Earlier this week I watched some young musicians perform Lady Gaga songs in front of Lady Gaga. As India Carney’s voice rose and swooped during the incredible anthemic versions of her dance hits, Gaga sat enraptured. Her eyes moistened. Occasionally her arms would fling up in amazement. Finally, she just stood up and cheered.
It was at a dinner hosted by Americans for the Arts, a leading nonprofit organization promoting the arts and arts education. Gaga received an award, along with Sophia Loren, Herbie Hancock and others. Her acceptance speech was as dramatic as the music. Tears flowing, she said that this blessing of respectability was “the best thing that’s ever happened to me.” And she remembered her childhood dreams this way: “I suppose that I didn’t know what I would become, but I always wanted to be extremely brave and I wanted to be a constant reminder to the universe of what passion looks like. What it sounds like. What it feels like.”
That passage stuck in the head and got me thinking. When we talk about living with passion, which is sort of a cliché, what exactly do we mean?
I suppose that people who live with passion start out with an especially intense desire to complete themselves. We are the only animals who are naturally unfinished. We have to bring ourselves to fulfillment, to integration and to coherence.
Some people are seized by this task with a fierce longing. Maybe they are propelled by wounds that need urgent healing or by a fear of loneliness or fragmentation. Maybe they are driven by some glorious fantasy to make a mark on the world. But they often have a fervent curiosity about their inner natures and an unquenchable thirst to find some activity that they can pursue wholeheartedly, without reservation.
They construct themselves inwardly by expressing themselves outwardly. Members of the clergy sometimes say they convert themselves from the pulpit. By speaking out their faith, they make themselves faithful. People who live with passion do that. By teaching or singing or writing or nursing or parenting they bring coherence to the scattered impulses we are all born with inside. By doing some outward activity they understand and define themselves. A life of passion happens when an emotional nature meets a consuming vocation.
Another trait that marks them is that they have high levels of both vulnerability and courage. As Martha Nussbaum wrote in her great book “Upheavals of Thought,” to be emotional is to attach yourself to something you value supremely but don’t fully control. To be passionate is to put yourself in danger.
Living with this danger requires a courage that takes two forms. First, people with passion have the courage to dig down and play with their issues. We all have certain core concerns and tender spots that preoccupy us through life. Writers and artists may change styles over the course of their careers, but most of them are turning over the same few preoccupations in different ways. For Lady Gaga fame and body issues predominate — images of mutilation recur throughout her videos. She is always being hurt or thrown off balconies.
Passionate people often discover themselves through play. Whether scientists, entrepreneurs, cooks or artists, they explore their issues the way children explore the possibilities of Play-Doh. They use imagination to open up possibilities and understand their emotional histories. They delight in new ways to express themselves, expand their personalities and move toward their goals. Gaga, to continue with today’s example, has always had a sense of humor about her projects, about the things that frighten and delight her.
As the saying goes, they somehow get on the other side of fear. They get beyond that fog that is scary to approach. Once through it they have more freedom to navigate. They opt out of things that are repetitive, routine and deadening. There’s even sometimes a certain recklessness there, a willingness to throw their imperfect selves out into public view while not really thinking beforehand how people might react. Gaga is nothing if not permanently out there; the rare celebrity who is willing to portray herself as a monster, a witch or disturbing cyborg — someone prone to inflicting pain.
Lady Gaga is her own unique creature, whom no one could copy. But she is indisputably a person who lives an amplified life, who throws her contradictions out there, who makes herself a work of art. People like that confront the rest of us with the question a friend of mine perpetually asks: Who would you be and what would you do if you weren’t afraid?
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