Even before he started talking about tiger’s blood and Adonis DNA, before he became the muse of Facebook statuses and Twitter posts, Charlie Sheen exhibited the telltale signs of someone whose life was in a tailspin.
Since the ’80s, Sheen’s life has been an amalgamation of victory and defeat, highs and lows.
In his own words: "Duh, winning! It’s, like, guys, IMDB right there, 62 movies and a ton of success. I mean, c’mon, bro, I won best picture at 20. I wasn’t even trying. I wasn’t even warm." The best picture he references is the Oscar-winning film Platoon, in which Sheen presented a breakthrough performance as a soldier in the Vietnam War.
But each professional success seemed accompanied by some personal disaster. Sheen has been in numerous movies, many of which were blockbusters, but he has also had more than his share of legal troubles. With a history of substance abuse and violence, Sheen has been in and out of rehab, arrested on several occasions, the target of lawsuits and burned through three marriages.
Most recently Sheen starred in the hit sitcom Two and a Half Men. Making $1.8 million an episode, he was the highest paid television actor around. That was until he was fired by Warner Bros. Television citing Sheen’s “erratic outbursts,” “public tirades” and “self-destructive behavior.”
Following the recent media frenzy, Sheen broke the record for the fastest Twitter user to reach 1 million followers, a feat that only took him 25 hours. At last check he had approximately 2.5 million followers on the popular social networking site. People seem to be tripping over themselves trying to get a good look at the celebrity, waiting to see what he will do next. All of it makes me wonder, have we turned this man’s life—more specifically, his professional and personal woes—into a punch line? Are we rewarding self-destructive behavior with limelight?
There’s a quote from the graphic novel Watchmen, released in the late ’80s around the same time Sheen began his rise to fame: "I heard a joke once: Man goes to doctor. Says he’s depressed. Says life is harsh and cruel. Says he feels all alone in a threatening world. Doctor says: ‘Treatment is simple. The great clown Pagliacci is in town tonight. Go see him. That should pick you up.’ Man bursts into tears. Says, ‘But, doctor … I am Pagliacci.’ Good joke. Everybody laugh. Roll on snare drum. Curtains."
Studies show that many people turn to the television when they’re unhappy, but where do the people on TV turn? As viewers we tend to disassociate the celebrities’ image from their humanity, perceiving them as nothing more than characters and on-screen personalities. When it comes to entertainers it seems we don’t know when to stop laughing.
In the case of Charlie Sheen, have we made a joke of someone’s life? Has social networking and news media served to spin an otherwise morose story for our own amusement? We read the stories and headlines, we watch the webcasts and interviews, and we think we know this man. We have heard the reports and have learned a great deal about Charlie Sheen, but what does all of this say about us?
Today we are quick to dismiss Rome’s gladiator games as barbaric, and for good reason. Thousands upon thousands of people gathered to watch someone’s life come to an end. But like today’s sporting events there was cheering, eating and drinking, and certain gladiators had their own fan followings. Maybe, just maybe, the comparisons don’t end there.
Have we, like the Roman crowds, dismissed the dignity of human life for our own entertainment? Have media outlets and social networking sites become our Coliseum? You may find the comparison too melodramatic, too much of a stretch. Granted, the differences are plain to see, but if we were to take an honest look, perhaps the comparisons would disturb us.
We watch television from our couches, rather than cheering from the stadium seating of a coliseum. But what are we watching, and with what attitude are we watching it? We make light of the slow, oftentimes self-induced, wasting away of a public figure. Divorce, infidelity, drug abuse, alcoholism and arrests all become fodder for late-night talk show hosts. Millions sit back and laugh, the glory of the television set glowing on their faces, shoveling popcorn and potato chips into their mouths. In this context, can we really justify our apathy by branding it “civilized” or “lighthearted”? What about cases in which apathy becomes a diffusion of responsibility?
In 1964, in Queens, N.Y., a woman was brutally attacked and killed.
Over the span of 35 minutes, Catherine Genovese was attacked three times. Each time she was stabbed, and each time she cried out for help. Her attacker stabbed her once and then left. Genovese tried to make her way to her apartment, but the man returned and stabbed her again. This time the man got into his car and drove off. Genovese managed to crawl to her apartment building before her attacker returned to find her at the foot of the staircase. He stabbed her once more, this time killing her.
There were 38 witnesses to this murder. Thirty-eight people who heard her scream and cry for help, yet only one person called the police, and this only after Genovese had died from her wounds.
Why? I’m sure their reasons varied, but isn’t it possible that everyone assumed someone else would call the police? Certainly someone else would intervene, someone more capable. If you’ve ever passed someone on the highway with a flat tire, or heard the number of children dying daily from hunger and preventable diseases, then you can probably relate to this sentiment: I’m sure someone else, someone better equipped and more qualified, someone not as busy as me will step in and do the right thing.
I don’t know what you or I can do for Charlie Sheen. Perhaps, at the very least, go to God in prayer. But the plight of Charlie Sheen isn’t the only issue on the table. It’s merely a channel into the vast ocean of our apathy. It serves as an introduction into a dialogue about the diffusion of responsibility. We wash our hands and say things like, “It’s not my fault … they did this to themselves … someone else will help.” Jesus makes His distaste for this attitude very clear in the parable of the sheep and goats (Matthew 25:31-46).
Pilate wasn’t innocent because he washed his hands, just as Saul wasn’t innocent because he merely held people’s coats as they stoned Stephen. Are we condemning ourselves by our laughter? No. But let’s get one thing straight: there is nothing noble about standing on the sidelines watching tragedies unfold.