What a terrible shock it is to find you’re not who you thought you were. Even worse when you learn the discrepancy comes in an area of characteristics you held most dear. Recently I discovered I was not the sympathetic, all-compassionate soul I’d always prided myself on being. I learned in fact that I practice a kind of selective sympathy instead of universal understanding, and this discovery came just at the time I was privately chiding many of my friends for not having enough empathy for me after my husband died—oh, the stones one can throw naively from the imagined protection of a glass house.
Just as I’d released one of those mental missiles, I realized with a jolt that I hadn’t thought about what many of those friends might have been enduring themselves over the past year—or cared. Selective sympathy was the most I could muster in my self-absorbed state. The ugly fact bounced around in my head for a couple of weeks before I got the jolt that rebooted my self-esteem. It came unexpectedly from someone I didn’t even know: Lady Gaga. Yes, she of the outrageous platinum hair and power to shock with music and lyrics. In an Op Ed piece in the New York Times by David Brooks recently, he wrote of Gaga’s passion and bravery, her drive to live a full life without a template. He wrote a lot more and I urge anyone who missed that piece to follow the link above and read it—more than once. Obviously I did, and the essay reduced me to tears—many tears.
After I’d recovered enough to examine what happened to me when I was so affected by it, I realized I’d learned about something more important than selective sympathy. It was that we’re not only someone other than who we are in our dreams, but we’re who we are in relation to others. It’s why we can feel so lost when we’re not with someone we’ve had a long relationship with. It’s not about how good that relationship was, for we can be just as displaced when a negative force we’re used to is removed as a positive one. I’m reminded of Elena Ferrante’s heroine in My Brilliant Friend whose life flows around her friend in negative and positive currents, but who never feels alive without her. But Lady Gaga’s story reminded me that when I reflect on and off of someone like her, and there are and have been others like her in my life, then the core beliefs I share with her and them about courage and passion and the importance of a unique life lived outside the social prototype become the truth of who I am. Of course that brought me to tears when I was finally reintroduced to the self I thought I’d lost.
Lately I’ve been dazed by the tasks springing up every day from the administration of my husband’s estate: the juggling of three homes on my own, the surprising investments no one knew about and the ancillary financial decisions smothering my oxygen. Lady Gaga reminded me that the person my husband wanted me to be was in fact not me. The personality traits I manifested when he was around were not in fact the ones I held most dear. I was most certainly who he wanted me to be. And in the interest of full disclosure I’d say some of that person must have pleased me too, or I wouldn’t have championed her for so long. I remember trying to reaffirm myself a decade before he died, but apparently I hadn’t accomplished the task when Lady Gaga’s life principle brought me to tears.
If you take the time to read that piece on her you’ll find it ends with a question: ‘Who would you be and what would you do if you weren’t afraid?’ Dumping my selective sympathy, I’m able to answer with a resounding, “Me!” It’s an important discovery, but just as vital is the realization that part of the ‘me’ we display day-to-day is a reflection of others. So perhaps it was reflective, rather than selective sympathy I was showing my negligent friends; I’d become more them than me. I like Gaga’s image better.