A sad commentary on our celebrity obsession

By Heidi Stevens

Allow me to preface this column by acknowledging there are far more pressing concerns than Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie’s pending divorce.

Their pain is nothing compared to that of, say, Nadia Murad, who was sold as a sex slave to an ISIS commander and is now suing the terrorist group on behalf of thousands of its victims.

Their heartbreak doesn’t equal that of Syrian refugees who can protect neither their homeland nor their children.

Their split won’t leave either of them penniless or, in all likelihood, companionless. They will be fine.

And yet …

News of Jolie filing for divorce from Pitt, her mate of 12 years and her husband of two, reverberated fast and furious. More so than Justin Bieber and model Sofia Richie, whose split was also announced this week. More so than Taylor Swift and Tom Hiddleston, who parted ways this month.

More so, I’d venture to guess, than almost any celebrity couple whose love affair we watched take root and grow into what appeared to be a loving union of equals.

That’s partly because they lasted more than a decade — a rare feat in Hollywood. But it’s also because of who they are apart from Hollywood.

Earlier this month, Jolie, a United Nations envoy, appeared at a UN peacekeeping summit, where she spoke to delegates from 80 countries about the organization’s alleged sexual abuse by peacekeepers. She is an outspoken advocate for Syrian refugees and visited with many of them as recently as March.

In 2013, she went public with her decision to have a preventive double mastectomy, hoping her frank discussion would encourage other women to determine their risk for breast and ovarian cancer.

They have raised adopted children from Cambodia, Vietnam and Ethiopia. Together they formed the Jolie-Pitt Foundation, which is reported to have given money to Doctors Without Borders, an Ethiopian HIV clinic and Pakistani refugees, among others.

Brad Pitt’s Make It Right organization builds LEED-certified homes for people in need, including those in New Orleans displaced by Hurricane Katrina.

But we need one of them to be a villain.

They’re splitting up, and we need to decide which one to blame, so Tuesday began the speculating about who’s a bad parent, who smokes a lot of pot, who’s having an affair with a co-star and so on.

I’m going to suggest something a little radical: It doesn’t matter.

No one knows the truth of another person’s marriage. Heck, a lot of us don’t know the whole truth of our own.

What we do know is Jolie and Pitt have taken their wealth and privilege and fame and pointed it toward improving the world. That’s worthy of our respect. Whatever they do inside or outside of their marriage doesn’t have to diminish that respect. It really doesn’t.

I bring this up not because I feel protective of a millionaire power couple I’ve never met. As I acknowledged earlier: They’ll be fine.

I bring it up because we’ve gotten way too adept at shutting off our humanity toward people we don’t know. We’re too quick to dismiss people as flawed and, therefore, unworthy of our grace; unrelatable and, therefore, unworthy of our empathy; unknowable and, therefore, unworthy of our energy.

I’ve been through a divorce. The way we talk about celebrities who split up isn’t all that different from the way we talk about couples we know — even those we know intimately. We want details and we want to pick sides. We pry and speculate and take those a-little-too-gleeful conversations where they don’t belong — namely, behind the divorcing couple’s back.

It’s not helpful. It turns people into one half of a severed union, instead of, you know, people.

When “Love Warrior” author Glennon Doyle Melton announced her pending divorce on her Momastery blog, she attached a P.S. that was, in my eyes, one of her most powerful posts.

“Try to avoid lamenting how sad it is that people ‘throw away their marriages these days,’” she wrote. “Try not to generalize. I have met hundreds of divorced women who didn’t throw their marriages away. Most of us fight like hell for our marriages until we realize that we can either save our marriages or save our souls.

“Please don’t pretend to know what God thinks of us,” she continued. “Please think deeply about the chasm-wide difference between leaving a man and leaving God. Please remember that when a woman leaves, she just brings God with her. Nothing separates a woman or a family from God’s love. Not death, and certainly not divorce.

“Sometimes,” she wrote, “when people make decisions about marriage, it evokes strong feelings in others. If my news does that to you today, please look inside and get curious about whether those feelings have more to do with you and your life than they do about me and mine.”

Pitt and Jolie’s divorce — and our handling of it — is hardly our most pressing concern. If I were making a Most Pressing Concerns list, it wouldn’t even make the top 100. But it’s a chance to examine and practice how we treat the people around us, particularly those whose marriages end.

We can do better.


Heidi Stevens is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. Readers may email her at hstevens@chicagotribune.com. Column courtesy of the Associated Press.

Heidi Stevens is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. Readers may email her at hstevens@chicagotribune.com. Column courtesy of the Associated Press.

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