John Travolta’s Son, Privacy and What We Owe Others

Sadly, John Travolta and his wife Kelly Lynch’s teen-aged son Jett died recently. The autopsy stated the cause of death as seizure, which has affected the son from an early age. The loss of a child is a blow to the soul—most of us expect to outlive our children. And if the child is ill, we at least hope he or she will have as rich a life as possible. So, it’s no wonder that many of us felt badly, wanted to see a family photo and learn more.

But empathy was not the emotion of choice of journalists. Oh yeah, I forgot, they flock to bad news. Their default drive is a brew of suspicion, sensationalism and cents. (Remember the old saying about journalism—“If it bleeds, it sells.”)

The journalists raised questions about the truthfulness of the autopsy’s conclusion, and they paraded a variety of talking heads on television to debunk the idea that seizures were a result of Kawasaki’s syndrome, an ailment that John Travolta said his son had as a child. And, if those medical opinions were not enough to raise sales and viewers, other journalists decided to misunderstand Scientology’s position on medication—which, by the way, the religion supports.

Questions flew about the whereabouts of the Travolta family, who found the son, how long the body was there on the bathroom floor and was there any drug use. The Travolta family not only endured these doubts about their tragedy, but they were seen as bad sports about not coming clean with what the journalists implied was the “real” truth about their son.

You see, because the Travolta’s are famous, they OWED. The unspoken agreement between the public and stars and other well-known people is that since their fame rests on our support, these celebrities and other famous people owe us every detail of their lives. Ah, the fall-out of democracy, where we live seemingly little lives when we are told we can be big anything’s or anyone’s. When we realize that we can’t—and that the philosophy itself can be destructive, we tend to live through the lives of others. Or, I should say, through the pain of others.

The next time you are in line at the grocery store check out, glance at the current magazine covers about fat actresses, divorces and affairs to see this pain-by-proxy experience. After all, we say to ourselves, if Oprah can gain weight—and with a trainer—then it’s okay for me to fall off the food wagon. And if Brangelina and Jennifer are still going at it, well, that sounds exactly like what many couples go through.

But our need to quiet our pain and reassure ourselves through the lives of the rich and famous doesn’t rob these people of their privacy. The lesson to be taken from this mini-media fiasco is how we need to view the intersection of privacy and true intimacy with others.

We live in an age of public confession and instant and technological contact that passes for intimacy. But blabbing your life’s problems to strangers, acquaintances and almost-friends does not garner closeness. True intimacy grows over time. It involves at least acceptance, apologies, compromise, communication, commitment, disclosures, discussions, honor, humility, laughter, love, respect, reliability, tolerance and a throbbing of the heart—over time.

When we speak too soon and too freely we fool ourselves into thinking that indeed we have sealed the deal with a newly found friend or love. Talking and blabbing is easy—sustaining closeness is difficult.

In my study, women often confused telling all with getting close—and then wondered why others misread or rejected them. Oops, only time, familiarity and good will can mollify personal information, including negative disclosures and history.

You do not owe your life history—even to friends—any more than stars owe us intimate details. Being selective and judicious about what we say and to whom requires a mix of judgment and bravery, however. Not exercising these requirements usually backfires—instead of feeling close, you feel embarrassed and worried about true acceptance. In an age of intimacy by way of technology, we risk losing a solid but more demanding way to forge closeness and find mature love and sustainable connection. Our "longing for belonging" propels us to rush.

The next time you want to be close to someone, ask yourself whether you are moving forward—or leaping for intimacy.

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Author's Bio: 

LeslieBeth Wish is a Psychologist, Clinical Social Worker and author who is nationally recognized for her contributions to women, love, relationships, family, career, workplace, and organizations.

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