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The Roman Spectacle of Charlie Sheen and the Gladiator Within Us

03/02/2011 01:50 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

One look at Charlie Sheen's face on the panoply of tabloids and television shows, and you get a glimpse of this man's real desperation. He is unraveling. Of course there are those who think Sheen is unworthy of sympathy -- why he is just one more self -pitying, rich, white, spoiled bad boy who will get whatever he deserves, or something like that. It goes without saying that the media is exploiting a self-destructive human being who is in enormous pain, but my take is that we as a public should reflect about how much we pay those who pay others so that we can become the vultures of spectacle.

Let's face it; we are all condoning the egging-on of people so they wind up hurting and damaging their reputations and themselves to the point of possible suicide. If this is our version of a new reality show, then we are all complicit because we have each stepped into the realm of bullying -- enticed, though we may be, via effective strategies to up the ratings.

Clinically speaking, I feel competent enough to sound a warning: Charlie Sheen may want this attention but I doubt he wants the shame being heaped on him as he is unfairly compared to Gaddafi, who also appears delusional. Yet one is an entertainer, and the other is a person of real global consequence.

Simply stated, we are behaving like the Romans who watched the gladiators warring or the lions killing men or whatever satisfied their lust for sadistic viewing. Without the gladiators there would have been no spectacle. Likewise, Sheen is the train-wreck du jour on which the media now seems to rely to justify its existence.

The trouble is that we do not seem to realize we have a choice. Even as we watch popular uprisings in other parts of the world, we seem to not recognize that it takes popular participation to stop the bullying. Instead, we fix our own addictions by visiting the modern Coliseum of TV or Twitter each minute to see who said what.

The fact of the matter is that those who become bullies are frequently the target, not only of bullying but of a sort of socially acceptable ridicule. In the sphere of White America, there is no huge outcry against sorority or fraternity or military hazing just as there hasn't been much of a unified outcry against our own military being engaged in torture of detainees or civilians in Iraq or Afghanistan. We seem to choose one group at a time against whom to release the rage and sadism lurking in our shadows. We select those we can "safely" demonize because we have already dehumanized them.

As a clinician, I feel it is imperative to reiterate that Charlie Sheen is a human being in trouble. As a person likewise afflicted (and blessed) by the love of theater, film, and of acting in particular, I'm pained by the lengths to which this one man would go to degrade himself, and I wish someone would help him. I suspect that although Jeff Jarvis in his pertinent Huffington Post blog "Exploiting Charlie Sheen" suggests he might need couch time, in my opinion, Sheen's most destructive drug-of-choice is attention.

Sheen is an example of the compassion and attention that we too easily dole out to far away countries or cause-of-the-moment but which we even more easily deny our neighbors -- or those upon whom we depend for our entertainment. This is about our humanity, about our kids and ourselves, bullied by the hype of pseudo-concern that goes nowhere as we tune in for the next episode. The challenge before us might begin by turning off the media, to go on strike. We need a gossip media detox. We can give little compassion as long as we dehumanize others for addictions that are so blatant while we choose not to see that we are co-addicts.

When Piers Morgan tweets about Charlie Sheen and has millions of viewers on board, there is a shared addiction to the spectacle, the sad show of human frailty for which we have lost our caring and compassion. Like the Roman spectators, we are numbed to the human waste of it all and castigate this man for being white, rich and indulgent all the way to his grave.

We have a choice. Although it's difficult to give up any addiction, even the ones we may be deluded into thinking we don't have.

I feel bad for Charlie Sheen, and I hope he responds to the caring of those who love him. But, I am more scared for the rest of us since too often we are seeing the human condition as spectacle and sport and little more. However, there is hope if we claim our shadow parts and participate in change.