“What’s Your Passion?” I Used To Hate That Question

I was listening to KTNA while up at our cabin near Trapper Creek and heard bits and pieces of a Ted Talk on creativity. I’m sorry I can’t credit the source exactly (it may have been Elizabeth Gilbert), but this person said, “Whenever someone asks, ‘What’s your passion?’, and you can’t immediately come up with an answer, it leaves you feeling bad, deficient or somehow lacking.” I couldn’t agree more. When I’m asked that, I hesitate simply because I’m not sure how that term is being used!

It’s first known use was in the 13th century Middle English, from the Anglo-French, from Late Latin, passion-passio suffering, being acted upon, from the Latin Pati to suffer. The Merriam-Webster dictionary goes on to define passion in this myriad of ways: (merriam-webster.com)

  1. (often capitalized)a.the sufferings of Christ between the night of the Last Supper and his death and b. an oratorio based on a gospel narrative of the Passion
  2. (obsolete) suffering
  3. the state or capacity of being acted on by eternal agents or forces
  4. a. emotion and in plural (passions), the emotions as distinguished from reason, b. intense, driving or overmastering feeling or conviction or c. an outbreak of anger (crime of passion)
  5. a. ardent affection: LOVE or b. a strong liking or desire for or devotion to some activity, object or concept or c. sexual desire or d. an object of desire or deep interest

So yes, I feel justified in hesitating when asked that question! Do I feel ardent or intense or driven enough about something to call it my passion? And how is it all related to the old use of it as suffering, particularly the suffering of Christ? As I reflected on what I might call my passion I could come up with several “maybe’s.” Maybe listening in all the forms it takes in my life. Maybe hiking in the mountains. Maybe grandmothering. Maybe writing. Maybe reading books. Maybe meditating or following my spiritual development path? I care, love and do all these things, but is it passion? As intense as making love? Dying on a cross?

The definition that saved me from confusion and I could use a test came from another website tucked in the Google list: embracepossibility.com by Robert Chen. He in turn attributes the definition that he uses to the author, Kevin Hall and his book, Aspire: Discovering Your Purpose Through the Power of Words, Harper Collins, New York, 2009. ( I haven’t read it but it’s now on a list.)

His definition is this: A Willingness to Suffer for What You Love.

Now it would be easy to fall into needing to define the word “suffering” as well! Traditionally, the suffering of Christ on the cross is one extreme form–and some passions may involve that level of suffering. But I’m going to say that extreme is not a requirement of my definition of suffering. Suffering as I’m using it is any pain, effort, discomfort that just naturally occurs as you pursue something (or someone) you love. And perhaps the emphasis should be on the word willingness- maybe there is no suffering in pursuing a particular passion but if that was a result of pursuing that which I love, I would be willing to endure it. It wouldn’t matter, and perhaps I’d barely notice because the love is so much greater.

So applying this test–am I passionate about listening? I think so. It sometimes causes me pain to listen to the some of the stories I hear. I can feel the discomfort of feeling helpless or having no answers to what I’m hearing. It takes effort for me to stay present, to not judge what I’m hearing and to not advise. And yet, listening with others is what I love.

Am I passionate about hiking? I think so. It takes effort, there is often physical pain during and after, but the simple act of moving through nature, noticing the small things, seeing the vast view at the top of a mountain, is certainly something I’m willing to suffer for.

And so it goes as I apply that to all my maybe’s…(except maybe reading books which seems like no pain or effort at all. Perhaps I’ll name that my recreation.)

Which brings me back to the first definition of passion as the suffering and death of Christ between the Last Supper and his death. I don’t have a traditional view of why Christ died on the cross anymore. It seems to me that he died not as some replacement for me because of my sins, but simply because he upset the politics of the powerful. Truth is a dangerous thing and is not often tolerated in our world. But I do ascribe that it was his passion in that he was willing. For those familiar with the story, he does have that very human moment, knowing what it would mean to be arrested and brought before both church and Roman leaders. He knew it would mean death. So he prays in the Garden of Gethsemene these words: “Father, for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me,” meaning “please change this path that is me.” But in the same sentence he says, “yet, not what I want, but what you want.” (Mark 14:36 NRSV) A willingness to surrender to a higher will that he couldn’t fully understand.

I don’t want to get wrapped up here in the image of God that this verse implies and what God requires and atonement theology. What I want to emphasize for my working definition of passion is that I think it still fits as it’s applied in a capital P–Christ’s Passion. His passion was always to love–primarily those that were otherwise rejected by society, but also those in power, those who believed, those who did not, even healing the ear of the soldier that arrested him, even forgiving the soldiers as they cast lots for his clothing at the foot of the cross–“for they know not what they do.” (Luke: 23:34) He walked his path doing what he loved–healing, teaching, preaching in the name of love– willing to suffer the consequences.

I may not be done with this definition. When I define my own passion, I want it to include not only a willingness to suffer for what I love but also the act of surrender to a greater Will in doing so. Not in a the way of a martyr, but in the way of living life with a basic trust in how things are unfolding– no matter how chaotic or depressing or out of control the world may seem. There is a way of being in this world, but not of it. And there my real passions lie.

When someone asks me that question, I believe I have an answer. Now I’ll make YOU uncomfortable–what’s yours? What’s your definition? How do you know that it is?

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