Accept your own greatness. Use it.