We all grew up on fairytales of princes and princesses. And who has never daydreamed about being born into dazzling circumstances like those of baby royals in the real world?
Nevertheless, I believe our fascination with the royal family goes deeper than the surface glitz and glamour of their lives. It even goes beyond the sympathy and affection the whole world felt seeing young "Wills" and Harry at Princess Diana's funeral -- watching those boys keep their stiff upper lip in fine British fashion, through what would have been a gut-wrenching event for anyone.
I believe the reason we care what happens to them and the rest of the royals is rooted in our cultural DNA and reflected in our private aspirations for ourselves.
For most of Western history, commoners like us had a serious vested interest in the personal character of those born into power. If the next prince in line for the throne was a fair and honorable man, the people could breathe a sigh of relief. But if he (or in some cases, she) was spoiled, selfish or otherwise fatally flawed, the future monarch's pet vices could have a direct negative impact on the average citizen's life: crushing taxes to pay for royal hobbies, needless wars to settle foolish points of honor, and so on.
The royal family of England no longer has that kind of power, especially not over us, their former colonists. Nevertheless, we remain captivated, and I think the deeper reason is because we still associate them with certain Old World values that have all but disappeared from modern life, lasting values we might not even realize a part of us still pines for.
These values start with a sense of duty to something larger than oneself. A royal prince or princess embraces the idea that he or she is a role model for others to follow and holds him or herself to a higher standard accordingly, with dignity and, well, class. As difficult as it must be to live constantly under the microscope, being watched is a fate that the royals make the most of by actively using their status to uplift and inspire others, setting a good example. They remain mindful that their every action is a direct reflection on their country's honor and their family's reputation. That is why it seems so shocking when they misbehave. Because they are engaged with, connected to and participating in the greater good, rather than just being wrapped up in their own self-interest, their lives have a greater sense of urgency than that of the average couch potato.
They don't always live up to perfect ideals as role models, but you have to admire anyone who at least makes a serious effort.
Second among these Old World values that we have lost and they embody is the strong, clear sense of identity that the royals are born into, in stark contrast to the alienation and existential uncertainty of most of us regular Joes and Janes.
A prince who can trace his lineage back hundreds of years with the exact names, dates and deeds of his ancestors, both heroes and villains, comes into life with a much clearer picture of who he is, simply by knowing what sort of stock he comes from. He has a heritage: a sense of history, kinship and belonging. This must also make it easier to project his own personal expectations forward into the future. He can gauge what he might be when he grows up because he starts off life with a rich tapestry on which he can think about weaving his own small part, keeping up that long continuity.
Third, the royals provide us with a larger-than-life illustration of the old, throwback value of the clan. Unlike our fractured families today, where everyone tends to go their separate ways, and our divisions and "issues" so often outweigh our common bonds, at least they are able to rally together for the sake of family pride. The "clan" stands together as a bulwark against the outer world, concealing (as best they can) whatever private factions and spats may exist among themselves.
What all this boils down to in my view is that if the royals' lives seem to matter more, it's not because they were born "better" than us -- such a notion is abhorrent to any American. The difference lies in how seriously they take their own life -- living each day like it truly matters. They accept the responsibility that they are role models, whether they like or not; their dignity reminds us splendidly of the impact we, too, can have when we choose to hold ourselves to a lofty standard.
The weight of all that history breathing down their necks must be a constant reminder that you only have so many years to make your mark. By being fully engaged in their country's aspirations, even if only as figureheads, they inspire us to be the best selves we can be and live each day with all we've got.
Ultimately, how we feel about the royals tells us a great deal more about ourselves than it tells us about them. They are mirrors for our best imagined selves or chaotic reflections of our worst days.
We all grew up with fairytales. We just apply their lessons differently. The royals know that they are princes and princesses: they expect to have adventures, slay dragons and do great deeds.
The only question is: why don't we?