"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?"
She then told me her story. "At sixteen I had my first sexual experience. The guy was over forty. At twenty-three, after completing University, I joined an international community that practiced free love. I've slept with hundreds of people. And I want to cleanse myself of all that. So I guess I am running from something." I then asked the next logical question. "And why did you do all that in the first place?" "I did it," she told me, "because I wanted passion in my life. I wanted to live life on the mountaintops. And this made me feel like I was really living."
This young woman, due to immaturity and a lack of guidance, had mistaken license for passion. Many people make the same error. They think that passion means breaking rules and busting out of a mold. They think that passion can never exist within the confines of traditional living. That's why so-called "passionate people" have always disdained marriage. To them, passion can never co-exist alongside rules; it could never exist within an "institution."
Passion is Novelty
So what is real passion and how can it be captured and maintained? The essence of passion is novelty. The secret to recapturing lost passion is to approach everything as if for the first time. How can we make that which is old appear new? The answer is by using our minds. Indeed, the fundamental difference between passion and emotion is that while emotion emanates from the heart, passion comes from the mind and the mind is capable of making everything appear as new. Consider the following examples.
My friend Carol works in advertising. Last year she was experiencing the slows in her job; she told me that she was so bored that she could hardly get up in the morning. She thought what she needed was to leave that job and start something new. However, because the job paid so well and offered excellent benefits, she endured the boredom for the compensation.
One day as she was making coffee, she heard from behind one of the dividers that her own secretary was making a bid for her job. Carol was flabbergasted. Alarm bells went off in her head and she began to work much harder. "It wasn't just fear," she told me. "I genuinely rediscovered a passion for my work. The fact that the job could be taken away from me made it new to me all over again. When I came in the next morning, it was like coming in for the first time ever. I was exhilarated. And now, every time I start to get bored, I just remember that at any moment this job could be lost. And there it is - brand new!"
The same is true in our marriages. I had known Jeffrey my entire life. One day he came to me to confess that he was having an affair. I asked him why he was doing this to his wife. "My wife simply doesn't attract me anymore. She undresses and I can barely bring myself to look. I'm just not interested in her anymore." I gave him the following advice. "Tonight, I want you to drive with your wife to the next town. Go into a bar but go in separately. No one should know you're together. She has to sit by the bar and you, like a fly on the wall, will just watch." "Then what?" Jeffrey asked me. "You'll see for yourself. The ball will start rolling on its own."
It took some cajoling, but Jeffrey and his wife agreed to follow my advice. When they arrived at the club, Jeffrey's wife walked in alone and sat by the bar. Within moments, men started to circle around her like a swarm of bees to honey. Jeffrey was enraptured by what he witnessed. He was instantly beside himself with jealousy. He finally grabbed his wife by the hand, took her straight home, and they made love with an intensity that they had not experienced since the early stages of their marriage.
The Mind Can Make a Heaven of Hell
It doesn't take kinky devices like the nightclub scene described above in order to regain passion. Rather it takes a mastery of our minds to rediscover our greatest blessings on a daily basis. When I was young and started to pray in Hebrew, I came across this beautiful prayer that praised G-d for being "He who renews creation every single day." I didn't understand it. The world is not renewed every single day, it is just always there. I argued this with my teacher: "How can we say that the world is always new when it's blatantly untrue?" He answered me in surprise: "Really, today isn't a new day? Didn't the sun rise anew? Isn't yesterday history and today original, exciting, and new?"
The world around us in flux. Everything changes, develops, grows, and evolves. It takes a sensitive soul to peer beyond the surface and be alive to the novelty and nuances of life and the universe. With some things it's easier than others. Consider the miracle of a child. Because G-d wants us to love and nurture our children amid the phenomenal burden involved in doing so in their younger years, He designed them to develop rapidly - always full of change - so that we could never grow bored with them. We see infants change before our very eyes. After being born bald, they grow hair. They start to open their eyes. Soon they offer a few sounds and then they form words. Then they begin to walk. Suddenly a tooth starts to grow. Then they start writing on the walls with crayon. Before you know it, they ask for the keys to the car. You get the picture. Children are new almost every day so we never have the chance to get bored of them.
Other aspects of our lives require a far greater challenge. We wake up every day and follow a routine. It becomes hard to sustain passion. Unlike our children, our spouse doesn't change all that much. Unfortunately when we do notice changes, they are almost always negative: They're getting older, fatter, more stubborn.
However, such is the perspective of an insensitive soul. To overcome the boredom of routine and always retain passion, the trick is to grow, evolve, and develop constantly. Look at the difference between a job and a career. The secretary in some big firm can quickly tire of her job because it involves the same routine every single day. She goes in, types letters, makes coffee, and goes home.
If, however, she is a career woman, then it is another matter altogether. Although she may have these same dull responsibilities, to her they are not dull because they are all part of a career path. By typing letters, she gains skills. By showing competence, she impresses her superiors. And by making coffee she practices her patience. In a few years time, she knows that her assistant will be making her a latte. The point is she doesn't get bored because every day is pregnant with opportunity. In Paradise Lost, John Milton wrote, "The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven." The key, of course, is perspective.
The truth is we don't have to convince ourselves to see the world as new, because it is new. After all, theoretically G-d could have created the world in such a way as to have one long, thousand year day. He didn't have to create four seasons either. We could all have lived in sunny California (but who could take the traffic). However, the world is structured in such a way that each day we start fresh in order to give us passion and excitement for life.
Opening Our Eyes
And the same is true in our relationships. There is no such thing as an old relationship. We do not get married at the altar once and for all. On the contrary, we have to renew our commitment to our partner every single day. We all experience innocent attraction to strangers which forces us to reaffirm our commitment to our spouse on a daily, even hourly basis. And this is what brings passion and prevents our relationships from growing stale.
Even couples who have lost passion in their marriage often experience a completely new buzz after a geographic separation. Their lovemaking becomes more intense because their bodies are new to each other. Why are men and women who are not passionate about each other passionate about strangers? It is not because the strangers are more attractive but rather because they represent the exciting possibilities of new flesh.
Judaism well understands the nature of passion and for this reason has instituted a period of sexual separation, called the Laws of Family Purity. There are several reasons for this custom but the most important is to cultivate passion by separating a husband and wife for several days each month. The hope is that when they embrace after a period of separation their flesh will be like new and the spark of their wedding night will continually be ignited. When we have everything whenever we want it we lose interest fast, just like small children lose interest in toys. But any seasoned parent knows that the way to cultivate interest in old toys is to take them away for a while and then reintroduce them at the opportune moment. Adults in this way are also like children.
In short, passion is contingent upon newness and newness is contingent upon choice. If we are like sailboats pushed by the wind, we will lose all of our passion. Therefore, we must choose to live our lives passionately every single day. In the words of Thoreau, we must "live deliberately." We must be constantly reminded of our blessings so that we never grow bored of them. As a marriage counselor I have discovered that simply reminding a man how special his wife is or reminding a woman of how fortunate she was in her choice of husband is enough to restore appreciation and passion in a relationship. By pointing out the virtue of someone whom the spouse may have begun to take for granted, we cause the person to choose their participation in the relationship anew.
And herein lays the ultimate role of friendship. A good friend helps us see that to which we have become blind. This is why it is so important for friends to compliment each other. The reason we love compliments is not only because they make us feel special but because they remind us of our blessings. They reintroduce us to key elements of our lives which we have begun to take for granted.
Here again we see how dependent emotions are on an external other. Our emotions not only link us to people outside ourselves, they are even dependent on people outside ourselves in order for them to be more passionate. So we are all caught up in an large web in which we have to help one another reengender passion by reminding one another of our blessings and how we must never ever take them for granted.