“I always feel so sorry for her,” said the lady behind me in the restroom queue. Huh? I pricked up my ears and shamelessly waited for the explanation. I didn’t have to wait long. “She has plenty of hobbies and interests, but she’s not passionate about anything. She’ll never be happy. You have to be passionate about something to be happy.”
I suspect the entire queue was now giving this forthright opinion due consideration.
“Why?” countered her presumably teenage daughter. “Aren’t loads of hobbies and interests enough?” I had a feeling she was asking what the rest of us were contemplating.
“No!” her mother was adamant. “How can she be happy if she’s not passionate about anything?”
I considered this theory from several angles as I sidled into a stall and thereby lost track of their discussion. For starters, define passion.
Well obviously there’s the wild, romantic no-holds-barred kind of passion. The tide of emotion that sweeps us out to sea where we either immediately drown or surf on the crest of a wave until we land softly on a moonlit beach or, more likely, face down in wet sand. Most of us have been there – if only for a brief unrequited fictional fling with a character or celebrity – and the rest of us have no doubt pencilled passion onto our bucket lists. But if we are lucky enough to score requited romantic passion, is it long-term sustainable? I don’t believe so. What I do believe, I decided, is that intoxicating and seemingly everlasting hot passion will eventually become exhausting or exhausted and ideally cool into the more manageable state of loving and being loved. In other words, most happy relationships do not rely on passion. I was not even convinced passion guarantees happiness – think Taylor and Burton.
Now to be fair, my layman philosopher had said ‘something’ not ‘someone’. So what about passion for hobbies? Well, that’s not simple either. The problem with practicing passion is that it tends to be pretty exclusive. For instance, a passionate bird watcher (not to be confused with an ornithologist who studies birds from a more scientific viewpoint) will spend her leisure hours avidly researching or chasing that elusive bird. She chooses to prioritise her passion over other potential interests, which sets her apart from the regular hobby bird watcher who enjoys other pursuits but will also bring along his binoculars whenever he’s given the chance. The passionate bird watcher orchestrates her chance. Which leads neatly to the next question: when does the concept of passion shift from dedication to addiction? Take computer games, for example. Some people would argue certain games are addictive, non-productive cyber blood sports, played with vehement passion for hours on end by kids and even adults who will irresponsibly skip school or work to satisfy their need to play. Others would counter that games played in your own home are safe interfaces for players from across the globe to meet and exchange experiences and forge new friendships. A social lifeline for shy nerds. Me? I would encourage my kid to watch a few birds between the odd game. No passion required.
Honing my opinion that passion does not promote happiness, I found confirmation in thoughts of political conflicts and ideals that are passionately argued and fought for. When reason is blinded by emotion and passion for a cause, a principle, or even more dangerously, a god. My mind also wandered to sport fanatics who mindlessly pound the life out of opposing supporters, or pro-lifers who justify murdering doctors. Now on a roll, I was rapidly coming to the conclusion that passion was a tricky, time-consuming mistress that might best be avoided altogether.
In my mind’s eye, I envisaged a world without passion. Turned out to be one of the bleakest images ever.
Because positive passion is all around us.
The greatest scientists and inventors were driven by a passion for their work. As were the finest painters, potters, carpenters, architects, writers, musicians, writers, chefs and a multitude of other dedicated souls. Stand in Barcelona’s Sagrada Familia or Rome’s Sistine Chapel and look up. Or consider penicillin. Or simply switch on the light. Our entire history is permeated with the fruits of people’s passion. Passion is part and parcel of who we are. And how we got here.
And passion is still changing lives. Think Steve Jobs and Bill Gates. Richard Branson. But more importantly, think Doctors Without Borders, UNICEF, Oxfam, Red Cross, Oceana, Greenpeace. And many more like them. All staffed with passion and driven with dedication.
The world would be a much darker and perhaps even crueller planet without passion.
I still disagree with the lady in the queue. Hobbies and interests generate a good deal of happiness all by themselves. We don’t all need to be passionately invested in what we do to be happy.
But thank goodness for those of us who do.
P.S. We adopted our rescue dog, Jeffrey, from Hundar utan hem (Dogs without homes); a Swedish organisation run by some very passionate volunteers who dedicate their time and money to saving the lives of healthy animals in Irish dog pounds.