The Problem with Passion
Current circumstances: a Spring Break-less semester; a year of pandemic lockdown; interminable zoom meetings; a never-ending renovation project at home; and a raft of senior students, applying for their first post-college jobs, asking for advice.
A curious confluence, and one that has me thinking quite a bit about time and endurance (see this week's Cultural Event below).
It also has me thinking about that terribly misguided, even dangerous, platitude that we hear from well-meaning people:
“Do what you love, and you will never work a day in your life"
or, in its more widely-applicable (and more meme-able) form:
” Follow your passion"
Don't get me wrong. Passion is great. I'm a big fan of passion.
But this idea—that if you find what you are passionate about and pursue it, you will end up as (check one) successful, fulfilled, filthy rich—it seems to me that this gets it precisely backwards.
We often describe passion as a fire, burning deep within, acting as the fuel, or as the flame, that powers the combustion engine of our will. (As an aside: don't you find it curious that we model our autonomy on the mechanics of the automobile? But I digress...)
Passion comes from the Latin patior which means "to undergo, to suffer, to endure." In its original meaning, passion is not something I possess; rather, it is something that happens to me, something that comes to me from beyond my ability to master it. In a very real sense, it is better to say that my passion masters me.
So, passion: not an energy driving me from within, but rather a pull, a lure, an overwhelming desire from the outside that calls, like a siren, and beckons me into the deep.
So, too, patience: the willingness to endure, to undergo, to open myself beyond myself in creative response to what I am given.
And so, too, passion: literal suffering ("The Passion of Christ"); an undergoing, even unto death; paying a steep price, perhaps even the ultimate price, for the sake of a good that is worth suffering for, that is even, in some cases, worth more than life itself.
Recovering these more classical resonances can help us orient ourselves better with respect to passion.
"Follow your passion" is terrible advice for making career decisions because it projects a fantasy world of blissful creativity and non-stop fulfilling work, attainable if only I discover what I really care about.
This is problematic for at least two reasons.
First: it is simply not true. There never has been, and never will be, a job—no matter how ideal and well-suited to your unique set of talents and interests—that will be unambiguously and continually fulfilling, challenging, and meaningful.
Second: passion is a negative indicator of fulfillment. What I am passionate about is more properly marked by what I am willing to suffer in order to create or to contribute to some good that I value highly.
Now it is important to say here that I do not mean to glamorize suffering. In fact (and I promise a future On the Exam? dedicated to this point), I think our culture has a perverse fascination with suffering, glorifying it and using it as a placeholder for meaning and happiness. We are like martyrs in search of a god to die for. But suffering is not worth seeking out for its own sake—to do so is silly, or stupid, or worse.
That said, to work toward any good in this finite world is to be faced—sooner or later—with opposition, setbacks, obstacles, and self-limitations. Love something and start to work towards bringing it into being, and suffering will find you. It is then that you learn whether you are, in fact, passionate about the good you seek.
Once we realign ourselves to this way of thinking about passion, two practical implications follow:
First, I can stop seeking after some ephemeral "perfect" job or career, and I can instead ask myself whether what I am currently enduring, or what I anticipate enduring, is worth the price I am paying for the good that I hope to accomplish. It is the love of the good I seek—the product, the service, the community, my own self-development—that becomes the criterion of meaning and fulfillment.
Second, rather than looking continuously for a job that I am passionate about, I can instead bring my passion to the job I have (or hope to have). The amateur casts about for work that (somehow, eventually, magically) will give him meaning and fulfillment; the professional brings discipline, standards, effort, resilience, determination, and focus to the work she is doing—and it is this very intentionality which grants her meaning and fulfillment.
This, then, is the paradox of passion: while passion is something that I suffer (insofar as it comes to me from without), to live as a fully awake and alive human person is to offer my own spontaneous response, my co-operation, my "yes" in word and deed, to the good that beckons.
This is what it means to follow your passion.
Easter. The grave clothes of winter
are still here, but the sepulchre
is empty. A messenger
from the tomb tells us
how a stone has been rolled
from the mind, and a tree lightens
the darkness with its blossom.
There are travellers upon the road
who have heard music blown
from a bare bough, and a child
tells us how the accident
of last year, a machine stranded
beside the way for lack
of petrol, is crowned with flowers.
“Resurrection”, by R. S. Thomas
Pandemic Time (with Tarkovsky)
Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky considered the nine-minute, continuous tracking shot near the end of his 1983 film Nostalghia to be the finest scene he ever filmed, going so far as to tell his leading actor at the time that "maybe this act will be the true meaning of my life."
The scene? A man, carrying a flickering and sputtering candle, across the abandoned pool of a derelict Italian spa in order to memorialize his suicided friend.
It's a devastating scene, not just as an achingly poetic expression of remembrance, but also for what it does to us as viewers: we are discomforted, drawn in, disoriented, and ultimately—perhaps—moved into deep meditation.
This is film-become-ritual, a blurring of the temporal and the eternal, something very close to religious liturgy at its best.
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