A Gift for Giving

updated 09/22/1997 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/22/1997 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Sarah Ban Breathnach's Simple Abundance: A Daybook of Comfort and Joy has been on bestseller lists for a year and a half, thanks to its uplifting message that we already have all we need to make us happy and that we alone are responsible for our own fulfillment. PEOPLE sent Ban Breathnach (pronounced "Bon Brannock"), 50, to London for Diana's funeral, in search of lessons to take from the princess's vibrant life and wrenching death:

Swept along by the crowds—feeling less a member of the media than a mourner among her masses—there's not a doubt in my mind that this glorious woman, so adored and admired for her beauty, style, devotion, sense of honor, conviction and compassion, was deeply, passionately and, in the end, unconditionally loved. But the tears I shed for her come from a harrowing sense that Diana never realized the depths of love the world held for her. We were too stingy with our praise and thanksgiving, too generous with our disdain and criticism.

And though many people surely tried to express their gratitude to her in kind and thoughtful ways, how could Diana have understood the impact that her cuddling a child dying of AIDS or her shaking a leper's hand had on millions of people around the world? The hidden sorrow of Diana's death is the mystery of how a woman who sought nothing more than the rest of us do—caring, communication, companionship, connection, commitment—spent nearly her entire adult life lonely, isolated, harassed, blinded by the harsh glare of flashbulbs, public opinion and our insatiable need to live vicariously.

Many misguided individuals spend their lives seeking celebrity only to discover, when they achieve it, that the more public their persona, the more isolated they feel. Inevitably their circle of intimates must shrink for their own sanity and protection. Isolation is one of fame's more uncomfortable footnotes. Often in a rush to live Technicolor lives, we forget to read the fine print. Stop wishing this instant to be living anybody else's life but your own.

Now, I don't believe Diana sought celebrity; she just made a bad choice before she was 20 and got trapped in a fable not even the Brothers Grimm gone Hollywood could have created. By the time your celebrity lands you on the cover of PEOPLE—and Diana graced it more than any other person—you're lucky if you have one or two confidantes in the world you can call at 2 a.m. when you can't get out of your hotel without being chased by the paparazzi. Is that how you'd like to live? Me neither. And while accolades, acclaim and awards are often agreeable fellows to have a drink with, they make lousy dinner partners because their conversation rarely moves past small talk. As Diana taught us so tragically, life is too short not to start living it.

Outside Westminster Abbey, a hairstylist in her 20s confessed to me that she and her friends felt a bit guilty about Princess Diana's death because "we all did want to read about her, didn't we?" And we did, myself included, which is how she came to be hunted down by paparazzi. Let's face it: Reading about someone larger than life is much easier than investing the time, creative energy and emotion it takes to make our own lives fulfilling. A note with a small bouquet of flowers picked from a garden read, "We didn't deserve you." I agree.

As beautiful as Diana's send-off was, it was still a parting, and there is nothing good about saying goodbye to someone you love and nothing fair about saying farewell to one taken away too soon. At the end of the day—or the end of a life—all that we have is ourselves and each other. All that has ever mattered and all that will ever matter is one question: Did we love ourselves and each other deeply, passionately, unconditionally? Diana did. I don't know about you, but I think it would be miraculous if, when I die, someone writes, "The only pain she ever caused was when she left us." Now there's celebrity worth pursuing.

Passion is color; most of us live in black and white. For me, Diana's great gift was that she was willing to embrace her passion, to attempt to live authentically. The lesson she taught us is how to live. She lived at full throttle while most of us go about our lives as if we're on life support. Every choice Diana made, right or wrong, she made with a beating pulse; the rest of us play it so safe that we don't even realize we risk everything by failing to take risks. (Sure, that's a paradox; living is a paradox.)

Somewhere during her difficult journey, a princess in pain realized she could no longer deny her passion. If Diana's death imparts only one lesson, it is that passion is holy, to be embraced, even as we tremble with fear that love will hurt us. (As of course it will.) Her extraordinary, courageous and authentic life is a powerful reminder that we are conceived in passion, born in passion and often die in passion, whether it is in a hospital bed or in the backseat of a speeding car with the person we love, trying to outrun destiny.

There is a story that says the gates of heaven are guarded by a fierce angel brandishing a sword. When we arrive at the gates, we are told that only those whose life was pierced by the sword of love are allowed entry into paradise. Was yours? The gates were wide open for Diana, Princess of Wales.

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