At some point in the American psyche – and not so long ago – looking and acting “cool” seems to have overtaken character as a prized personal identifier. The cult of celebrity, long cultivated in Hollywood by a glamorization of movie stars has now proven just as lucrative for the sports and music industries. Remarkable advances in audiovisual technology have doubtless played a major role, making brilliant screen images of games and performances ever more accessible. Increasingly, politicians and other public figures are drawn into this spectacle-oriented mystique as the public expects generous projections of charisma for emotional credibility. What things look like becomes the proof of what they are.
Then suddenly, with the explosion of blogs and social websites, everyone becomes a celebrity! As its name implies, Facebook exposes a common chord in pop-culture: a stunning disconnect between the luridness of its graphics and the banality of its narratives. Surfing sites of users (called “friends”), one finds posts of celebrations – often wedding, birthday, beach and graduation parties – with the exteriors of many a celebrant on provocative expression of what a late ’60s generation might have termed “letting it all hang out.” By contrast, the dialogue – though often enough a monologue – reveals the poignant day-to-day frustration of unfulfilled longings and bruised infatuations. So, after all, what things look like is not necessarily what they are.
Whether in the more aggressive stabs at corporal re-configuration – piercing, tattoos and plastic surgery – or in more muted forms like virtual exhibitionism on the Internet and the costumed extravagance of patrons and performers at weekend gathering spots, it is as if one desperate plea is being made to the world: I am here to stake my claim, I am attractive, notice me. Even as the bold body language shouts out loudly to be taken as seriously stable, fashionable and “cool,” it bears a sickly hue of vulnerability, an ephemeral quality pathetically played out in the almost daily headlines of another fallen pop-culture icon.
Without doubt, there are the young and young-at-hearts who will enjoy an occasional Saturday night of clubbing just for fun and to put the brakes on a busy week’s routine. The odd night out with good friends, even in such settings where temptations abound, will not likely derail the plans of young people well enough grounded in stable relationships, faith and a sense of direction. Not so certainly, however, for those seeking solace from a life adrift.
It is hard to wake up for Mass on Sunday morning if a night just ends at dawn! But there are other options. Part of the success – and brilliance – of the “Catholic Underground” initiative (and its progeny) of the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal is to have initiated an alternative to the Saturday night clubbing scene, so much a staple of today’s youth culture, especially in the cities. An evening of prayer, praise and jamming offers soul food for spiritual and social hungers without the excesses of alcohol, sex and sleep-deprivation that cannot heal the lonely heart.
What in his time awoke a St. Augustine – looking for love in all the wrong places, seeking gratification for the empty space in his lonely heart through all of the passing pleasures that the late Roman Empire offered young men – can also be discovered by young people of our time. His famous epiphany – “our hearts are restless until they rest in you, O Lord,” as told in his Confessions – can inspire everyone to seek peace and stability not in that fleeting beauty which is only skin deep but in a heart healed by the only One who can fill it with the lasting Love it was made for. A heart grounded in God does not need to put on a “cool” and detached disguise. And its warmth will radiate to the world with an effortless glow on the face.