The personal and the persona

On The Daily Show recently, the famously acerbic Jon Stewart choked up big time as he talked about the passing of his dog. Dipper was a brindle pit bull that the family had adopted a dozen years ago from a New York City shelter, where he had been taken after losing a leg to a car. “In a world of good boys,” Stewart said, “he was the best.”

If you’ve ever loved and lost a dog, you know that grief. Lots of us have cried our way through that experience. The difference is that Jon Stewart was opening a vein in front of an audience. And it got me thinking about the burden that public figures – entertainers, pundits, public servants – take upon themselves when they choose a career in the limelight. Somehow in the public eye they’re reduced to the thing they do.

We call them by their last names – Trump! Biden! – as if the sum total of their meaning inheres in what they did that day. As if they never had a junior prom, or a frustrating marriage, or their own specific heartbreaks and triumphs; as if they never worried about their cholesterol, their carburetor, their wayward kid.

And sure, you need a kind of shorthand if you’re going to discuss anything, including people. But it strikes me that we often lose sight of the humanity in the people we elect, the people we watch, the people we follow and watch and listen to. Life is complex; people are complex. We disrespect that God-given complexity when we reduce them to tropes. Life runs deep for all of us, even the powerful, even the rich and famous.

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