Rediscovering Lost Passion
Why it's important, and how to do it
"If a man is called to be a street sweeper, he should sweep streets even as Michelangelo painted, or Beethoven composed music, or Shakespeare wrote poetry. He should sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will pause to say, here lived a great street sweeper that did his job well."--Martin Luther King
Passion is not an emotion but a measure of how deeply we feel and experience each of our individual emotions. It is the foundation upon which the sturdy house of our emotional makeup is built. You may love casually or you may love intensely. The difference is the degree of your passion. If the greatness of being human is our ability to experience emotions, our ability to feel, then passion is a measure of our humanity. Every human being is comprised of two elements: a body and a soul. Each has its single greatest need: The need of the body is to feel intensely alive and the need of the soul is to feel intensely understood. The body seeks passion; the soul seeks intimacy. The body seeks a lover, the soul seeks a companion. The body seeks excitement, the soul seek communion.
Simply stated, those with more passion feel more deeply and profoundly. They feel the pain of others more, they glory in their achievements more, they hunger, yearn, lust, and thirst more and they are able to love more. Passion, therefore, is the barometer of how intensely we lead our lives. Like a candle burning brilliantly atop a wick, our passion measures whether we blaze brightly or smolder silently. We may be fortunate to reach the ripe old age of seventy or eighty years. Yet while the quantity of our life would be considerable, without passion the quality would be negligible. Indeed, to live without passion is to be only half alive; it is to live life in the cold when life is all about vibrancy and warmth.
I have always been confused by those who are afraid of passion so living in Oxford has been a puzzling experience for me. As both a university and a town, Oxford certainly has never been a great fan of the emotions. The same probably could be said of England in general. I remember when I first arrived eleven years ago how hard it was to listen to the news on the BBC. In the interest of objectivity, every news story was read in the same exact monotone. A story about a hamster crushed by a lorry would be read with the same passion, or lack thereof, as a story of all of London under nuclear attack by the Russians. There was no commentating, no editorializing, no reaction at all. The news was the great democratizing force: all stories were treated equally. After the tragic death of Princess Diana, however, I began to notice a difference in the voices on the radio. The readers started to put some verve in their coverage. It was as if something finally touched them. Paradoxically, Diana's death had brought the country to life.
Passionate Institution: An Oxymoron?
There is nothing more hypocritical to young people than seeing institutions that are associated with passionate beliefs being driven by nothing more than custom or rote. Three institutions come immediately to mind: marriage, politics, and religion. We expect that people marry because they are passionate about each other and want to spend the rest of their lives together. When we see them boring each other to death instead of making each other feel intensely alive, we dismiss the marriage as a sham. I'm convinced that this is the main reason why so many people today wait so long to brave the treacherous waters of marriage.
Next is politics. People feel that politics should be driven by a mixture of patriotism and ambition. When the latter is present without the former, it is a huge turn-off to the electorate. We allow our politicians to be personally ambitious, but only so long as the public interest always takes precedence over personal gain.
And finally, religion. Because we are meant to be passionate about beliefs, when people hang onto religious convictions purely out of custom and rote, it irks us. This is the reason why so few kids today continue the religious traditions of their parents. In their minds, their parents keep to their faith out of boredom and guilt. Indeed, this was the sentiment expressed by Franz Kafka to his father in a famous letter which his father did not read before he died:
It would have been thinkable that we might both have found each other in Judaism or that we might have begun from there in harmony. But what sort of Judaism was it that I got from you?... [the] few flimsy gestures you performed in the name of Judaism, and with an indifference in keeping with their flimsiness¼ they had meaning as little souvenirs of earlier times, and that is why you wanted to pass them on to me. But since they no longer had any intrinsic value, even for you, you could do this only through persuasion or threat.
Conversely, seeing people passionate about their beliefs is a huge turn-on. Passionate people are the most fun to be around because they provide a thrill a minute. Their exuberance spreads and makes us all feel special and alive. Why People Fear Passion Many people fear passion but basically for two opposing reasons. One camp says that passion is dangerous because it is so strong that it can rage out of control. I remember, for instance, when I first published The Jewish Guide to Adultery, a primer for married couples on how to bring passion into their relationship. Our next door neighbor was a writer for Cosmopolitan magazine so I asked her what she thought of the book. She point blankly told me that she hated it. A bit shocked by her total honesty, I asked her why. She replied, "Because passion is the most dangerous thing in the world. It's a fire that burns out of control, and I always want to be in control." This is precisely why so many people distrust the emotions and try to hide them. To experience an emotion is to be temporarily carried away and we are afraid of surrender. Of course not every emotion causes us either to break down into a flood of tears or leap tall buildings in a single bound. They do move us to some degree in some direction, though, even if the distance is only slight. Passion, however, doesn't only move us, it jars us. It creates great convulsions that send shock waves through our system. And not everybody wants to be shocked. The other camp's argument is that passion is dangerous not because it is strong but because it is weak. Because it necessarily wears off, it cannot be trusted. If you live your life in pursuit of passion, you're bound to end up disappointed. If you marry for love rather than convenience, then you are bound to fall out of love. One wrinkle and the marriage has had it. One day you feel intensely about something, the next you are blasé. One day you cannot live without someone, the next you cannot live with them. Just look at the generation of hippies who tried to burn the world down in the name of injustice in their twenties but settled down to comfortable lives as accountants and investment bankers in their thirties. Whatever the arguments for or against passion, I will state the following rule unequivocally: When properly directed, there is no greater or more important device in the quest for private and public success than passion. The determining factor in whether or not you will achieve something is how badly you want it and how deeply you feel it. Even if you possess a great mind, if you lack passion it will achieve only ordinary feats. It was Thomas Edison, the greatest inventor of the twentieth century who said that genius was one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration. Passion therefore is the single most important ingredient for greatness. How Can We Recapture Lost Passion? Larry tragically lost his wife and two of his four children in a car crash. Left with two kids to raise on his own, he dated extensively in search of a new love for himself as well as a mother for his children. Although he admitted that some of the women he met were perfect, he could not surmount his traumatic hurdle. When he came to me for counseling, he said, "Something of me died in that crash as well and I have never been the same person. I've lost my passion for life. I lay awake at night wishing I were in that car with my wife and kids. How can I get up the next morning and smile like I'm happy to be alive?" Then there was Candice. A woman in her early thirties, she was rapidly climbing the corporate ladder. While delivering a paper on internet stocks at an international conference, she was rudely interrupted by the CEO of a company she was criticizing. He stood up and launched a vociferous diatribe against her. A gentle person by nature, she was taken aback and didn't know how to respond. Worse, the CEO had an acid sense of humor. When she didn't respond to his attack, he cried out, "My company is involved in artificial intelligence but we take no responsibility for those whose intelligence is completely artificial." Everyone in the audience laughed and she felt utterly humiliated. A friend of hers brought her to see me. "I used to be so passionate about my work but now I've lost interest. I want to drop out and do something else." How can we recapture our passion for living when life is filled with tall obstacles? And how can we learn what real passion is as opposed to the false kind of passion that more often than not gets us into trouble? So few of us truly understand passion. A twenty-nine year old woman came to see me in my office on the prodding of her parents. In the year before the meeting she had become obsessively religious. Her complete transformation was causing terrible tension with her family. She gave away her trust fund and all of her expensive clothes to the poor and spent much of her day in prayer. "Why are you doing all this?" I asked her. "Is your spiritual journey a case of running to the light, as you suppose, or perhaps you are simply running away from some terrible darkness?"