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“I can call ‘Flappy Bird’ is a success of mine [sic]. But it also ruins my simple life. So now I hate it.”

–Dong Nguyen, creator of Flappy Bird, via Twitter

In 356 B.C. the Greek Herostratus burned down the Ephesian Temple of Artemis. He had nothing against Artemis worship, and he wasn’t looking to kill anyone; he just wanted fame. He wanted his name to be immortal, and he thought burning down one of the Seven Wonders of the World might make that happen. The Ephesian government, in an effort to deny him his desire, both executed him and made it a capital offense to even mention his name. Obviously, that effort backfired. Herostratus has been remembered forever in history as the personification of the human yearning for fame — immortalized as the desire for immortality itself.

It’s possible, I guess, to think of Herostratus as strange or unique, as if his actions are incomprehensible, but I can’t help but think his memory owes mainly to the fact that he embodies a dark desire that many of us share. His yearning for celebrity was so powerful that he was willing to lose his own life to ensure the immortality of his name. Being known, even superficially, was worth dying for.

Of all the common, selfish, human yearnings — for wealth, for power, for success — the desire for fame is the most puzzling to me. Fame doesn’t pay the bills. It doesn’t necessarily get you anything you want, it doesn’t guarantee you love, and it doesn’t promise a long life. There’s not even any evidence that it brings happiness. All it means is that your name is on people’s minds — and yet, so many still seem to lust after it.

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The decision by Dong Nguyen, creator of mobile phone game Flappy Bird, to remove his creation from the Apple App Store and Google Play should be a reminder that fame is rarely as much fun as we imagine. By the time the simple — simplistic, really — app was topping the charts in both stores last month, Nguyen was getting mobbed with fan mail and making upwards of $50,000 a day from in-game advertising, and yet he had grown to loathe his creation and the attention it brought him. “It…ruins my simple life,” he wrote. “So now I hate it.”

It’s hard, if you’ve never been there, to imagine that sort of success bringing misery on the creator. I wish I was rich and loved by everyone, you might think, and there’s probably even some truth to that assessment. But fame destroys your mind from the inside out, in a way that’s impossible to comprehend if you haven’t been there.

But I was there. For about 72 hours.

* * *

I won’t claim to have experienced Nguyen’s level of fame, but for just a few days it felt like my name was on the whole world’s lips (well, at least a couple million people’s lips, which is still a lot) — and then, of course, it was over as soon as it had begun. I wrote a piece for Cracked.com, the Internet’s most-trafficked humor site. I had written for them before, but this piece — “6 Filthy Jokes You Won’t Believe are From the Bible” — somehow caught on and went viral all week long. I was flooded with emails, Twitter followers, Facebook friend requests, and even kudos from several (very) minor celebrities. It was plenty to satisfy anyone’s thirst for fame, but was it really enough?

Eh, not really.

Let me back up and address two aspects of creation and the fame. Every time you create, there are two realities you have to contend with: your creation’s effects on others, and its effects on you. Inventions like the lightbulb can rewire our sleep schedule from the inside out; movies like The China Syndrome can steer the public debate on nuclear energy for decades. There are various frameworks for determining what constitutes a “moral” or “immoral” work of art, but in the end, most of them fall short of really understanding a work’s place in the public consciousness, in part because that can be extremely hard to predict.

Compare, for instance, Nguyen’s work and my own. On the surface, Flappy Bird might strike a casual viewer as the more morally acceptable of the two: there is no sex, no cursing (aside from that coming from the perpetually frustrated player), and the only violence to speak of consists of a cartoon bird crashing bloodlessly into a cartoon pipe. Appropriate for all ages, fun for the whole family. Contrast that, though, with what Nguyen had to say about the game, in a later tweet: that he had grown to hate it “because how people use my game [sic]. They are overusing it.” He had led people to addiction, and he was starting to feel like a drug pusher.

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I’m pleased to report that my experience was somewhat more positive. I was filled with doubt at the time I was composing the work due to its sensitive nature and its explicit content; however, those fears proved to be essentially unfounded. The comments section under the article was nearly devoid of the “Christians-are-stupid-no-atheists-are-stupid”-style fistfights you almost always see under (even tangentially) religion-themed articles, and instead was filled with shockingly cordial exchanges between people of all faiths, sharing some of their favorite passages from the Bible and religious memories. It even included the occasional gem like this:

Okay, after reading this, I decided to dig out the Bible that I got years ago at my Confirmation. I have to say, even if you’re an atheist like me, there are still some awesome stories in there! The stories of David and Goliath and how Moses led the Jews out of Egypt both make particularly good reading. Not to mention the story about Jesus going ape-shit in the temple.

Similarly, the avalanche of messages I was receiving via email, Facebook, Twitter, and my blog consisted almost exclusively of people — Christian or otherwise — thanking me for pointing them back toward the Bible. Such an experience is a high like no other, but it also creates its own context — anything that becomes your world will redefine your world.

This is what I’m talking about when I allude to a creation’s effects on the creator. My minor creation served to significantly reshape my world in a way I couldn’t have imagined beforehand. The day-to-day isolation I usually experienced as a stay-at-home parent was replaced overnight with a constant inflow of kudos. It was like waking up to find that the whole world loved me.

It was strangely unsatisfying.

Don’t misinterpret me here: each little compliment was a quick, pleasant high, but I was immediately yearning for the next fix after each one. They weren’t satisfying in the same way that real love is. They were little unrequited bursts, based on my accomplishment and not intimate knowledge of me as a person. No amount of accolades was enough.

There’s a concept in psychology called the “hedonic treadmill.” The basic theory states that your brain adjusts to whatever your day-to-day experience is and marks that as its “normal” level of happiness. Falling in love with someone, for instance, feels great, but the more time you spend with that person, the more accustomed to them you become, and the less of an emotional high you get from being with them. Similarly, a new BMW, a new yacht, or even just a new Xbox, will make you feel good for a brief period, but once it becomes part of your daily experience, it will cease to give you any pleasure.

As the kudos continued to roll in, I eventually became accustomed to them, and they became background noise in my day-to-day life. I began to expect them, which made it all the worse when they stopped coming. Once you’re accustomed to something flattering, it’s devastating when it’s taken away. In just a few days, the rest of the world had moved on from my 2,000-word accomplishment, and the accolades stopped coming as quickly as they had started. I spent several days feeling very, very depressed.

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That probably sounds ridiculous to someone who hasn’t been there. I can hear your voices now: “Oh, you were showered in affection for several days? That must have been awful! Want some cheese to go with your rich-white-entitlement?” But keep in mind that none of us are able to step outside of our own heads. All we know is what we’re experiencing emotionally in the moment. Even bums have good days; billionaires have bad ones. What I was experiencing is probably laughable in retrospect, but at the time I had no perspective at all on it. My own hedonic treadmill had adjusted to the constant influx of praise and turned it into an addiction. Then when it was taken away, all I knew was that things had gotten worse compared to how they had been. In the moment, it was miserable.

Nguyen’s experience, again, seems to have been significantly worse than mine. The attention he received literally never stopped, and according to Slate, he was being buried daily under “requests for updates, complaints of bugs, accusations of plagiarism, requests for interviews, proposals of marriage, and blasts of vicious anger from people who felt he didn’t deserve the success he’d attained.” I imagine that at least the interview requests and marriage proposals were, at first, very flattering — but then turned into background noise, before eventually becoming an overwhelming annoyance. I was never quite at this point myself, so I can’t be sure what it’s like.

What I can be sure of, though, is that fame will break your brain. The idea that millions and millions of people are talking about you (or something you made) is entirely incomprehensible to the human mind. (Try, for a second, to imagine a room full of a million people. How does it look, compared to a room of 10,000 people?) The feeling of being overwhelmed, even if it’s by something subjectively good, is not an exclusively pleasant one. It’s the feeling of being at the mercy of something beyond your control — the feeling that something you’ve created now controls you.

* * *

On March 15, 2012, Jason Russell, founder of advocacy group Invisible Children, Inc., was arrested by the San Diego police for disrupting traffic. He had been standing in the middle of the street in his underwear, screaming incoherently, even though he had no previous history of mental illness. His family eventually issued a statement saying that he had been suffering “brief reactive psychosis, an acute state brought on by extreme exhaustion, stress, and dehydration.”

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It was 10 days after the release of his surprise-hit advocacy film Kony 2012. For 10 days straight, the hit counter on its YouTube page had been shooting into the stratosphere, every blog on the Internet had been tearing its claims to shreds, and his phone had been ringing off the hook with requests for comments, interviews, and media appearances. His name had been on everyone’s lips for a week and a half, and it had literally driven him (temporarily) insane.

We live in a time when everyone is connected to everyone else 24/7, finally allowing the fulfillment of Andy Warhol’s prophecy that we would all someday be famous for 15 minutes. If Herostratus lived today, all he’d have to do to achieve his dream of fame is leak a sex tape or say something racist on his blog. More people experience fame now than ever — and happiness is declining. (Are those facts connected? At least a little, it seems.)

One thing came out of my brief bout with fame: I was offered a book deal, and now HOLY SH*T! The Dirtiest Bits of the Bible should be coming to a Barnes & Noble near you within a year or three. I’m still not sure why I took the deal — I’m not quite convinced I want to go down in history as “that guy who makes dirty jokes about the Bible for a living” — but if I’m honest about it, it’s probably because, despite saying I don’t understand the desire for fame, that desire still burns deep within my soul.

I don’t understand it. But it’s there.

I can’t get rid of it. I’ve often thought it was sinful, and I’ve even prayed to have it taken from me. But it hangs on.

We were built to be immortal, but after a single event in Eden, that immortality was taken from us. How can we resist the urge to raise our fist to the heavens in defiance, shouting I WILL LIVE FOREVER? How can men made of stars concede that they are grass?

In his first epistle, St. Peter quotes from the prophet Isaiah: “All flesh is like grass 
and all its glory like the flower of grass. The grass withers, and the flower falls.” Famous or not, all come to the same end. All are thrown into the same furnace, their self-won immortality shown to be a mere illusion.

Like Herostratus, even those of us whose names are spoken by kings and princes still rot in the ground when our days are through.

Peter doesn’t leave it there, though — he has a solution. He knows how dry grass can become the stuff of stars again:

“Having purified your souls by your obedience to the truth for a sincere brotherly love, love one another earnestly from a pure heart, since you have been born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God…

The word of God stands forever.”

Maybe I’m one of the lucky ones — one of the few whose brush with immortality is a chance to proclaim that which is truly immortal: the words of immortality themselves. This, after all, is immortality’s true promise: that we’ll proclaim the One True Immortal himself, not just in time and space, but for eternity.

Amen. Come, Lord Jesus.

Luke T. Harrington is a humor writer in Tulsa who occasionally contributes to Cracked.com and is currently working on ‘HOLY SH*T! The Dirtiest Bits in the Bible’ for Hollan Publishing. You can follow him on Twitter.

Illustration courtesy of Seth T. Hahne. Check out Seth’s graphic novel and comic review site, Good Ok Bad.