Recently a friend asked if it was strange to feel offended when people in your life try to be like you, or like the things you like. The question struck me as interesting not because I can relate to her, but to those who are annoying her.
For me, the early and paradigmatic case was in high school. I was in love with Kristen—my first real experience with love—and she loved a band called The Smiths. I was 16 and The Queen is Dead had just come out. We were in her room, and she played them for me on a cassette. I don’t remember quite what she said she loved about them, I only remember the intensity of her devotion. I was converted.
The absurdly short version is that I became obsessed with them, so much so that she stopped listening to them, nor would she talk with me about them. I love them to this day, and consider them one of the most influential bands in my life. They hold a firm position in my (tired? conventional? arbitrary? obligatory?) top five, alongside Opeth, Rush, Tori Amos, and a devious placeholder for a tier of bands that are amazing but not quite as great and somewhat interchangeable (an unprofitable discussion for another time).
The question then is why did I love them? Was it because they were The Smiths, a darling of music critics and fans to this day, or because I wanted to possess (perhaps even steal?) something that she had? I use this example not only because, historically, it stands as a kind of emotional watershed for me (and not necessarily a good one), but because they are a genuinely great band—to love them is hardly unique or noteworthy.
Clearly the answer is both, and herein lies a helpful distinction. To the degree in which others love the things we love because they are great, we are not only supportive, but happy. A work of genius speaks to us, touches us on the deepest levels, and those also to whom it speaks are, mutatis mutandis, our confidants, our friends. They stand apart from the rest, they see something only we see. To put it in 16th century Protestant Reformation terms, they are the elect.
And yet there is a kind of thievery. This same person—if taken too far, if he comes too close—appropriates that which belongs to us, that around which we form our own identities. He takes something that is ours. This is what I had done to Kristen. She wanted to introduce me to something she loved. I embraced it to such a degree that I, in effect, wrested it from her. Her devotion paled compared to mine. My passion was an indictment of her (relative) lack thereof.
And yet, of course, all of this is silly. It suggests a weakness on the part of the one so offended. If I love that which is truly great there are no circumstances in which I should be offended that others love it as well. But it also suggests a foolishness on the part of the devotee. When my love becomes larceny, when I leverage it against the one who first led me there, I trade gratitude for control. I don’t want to simply share in this new love, but own it.
I understand now why she was upset, and yet I don’t regret my love for them. I only wish I could have done it in a way that wasn’t so binary. I should have shown a kind of gratitude, a respect for her original claim.