Follow Your Passion, Find Your Place

What am I passionate about?

I had been dodging the question for years, throwing up answers and finding ways to make them stick, but they never did. Maybe I don’t have the fire, or maybe I haven’t found it yet, but nothing I tried really met my definition of passion. And now, after months of consciously wrestling with the question (compared to years of assuming I knew the answer)… well, things have changed.

What does it mean to be passionate?

I used to be a poet, but I have always been a pedant, and when you combine the two you get a fierce dedication to the meaning of words. I don’t mind colloquialisms or slang, but I know what words mean and I aim to use them rightly.

The word passion seems to have been redefined by our culture. Equal measures of love and desire, it has essentially come to mean “something you care an awful lot about.” Finding a person you’re passionate about means finding someone you’re really emotionally into right now. Finding a job you’re passionate about means finding something that makes you happy.

These aren’t passion. Being in love, or in like, or in lust is to passion what a letter opener is to a claymore. Finding a job in which you’re content, or even happy, is nice, but passion isn’t nice. Passion is hard and all-consuming; passion is the flame that eats wood and men in equal measure.

Passion is pain, or rather it is something you cannot avoid for the pain of it. It is something that you must do, and to do otherwise hurts you. Perhaps following your passion hurts, but not following it is worse. If you have a passion, it is so much a part of you that not following it would be like not following your foot, or your eyes. You would have to cut them out.

Think of The Passion of The Christ, where they used the word right. That’s what passion is, and I don’t have that.

Five Stages

I’ve been trying to ignore my insecurities for a long time.

Writing didn’t become a part of my life until high school, but I latched onto it quickly. Here’s my thing, I thought, the thing that makes me unique and at which I can excel. I was pretty good—I got a 36 on the reading portion of the ACT, and a 34 on writing, and straight As in high school when writing was involved—and I certainly enjoyed it. Writing seemed the natural conclusion for me, who had been reading since the age of three and had read everything in the elementary school library by the end of grade 4.

I wrote poetry because of its inherent imagery and attention to word choice, not to mention the fact that I was an emotional, nerdy, picked-on, outcast high schooler. None of it was good, but it was certainly filled with angst, and just being able to express myself was enough for me. (I thought it was good, to be sure, and a few were even published… and if I’m going to be honest with myself, a few of them were good. But none of them were great.)

Denial

When I went to college, I decided to double major in religious studies and creative writing. The first is the critical study of all religions and involves a lot of research and writing. The latter is, essentially, poetry (or short stories, if that’s your thing). I’m not a particularly good student—I don’t like to study, or do homework, or put to paper things I have already figured out because that’s boring—so my grades have been average throughout college. I do enough to get by, but not much more. I enjoyed the poetry classes well enough, but after the first year I couldn’t avoid the question:

If I am a poet, and this is supposedly my passion and what I want to do, why have I only written a couple dozen in the last year (just enough for my classes)?

I resolved to write a poem a week during my sophomore year, after which I would put together a small book to publish. It didn’t happen. So I transitioned into short story and fiction, quickly discovered I was terrible at it, floundered back to poetry over the following year, accepted an internship at First & Calvary to help found a college ministry, and within a year after that I was hired full-time at Missouri State University in Computer Services.

Anger

Before long, I was too busy and exhausted to write, and I found myself becoming more angry and frustrated. I didn’t feel I could express myself, and my stacks of notes and ideas were just piling up. I had time to think, but not time to write, and certainly not time to practice writing. I wasn’t able to get any better. In some ways, this busyness gave me a credible excuse for not writing. To be honest though, I was producing about the same amount as before, maybe only slightly less, but I certainly felt like I was writing less. (And if I had been truly passionate, I would have made time to write; I can admit this in retrospect.)

After two years I left the college ministry, conflicted and confused. I had enjoyed it, but I was married, working full-time, and practically an adult. I had hoped this would give me the opportunity to start taking real college classes again (I’d been taking easy courses for a couple of years because I knew I couldn’t handle the workload of anything more demanding), and when I thought of “real” classes I was thinking about advanced religion and writing classes. Unfortunately, Missouri State doesn’t prioritize night classes, so I didn’t find anything that suited me.

Bargaining

I entered into a long stage of trying to make things work. I took classes, wrote stories, published more and more to my blog(s), wrote technical documents at work, so on and so forth. I hadn’t written poetry since I met my wife (strangely, once I became happy, I was no longer motivated to write poetry), and my short stories continued to flounder. I rarely finished anything.

Not long ago, as you may recall, I started a business, SilverPen Publishing LLC, under which I could self-publish, do technical or copy writing for other people, have a computer news blog with advertisements, etc. I don’t regret this, because it came during a period of intense depression and frustration with just about everything in my life, and it gave me something to hold onto. It rekindled that spark for me, but the spark didn’t catch. There was no passion. The bargain didn’t buy me anything.

Depression

I moved through stage four very quickly. I suppose I’ve been a bit depressed about it for years, so there was nothing new to work through. The doubts have been floating around in my head and in my heart for over six years now, and they came as no surprise.

A writer, a real writer in my opinion, is someone who is passionate about writing. They must write, they must put words on the page and edit and arrange them, and they must tell their stories. To do otherwise would be to kill who they are and become someone else. Writing is part of them, not just a profession, and not just a hobby. And I’m not that.

What do you do when your mental image of yourself, your self-definition, and the structure of your own narrative is completely disrupted? I have viewed myself as a writer for years, and my intent was to make that my life. I wanted to write books, to publish, and to share stories and fill shelves. I wanted to meet the writers I admire and have them know my name. I wanted to teach our kids to read and have them someday discover my own books on our shelves. But I’m not doing it, and I’m not likely to.

What am I, if I’m not a writer?

Acceptance

I’m surprisingly content to think of myself as a hobbyist. I still write, though not to any great aim, and I certainly enjoy it. I enjoy a glass of scotch as well, and I probably enjoy playing World of Warcraft more, but I do enjoy writing.

And I don’t regret forming SilverPen Publishing LLC, certainly not. As a hobby, it has been something of a salvation for me. I’ve had very little work to do through it (only a couple of clients, and nothing long-term), but it gave me something fulfilling when I had little in my life that fulfilled me professionally or intellectually. I can do as much or as little with it as I please, but it is there to do something with. It is an outlet for me much like poetry once was, and that is enough. It is good to me; it may never be great, and that’s OK.

As I moved into accepting this, though, I began to wonder: what is my passion? Do I have one? Does anyone?

Following Passion

I talked with April about this, and I talked with Ryan. April was supportive and loving and very helpful—having a counselor as a wife has done wonders for my mental health and stability on the occasions I can get over myself and finally talk to her (I have a tendency to sit on things mentally, so to speak, for months before opening up about them). And Ryan, as always, was his cynical, abrasive self. But he made an excellent point, which was this: passion may very well be made up by our society, and doesn’t really exist.

He pointed me to a TED Talk by Mike Rowe, the guy on the TV show Dirty Jobs. Mr. Rowe talks about the jobs he sees on his show, and the people he talks with, and a bit about the myth of having a job you’re “passionate” about. My take on what he’s saying is that these people he talks with aren’t passionate about their jobs because that’s kind of stupid. They’re pig farmers, sheep handlers, crab fishers (is that what they’re called?), etc. But they’re happy. Their job is just one part of their life, and telling people to find a job they’re passionate about is stupid. No one is passionate about these jobs, but they still get done, and the people are still happy.

Which begs the question, do you need a passion to be happy? And as I thought about it, and reflected on my definition above, Ryan’s second point came back to me. Do we really want a passion? If passion is pain, and it is something you have to do or else you’ll die or be miserable, do we want that?

And who has it? Jesus, sure, but as I thought about it, none others came to mind. I began to wonder if the cult of passion is a cultural one not reflected in reality (and I especially wonder if it’s as prevalent in other parts of the world as it is in the United States). We’re big into this concept of finding the job that completes you, or that you’re meant for, or marrying the one person who is just right for you. As my University recently adopted as its slogan: Follow Your Passion, Find Your Place. The implication is that if you don’t follow your passion, you won’t find your place, and who wants to be in the wrong place? To take the implication a step further: you won’t have a place, or at least not a good one, if you don’t follow your passion. So you better figure out what it is and follow it, right?

But I don’t have one. I’ve given it a lot of thought, and it’s just not there. And of the people I’ve spoken with, none of them do either. They have things they care about, things they do, and things that are important to them, but nothing that takes them to the point of pain and death. Maybe we don’t live in a time or place for passion, here in the 21st century United States. So then, can none of us find our “place?”

Finding a Place

In the end, I found out a bit more about what I enjoy in life, and that is stories. I like hearing other people’s stories, and I like making up my own. I feel no strong compulsion to share these stories, but maybe that’s where I got confused early on and thought I ought to be a writer. I have tons of ideas, tons of daydreams and characters and scenes swirling around in my head, so it seems like I ought to share them. But I’m content just enjoying them myself. I can sit and daydream for hours upon hours (when I visited Europe in 2005, I spent a week and a half in London, much of which was either lying on the lawn of Westminster Abbey or sitting beside the river Thames and just thinking for 3-5 hours at a time), and I’m happy doing so.

What kind of passion is that, I ask you. It isn’t one. It’s just part of who I am. There’s no place for it, other than in my head, and that’s OK.

The thought of not having a passion was disturbing to me for a while, but I’m working through that. In the meantime, I’m asking myself, “What’s my place?”

I think the main reason I want a passion is because it will tell me what I need to do. If I’m passionate about something, if I just feel it strongly enough, then I don’t have to think anymore or make decisions. I can just follow it and I’ll end up in my place, whatever and wherever that is. Instead, I have to analyze and make decisions for myself, and some of those might be the wrong decisions. There’s no external justification such as a passion to point to. There’s just me.

Where does God fit into all this? I don’t know, and he has been pretty quiet on the subject. I’m confident he has placed me where I am though, so that’s got to count for something. I’ve got some pretty big goals and plans, so I’ll trust in him to close doors where he doesn’t want me to go and keep opening them if I’m doing right. Throughout all of it, the years and the struggles, he has only given me two real messages.

The first is that he wants me to think for myself and decide for myself, and that he’s supportive and happy regardless of what I decide. This was pretty difficult for me to come to terms with because the first church I attended presented God very differently—to them, if you weren’t a missionary, you were a failure, and my goal in life should be to travel and serve God. But God just seems to want me to spend time with him, worship him, and be content.

The second is that God wants me to “have life and have it abundantly.” When I started being faithful to him, started praying and asking for help, he started demonstrating his love to me in this fashion. When I asked for friends, he led me to a place with people who immediately came into my life and were wonderful to me. When I asked for a girl, he told me to be patient and stop worrying so much about it, and a few years later I met April. When I asked for a job, he gave me opportunities and things have worked out splendidly. We have an abundant life, and I thank God for it.

Did I need to go to Africa for this? Did I need to write and publish? Did I need a passion? If I did, then it seems like none of the above would have happened. I can only conclude that we don’t need a passion to find our place; instead, we need God. I think passion exists and that there’s a place for it, but I don’t think it exists within my context, and I don’t think it’s necessary for living a good life.

What do you care about? Figuring that out may not help you find your place (realizing I like stories certainly doesn’t help me find mine), but it’s nice to know. As for me, I’m going to investigate being content as a hobbyist and try to learn more about the cult of passion. I’m also going to read good fiction, enjoy good company, and celebrate my imagination.

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