Leon’s Existential Cafe

Suffering from SICKcess: How Our Lust for Fame Makes us Ill

What is SICKcess? Reviewing Our Podcast Episodes

I’ve noted before that we learn a lot from the guests on our podcast, and we ask them on to provide us with wisdom more so than information. The difference between the two being that knowledge is specific, of a particular event or fact, whereas wisdom is the philosophical lighthouse guiding us to fulfillment. And while, as a culture, we lust for information to bolster our egos, wisdom provides us with the only lessons that can save us from ourselves. So, we turn to the meaning of SICKcess.

The last two guests on Seize The Moment Podcast were existential psychotherapist, Emmy van Deurzen, and hip-hop icon and former Outlawz member, Mutah “Napoleon” Beale. There was so much wisdom to take in that I had to go back and re-listen to those shows. What I discovered was a common thread between two strangers who led seemingly, completely different lives.


Emmy told us her impressions of one of my clinical idols, the great existential psychiatrist R.D. Laing.  She noted his sense of desperation, recalling a ghost like figure who lusted for fame and the mantle of guru. Laing’s devotees sustained his well-being, mirroring back his grandiose self-image, which hung by a thread until his final days.

On the following episode, ‘Life Of An Outlaw‘, Napoleon told us about his own search for fame and subsequent depression. For him, fame created a bigger void than the hole it was meant to fill. He remarked on his days of having to self-medicate with alcohol just to get through, only finding comfort in moments of solace on a couch laughing with friends. His mentor, Tupac Shakur, called success – SICKcess, he said, because fame, like alcohol, was a temptation that promised new life but failed to signify what that entailed.

Significantly, we learned that fame destroys our authentic connections, which, as Emmy taught us, are necessary for our emotional health and sense of purpose in life. But in a life bereft of love, it is the sickness of success that promises to offset our internal emptiness while actually delivering grief.

Napoleon spoke of having to maintain a particular image while enslaved to the music industry’s demands and how unsustainable that was. On the other end, I think that Laing had to have felt the same way. In essence, both men were slaves to praise, creating their value in others’ conceptions. This sickness encompasses the need to be perfect, to maintain oneself in another’s eyes at his own expense. Both Laing and Napoleon lost themselves and used alcohol to suppress knowing how disconnected to life they really were, from the broken links to their true, and fallible, selves to the ones that shine an external light, presenting those selves to the rest of the world. If Emmy is right, if connectivity is the foundation of mental health, then fame produces its antithesis.

Once upon a time, I believed that success would silence the yowl of my inner void, and some rebellious part of me still refuses to yield. For those of us who experienced deficits of love in our earlier lives, letting go of achievement is a Sisyphean endeavor. But wisdom teaches us that it’s its own empty shell. Napoleon’s peace arrived in the form of communion with his God and the community it generates; Emmy’s in the vast array of connectivity with life, including the parts of her own mind, her past and her future.

Both provided us with deep, existential lessons, as both became lighthouses guiding us to shore.

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