The emptiness of fame

BY ETHAN RENOE

MTV called my run “The Jog Seen 'Round the World.” 

It was a rainy Sunday evening, and I laced up my sneakers for another rainy day run. I had no idea that this run would completely change the course of my life. I ran to Lake Michigan and went north along the trail, as I have done hundreds of times before. The path was empty because of the rain, so when I saw a news van parked near North Avenue Beach, I was curious. I approached them and asked what they were shooting. The reporter turned around and saw me standing there: soaking wet, shirtless, and slightly out of breath.  

“You would be perfect!” he exclaimed. “We are talking about this crazy Chicago weather.” 

Twenty minutes later, I was running back to my dorm, thinking about how fun it would be to show my parents that I was on TV. A few people will see this and get a kick out of it, I thought to myself. 

In the fifteen minutes it took me to run back, the video garnered a whopping 24,000 views.  

I went out to sushi with my friends; we sat in the restaurant watching our phones as the view count rose by the tens of thousands.  

By the time we arrived back at the dorm, the same news station was calling me. They wanted to get me on the 9pm news, as well as the morning show the next day. Within 24 hours, I had been interviewed by TIME Magazine, Cosmo, and People. GQ asked me for dating tips. CBS dubbed me The Sexiest Man on Earth. CNN and the Today show featured me on their front pages. I was on TV 14 more times that week.  

To be honest, I loved every second of it.  

Fame is addicting, even when one gets such a fleeting taste of it. A week later, most people had forgotten my name. My followers on social media began to disappear when they realized I'm just a normal guy like everyone else. I almost felt like Superman when he dons his thick-rimmed glasses and becomes Clark Kent again. Just another pedestrian in a sea of faces. 

My week as a celebrity did not go to waste though. Not by a long shot. I've learned more in the past 4 months than in most of my life prior.  

I used to look at my Instagram feed and grow disheartened when my picture would only merit a dozen likes, while other people pulled in likes by the hundreds—or thousands. If only I could break 50, I used to think. There was always a magical number looming just beyond the horizon that, if I could only reach that many likes, would make me happy.  

But when my video warranted over 5 million views in two days, I was still left hungry. I only wanted more. I saw my measly 5 million views and could only compare myself to the likes of Justin Bieber and Kanye West. Oh sure, I have 5 million, but they have hundreds of millions! 

It never stops. 

You will never reach a place where you'll have enough likes as long as you're looking to them to satiate your thirst for recognition. 

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Ecclesiastes 3:11 tells us that God has placed eternity on our hearts. This means that no earthly thing can satisfy us. Nothing can quench the deep-seated thirst within our souls for love and recognition, save eternity Himself. We were not meant to be satisfied by anything in this world, but only by the Creator of all things. The One who wants an intimate relationship with each one of us. 

I tell people that yes, I became famous. But what I did not become was known.  

Humans have a hardwired desire to be known in a deeply intimate way.  

So why can't we be happy when just a couple of our best friends like our new profile picture? Why do numbers matter to us so much? 

I think it's simply human nature to desire more than we currently have. Look back to Genesis: In the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve had total access to every single fruit and vegetable conceivable. They had everything. They could eat whatever they wanted except for one fruit. Just one tree was forbidden, yet how does the story end? They went after the one tree they couldn't have. 

So it is with us. We are always longing for what's just outside our reach. We always want more. 

After becoming famous, I moved to Los Angeles where I had a sort of funny realization. I met famous people. Like, real famous people. People who consistently rake in millions of likes on their media. 

And after hanging out with them for a few weeks, I found out that they really don't care about the success of each of their posts. They aren't constantly checking their phones to monitor the like-count. They just go about their lives, enjoying the company of friends and working hard, and are not absorbed in checking their media outlets.  

I think being overly concerned with the reception of each picture we post is a sign of where our values are. Are our minds consumed by searching for recognition? Do you want that certain guy to like that one picture of you looking super cute in that one dress? It's so easy to get carried away reading into each and every action on social media.  

I encourage you to do two things. 

Relax.  

Do not cling so tightly to your social media avenues. They are intended to keep friends and family in touch, not propel you into a world of fame and glamour. So relax. See your accounts as tools to connect with real friends, rather than paths to fame and recognition. 

Secondly, strive for intimacy. 

Focus on relating more closely to those in your life. Spend time appreciating your friends. Turn your phone off and talk to them. Ask deep questions. Be vulnerable, unlike the shiny veneer we tend to show on Facebook. 

Most importantly, deepen your intimacy with the Lord, who desires to meet us in the most intimate places in our lives. Psalm 139 tells us that he knew us before we were born, and that he continues to perceive our thoughts and actions. David later invites the Lord to search him and know him, so that he may come to know the way of righteousness. We need to first and foremost strive for nearness to God, for he is the only source of good.  

Leave behind all the world chases. The pursuit of likes and followers will only leave you hungry and pining for more. 

 

Originally published in our Summer 2016 print edition