Celebrities Teach Us to Dream a Bigger Dream


/ Photo by Alan Light /

I recently watched Alicia Keys and Ruby Dee on the Sundance Channel program Iconoclasts. Listening to the young singer and the veteran actress and activist talk, I was struck by their power, wisdom, and beauty. Even when Alicia Keys speaks, her voice sings with uplifting soul. She says a prayer before stepping onstage, and her presence radiates that deep dedication. Ruby Dee packs all the passion of her many years as an activist when she recites one of her poems; her voice says let’s move up, let’s move forward, together, let’s do it, now.

Ruby Dee just received an Academy Award nomination as Best Supporting Actress for her role as “Mama Lucas” in the film American Gangster. She is a young 83!

The Arts: A Cultural Dream Space

Movies, television, music – all the performing arts – create a space in which the human experience is reflected back to us. The arts are a cultural dream space. Like in dreams, the figures moving and acting in that dream world become archetypal figures, imbued with layers of meaning. Celebrities embody cultural significance for the society that dreams through them. They become focal points for the world’s attention. They are, in the full sense of the word, icons.

Because we have projected meaning and story onto them, they can surprise us and lead us in new directions by changing the cultural dreams they embody. These icons become iconoclasts when they shift our consciousness.

In a segment of Iconoclasts that aired in November 2007, the comedian Mike Meyers and the spiritual philosopher Deepak Chopra were paired together. By bringing together their different public personas, we see how they fold into each other.

We see the comedy in the philosophy and the philosophy in the comedy.

Deepak Chopra said, “I hope this day is more uncertain than yesterday and life is full of perpetual surprises.” Now isn’t that the nature of improv comedy, the uncertainty and element of surprise? Both Meyers and Chopra have a similar premise – to welcome change.

Celebrities teach us to dream a bigger dream. Through their emotional range, they teach us the importance of compassion and acceptance, and our social awareness matures. From Susan Sarandon’s role as a nun in Dead Man Walking, we meet and learn to empathize with a prisoner on death row, played by Sean Penn.

In the hilarious comedy Superbad, we follow the escapades of two high school seniors, Seth and Evan, played by Jonah Hill and Michael Cera. Through them we are reminded of the value of friendship, and learn that it’s okay for two male buddies to say, “I love you,” to each other.

Programs like Iconoclasts help us to expand our definition of celebrity. Celebrities are often asked to suit up for the sake of glamour to model high fashion or to entertain. Glamour is illusory, seductive, a mirage. Let’s not forget that many celebrities are also cultural iconoclasts — movers and shakers – for a better world.

Celebrities as Ambassadors

Celebrities are also world ambassadors. They teach social consciousness and global stewardship. From the film roles they play to the world causes they support, their activism spans far and wide.

  • Ruby Dee – Ambassador of Civil Rights
  • Sean Penn – Ambassador of Truth and Justice
  • Brad Pitt – Ambassador of Eco-friendly Homes for the Homeless
  • Angelina Jolie – Goodwill Ambassador of UNHCR (refugee agency)
  • Ashley Judd – Ambassador of Sexual Responsibility in Africa
  • Don Cheadle – Ambassador for Peace in Darfur
  • Mia Farrow – UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador for children’s rights and for Peace in Darfur
  • Bono – Ambassador of Africa for AIDS Relief
  • George Clooney – Ambassador for United Way

These ambassadors have multiple causes they support, and not all are represented here. And, of course, I haven’t listed the important work carried out by celebrities. This is just a sampling. Thanks to every one of these ambassadors for the good work they are doing in the world!

Our cultural dreamweavers and changemakers face a big challenge in managing their private relationships. Often it’s difficult for them to have a private life at all. They require time and quiet space to recharge their batteries because they are the support beam not just for their own families, but for the culture at large.

Love Hurts in Hollywood

Since celebrity couples must often work at opposite ends of the globe, relationships are divided and separated by geographical distance. Celebrities endure long work hours that are compacted into a few short months. They dedicate at least two-thirds of each day to the film project, with only a few remaining hours for sleep. Their assignment is to give all and nothing less. They turn themselves over to another identity, another dimension.

Family relationships suffer and those core relationships are put at risk. To maintain a family life amidst all that is required of them demands stamina, commitment, and the rare ability to juggle a public home life and a very intense career. Managing a balanced life in the world of celebrity is a heroic exercise.

Celebrities never leave the stage; their life is the stage.

When a star returns to their trailer on the set or to their own home, there’s no refuge. They give all their energy when it’s show time, with few private places to recuperate, with few hours to call their own. Celebrities shine their light with the emotional power of a thousand high wattage lamps to connect with large numbers of people.

“On stage I make love to twenty-five-thousand people; and then I go home alone.”

~Janis Joplin

Every celebrity relationship is a three-way relationship: the two individuals, and also the public, which also demands to be let in.

Celebrities need relationships as a grounding rod to keep solid footing in their own lives. Relationships are an anchor, insuring that they don’t fall victim to illusions projected onto them by public mythmaking.

We regularly hear of movie stars and musicians who disappear into alcohol and drug addiction. It’s not the drugs or alcohol that take the life of the star, it’s heartbreak.

With great fame, comes great sacrifice.

Celebrities give up simple life pleasures. John Travolta goes out in the wee hours of the morning to avoid crowds. When a trip to the grocery or going to dinner with friends must be choreographed and preplanned to avoid the onslaught of the press or overeager fans, then it’s too much of a cat and mouse game. The enjoyment slips away.

The simple pleasures – those leisure moments — remind us of who we are and we reconnect with our human nature. Getting that morning cup of coffee from the local coffee shop, taking a walk in the park, or even sitting on the backyard deck – that’s when celebrities return to a normal life.

It’s in the simplicity, not in the grandeur that we find ourselves.

Celebrities are cultural dream figures and they help us envision new possibilities for this world. They pay a heavy price for playing this role — losing their privacy and sometimes themselves — in the process. With the recognition and gratitude for all that they’re giving, perhaps we can lighten the weight on their shoulders, and they can enjoy more private walks in the park.

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