Be careful what you wish for

Watching Oprah’s recent televised visit the Chassidic community in Brooklyn, I saw her amazement at the “oddness” of these people turn to longing and then identification. “We’re all alike,” she concluded wonderingly. Despite the fact that these women covered their hair, arms, collarbones and legs; despite the fact that they kept kosher (to the extent of having two or even three sinks); despite the fact that all these women were married and had many children — Oprah’s main epiphany was that she and they were sisters in soul.

To some extent, of course, she was right. And the women themselves (who knew nothing of Oprah, having never watched television) nodded their agreement to this concept of human kinship. But to a far larger one, Oprah’s life has been lived according to very different — if equally valid — principles.

Oprah is “special.” She is s tireless maverick, always reaching higher. Oprah is a star, and this country has been forged from the brilliance of people like her. She took her own path and followed it (inhospitably rocky though it undoubtedly was) all the way to the top. For decades, her voice has been heard, not only on television but in films, and through her long-running magazine. Oprah is worshipped by millions of women, and (while known to be generous and philanthropic) lives like a Queen, with palaces and servants. By any American standard, she is a success beyond measure.

And yet, as I saw her gaze into the waters of the mikvah, a word she had never heard before, I saw a lonely Oprah. “That’s beautiful,” she said, learning that Chassidic (and other Orthodox) women immersed themselves in these cleansing waters once a month for a “spiritual renewal” that they brought to the marital bed. Everything the women did, in fact, had larger meaning, and all of them did the same: they woke up and said blessings; they braided challah bread for the Sabbath; they married under the traditional chuppah, surrounded by throngs of well-wishers. They were never alone — not only were they part of a community, but that community itself was part of something larger. “There’s a spiritual purpose here,” Oprah observed. “It’s part of every aspect of our lives,” the women agreed.

“I try to do that, too,” the superstar said. And she does; anyone who’s watched or read Oprah’s words over the years knows how devotedly she searches for meaning. Gurus, rabbis and yogis have spoken to her about the soul, the eternal, the space within people where the divine always glows. As for “self-actualization,” there’s no one like Ms. Winfrey to cheer us on to follow our dreams. But the quest may have left he increasingly alone. Surrounded by millions, Oprah sits above. Hers is the mountaintop-view of the common landscape. And it’s lonely at the top, gazing at everyone below, waving, perhaps, to the other top-dwellers who followed their individual wishes all the way to the thinning ether.

In my own small way, I’ve tried to be special all my life. One achievement has followed another, and where they didn’t, I felt let down, thwarted and even ashamed. Like many of my educational background, I HAD to be a stand-out. But when watching the powerhouse media figure in the presence of those quiet women, I had a revelation: none of this “specialness” has ever led to happiness or peace.

What does lead to happiness and peace? I’m not going to join the Chassidic community to find out, but those women were on to something. Their lives were imbued with importance and value, and ego wasn’t even the slightest part of the formula. In their collaborative, modest way, they offered possibilities to which even Oprah herself, perched on high, must sometimes long to surrender.