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Matthew Perry and the Sad Curse of Fame
The tragic passing of a favorite actor and it's lessons for us
This past Saturday, Matthew Perry, the iconic actor most known for his starring role in the popular “Friends” series, died at his home near Los Angeles. It would be hard to find a more popular figure among Generation X than Perry. “Friends”, along with “Seinfeld” was the show that everyone seemingly watched in the 90’s and into the 2000s as reruns ran on cable. It was a time before the advent of streaming, before the advent of smartphones, and before so many options bifurcated American’s viewing habits.
Perry’s story is such a sad tale, told in a memoir he released last year. I haven’t yet read the book but many of my friends have. I’m going to read it now. In an interview earlier this year, the actor told the Los Angeles Times of his futile quest for happiness.
Nobody wanted to be famous more than me. I was convinced it was the answer. I was 25, it was the second year of “Friends,” and eight months into it, I realized the American dream is not making me happy, not filling the holes in my life. I couldn’t get enough attention. … Fame does not do what you think it’s going to do. It was all a trick.”
Perry was honest about his addictions to alcohol and drugs and his search for meaning in life. He wanted to present his life as a cautionary tale about the attempt to find happiness where it cannot be found. Washington Post columnist David Van Drehele writes poignantly:
Hunger for fame has become one of America’s epidemics. It motivates mass shooters and members of Congress. Young people count the likes on their phones to decide how they feel about being alive. A future president of the United States once told me that the only thing that matters is ratings.
But fame does not do what you think it’s going to do. It doesn’t fill an empty soul, and it doesn’t build a bridge across loneliness. Indeed, it can amplify alienation by bringing the whole world close but no one near. Apart from a narcissist, no one wants attention for its own sake. We crave connection, community and the worthwhile feeling that comes from being useful.
Centuries ago, another celebrity lamented the emptiness of riches and wealth. Solomon, perhaps the wealthiest, wisest, and most famous person of his day, wrote his own memoir of sorts. The book of Ecclesiastes reads, at times, like a nihilist manifesto:
I said to myself, “Go ahead, I will test you with pleasure; enjoy what is good.” But it turned out to be futile. I said about laughter, “It is madness,” and about pleasure, “What does this accomplish?” I explored with my mind the pull of wine on my body—my mind still guiding me with wisdom—and how to grasp folly, until I could see what is good for people to do under heaven during the few days of their lives.
I increased my achievements. I built houses and planted vineyards for myself. I made gardens and parks for myself and planted every kind of fruit tree in them. I constructed reservoirs for myself from which to irrigate a grove of flourishing trees. I acquired male and female servants and had slaves who were born in my house. I also owned livestock—large herds and flocks—more than all who were before me in Jerusalem. I also amassed silver and gold for myself, and the treasure of kings and provinces. I gathered male and female singers for myself, and many concubines, the delights of men. So I became great and surpassed all who were before me in Jerusalem; my wisdom also remained with me. All that my eyes desired, I did not deny them. I did not refuse myself any pleasure, for I took pleasure in all my struggles. This was my reward for all my struggles. When I considered all that I had accomplished and what I had labored to achieve, I found everything to be futile and a pursuit of the wind. There was nothing to be gained under the sun.
Then I turned to consider wisdom, madness, and folly, for what will the king’s successor be like? He will do what has already been done. And I realized that there is an advantage to wisdom over folly, like the advantage of light over darkness.
The wise person has eyes in his head,
but the fool walks in darkness.
Yet I also knew that one fate comes to them both. So I said to myself, “What happens to the fool will also happen to me. Why then have I been overly wise?” And I said to myself that this is also futile. For, just like the fool, there is no lasting remembrance of the wise, since in the days to come both will be forgotten. How is it that the wise person dies just like the fool? Therefore, I hated life because the work that was done under the sun was distressing to me. For everything is futile and a pursuit of the wind.
This is not that much different than a celebrity memoir. What redeems Ecclesiastes is the simple phrase “under the sun” used 29 times in the book. Solomon is saying that if this is all there is—the pursuit of fame and pleasure—it leads to despair. But . . . if there is something “above the sun.” In other words, if this life isn’t all there is, if we were made for something more, if there is a God who created us in his image and for his glory, well then life can be meaningful. You might say that life under the sun is a dead end unless you know the Son. “He who has the Son has life. He who has not the son has not life (1 John 5:12).”
So many of us desperately want to be Matthew Perry. We’d love to try fame and fortune on. We think if we had more, we’d be happy. In this digital age, the empty promise of being someone seems more easily attainable, with easy access to social media platforms that reward a pursuit of fame. But Matthew Perry didn’t really even want to be Matthew Perry. Solomon didn’t want to be Solomon. Celebrity is hollow.
In the midst of his addiction and despair, Perry desperately cried out to God. “If you are real, show yourself to me” he pleaded. In interviews about his book, he often spoke of his relationship with God. I don’t know the nature of where he was spiritually, but I pray that at the end of his rope, he found Jesus. I really do.
In Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis wrote about the desperate longing humans feel for God, without always knowing it. “If I find in myself desires which nothing in this world can satisfy, the only logical explanation is that I was made for another world.”
All of these other things—good things like talent, resources, and a public platform—cannot sustain our worship. They cannot satisfy an empty heart. What we are looking for is God himself. Thankfully, God has not stayed silent. He promises that if we seek him, we will find him. He took the initiative to reach us, through the gift of his Son, Jesus. By faith in Christ, we can be reconciled to our Father, we can know the Creator who made us with purpose and in his image. We can know God and be known by God. I pray everyone who, like Solomon, like Matthew Perry, who has found everything else unsatisfying, will hear his voice.
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