Have you ever dreamed about being famous? Almost every person has, at one time or another—it’s a surprisingly widespread desire.
Yes, it’s a common fantasy: everyone would know your name, your face, and what makes you so brilliant. When we feel disrespected, unappreciated, and ignored it’s hard to resist the mild burst of pleasure that comes from fantasizing about fame.
Typically, this desire for excellence focuses on something in particular. We want to be great artists, engineers, industrialists, leaders, or whatever holds our interest. Most of us aren’t looking to be “famous for being famous,” the way some quasi-celebrities are. It’s just that if we’re going to be great at something, it would be better if we were recognized for it.
It is good to hold on to that desire for excellence. But importantly, we need to separate it as much as possible from the desire for fame. A drive for excellence encourages us to develop our capacities and put them into practice. The drive for fame can quickly descend into a whirlpool of ego, vanity, and delusion. One pleases God, according to the scriptures of many Faiths; but the other blinds our spiritual perception.
In the Gospel of Matthew Jesus is recorded to have said:
Be careful not to parade your righteousness in public to attract attention; otherwise you will lose all reward from your Father in heaven. So when you give alms, do not have it trumpeted before you; this is what the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets to win human admiration. In truth I tell you, they have had their reward. But when you give alms, your left hand must not know what your right hand is doing; your almsgiving must be secret, and your Father who sees all that is done in secret will reward you. – Matthew 6:1-4.
Here’s the secret of fame: what matters most isn’t what other people think of us. It’s what God, who is the author of goodness itself, thinks of us. When our actions are oriented around God’s approval, rather than human approval, we try to harmonize with the work of divine providence. Whether or not we are remembered for doing so is not as important.
Would it profit you in the least if, as ye fondly imagine, your names were to endure? … Should your names fade from every mortal mind, and yet God be well pleased with you, ye will indeed be numbered among the treasures of His name, the Most Hidden. – Baha’u’llah, Summons of the Lord of Hosts, p. 46.
These two passages offer so much wisdom, because they’re not only about detaching ourselves from this world, but also about how to effectively engage with it. By separating spiritual excellence from fame, they illustrate spiritual wisdom that gives practical wisdom as well.
The progress of the world is carried forward by a vast network of contributions from multitudes of people who could never be commemorated one by one. No genius remembered by history makes a ground-breaking discovery without the many modest advances of those who have come before. No world-historical conqueror can capture so much as a village without soldiers whose names are barely known even to their commanders. No entrepreneur “builds a company” without the assistance of employees and other partners. Even when we’re very competitive, cooperation is a mode of doing things that’s so difficult to escape that it’s virtually woven into our essence as human beings.
To elevate one person at the expense of everyone else might be a useful leadership tactic in some cases. Fame and celebrity might sell television shows, films and magazines. But it also carries the risk of distorting the perception of how any collective endeavor actually moves forward. The reality: our contributions to the progress and well-being of humanity may endure longer than anyone’s memory. Paying excessive attention to the prominent and to the famous distorts that reality.
The world is filled with unsung heroes. The way we commemorate past achievements and urge each other onto future ones should take that into account. Just because someone is forgotten doesn’t mean that what they do is not valuable. The achievement itself is desirable—but the fleeting fame surrounding the achievement doesn’t last forever.
So the next time we think fondly of fame, maybe we should instead think of honoring the anonymous masses on whose shoulders we now stand, whose countless ranks we may one day be so fortunate to join.