In Pursuit of Passion

Everywhere I turn, I see my generation as a collective, passionate people. We are passionate about photography. About music. About the perfect brew. Passionate about Uganda and sustainable agriculture and travel. Passionate about Red vs. Blue and the Blackhawks and skinny blue jeans.

But most of all, it seems, we are passionate about passion itself.

Growing up, us Millennials—the moniker given to my generation—feasted on a diet saturated in encouragement to “discover our true passions.” Whenever we asked “What should I do with my life?” our teachers and parents often advised us to “follow your passion” wherever that may lead. (1)

Over the past few years, I’ve noticed this Millennial-specific career advice working itself out in two distinct ways. On one hand, there is no shortage of twenty-somethings espousing unusually strong passions for everything and anything, from the grandiose to the mundane. People in this group tend to be the creative, artist-type. The entrepreneurs, using and exaggerating their passions to serve as a selling point for their wares, a raison d’être for their business and being.

Take, for example, the photographer—an entrepreneurial enterprise with which I am well-acquainted. Visit the website of any young photographer and their “About Me” paragraph will read like a script: “I bought my first camera when I was seven and have been passionate about taking pictures ever since.” Or the indie coffee shop owner that claims “coffee preparation is my passion.” Or the not-for-profit director who claims to be part of a “group of passionate and determined creative problem-solvers who want to make a difference.” (2)

In all of these endeavors, it’s not so much the end goal that matters but being able to boast a sense of passion while getting there. In many ways, passion has become a generational code-word to validate our pursuits—the profitable and not-so-profitable, the purposeful and not-so-purposeful. Because we were challenged to “pursue our passions,” admitting to doing anything less admits failure. And so we’ve forced ourselves to become passionate about everything, not because we ABSOLUTELY love these things and certainly not because they are worthy of our passions but because a claim to passion allows us to claim some measure of success—at least by the Millennial’s definition.

Then there is a second group in my generation who heard the same advice to “follow your passion” but have yet to find their passion. While the first group consists of creative entrepreneurs, this group is made up of the philosophers and academics, those who realize passion should follow value rather than define value. Of course, this approach makes passion a hard-to-find commodity. While their peers are out finding passions in fake mustaches and Instagram, this second group is waiting for passion to find them.

And wait we do. We wait while working at jobs beneath our level of education. We wait while floating from overseas teaching gigs to yearlong mission trips. And even some of us simply sit and wait. In all of these situations, the goal is to delay commitment to any one career that may—but very likely may not—be our passion. We’d rather fail by “doing nothing” than fail by pursuing something less-than our passion.

GUILTY AS CHARGED
I must confess that, in true Millennial form, I’m a guilty member of both groups. On my good days, I can muster enough energy to pronounce myself passionate about many things—photography, farming, blogging and good design. What’s more, I’m lucky enough to be pursuing each of these “passions” with little holding me back.

And then there are my bad days. Days when my passion still seems “out there” and “waiting to be discovered.” Days when I wake up waiting for that reason to get out of bed in the morning, for that “calling” and “purpose” to use its mighty force to pull me to my feet.

And on the on the rare, in-between days, I’m able to see both approaches to life for what they are: the first approach is an offensive one based in self-validation and not a little bit of vainglory; the second approach a defensive one based in fear.

And on those days, in a right frame of mind, I realize that neither approach lies in tandem with the message of the Gospel I claim to believe.

CHRIST’S PASSION 
This doesn’t mean that the pursuit of passion goes to the wayside in the Gospel story (Millennials don’t have it all wrong). What this does mean, I think, is that when pursuing the life of a Christian, instead of asking ourselves “What is my passion?” we should ask the question, “What is Christ’s passion?”

The entire last week of Christ’s life is dubbed in Catholic circles “Christ’s Passion.” (3) Perhaps it’s a bit juvenile of me to play with words like this, but I fancy the suggestion that Christ’s passion—His gets-strongly-excited-about-can’t stop-thinking-about-wakes-up-to-talk-about passion—is the same as His Passion—His death-on-a-cross-for-the-redemption-of-mankind passion.

I imagine that if believers—especially us Millenials—started aligning our passions with Christ’s Passion, we’d discover incredible freedom in our own pursuit of passion.

For those of us seeking to legitimize ourselves and our pursuits by claiming them as “our passions,” a change of focus toward Christ’s passion gives us all the validation we could ever need—Christ’s death on the cross in our stead is justification enough for all that we are and all that we do.

For those of us still waiting to discover our passion before we commit to what only may be the “right” or “wrong” endeavor, Christ’s passion lets us know that there is grace enough to cover all our doubts.

So, as it turns out, teachers, parents, and pastors were right to teach my generation to pursue passion. What they failed to teach—or we failed to learn—is that it’s not our passion we should pursue, but Christ’s.

And in Christ’s Passion there is no failure.

FOOTNOTES

  1. This September 2008 article from the Harvard Business Review reports the steady growth of the phrase “follow your passion” as standard career advice during the 1990s—precisely when my generation came of age.
  2. Direct quotations from actual websites.
  3. Truth be told, it wasn’t until after the 13th century, that the word word “passion” referred to anything but to Christ’s death on a cross. Whats more, it would take another 300 years for the meaning of “passion” to expand to its current, nuanced meanings. This article from Slate Magazine explains how the word “passion” evolved to its current Catholic and non-Catholic meanings.

 

Beauty and Joy, Tears and Heartache

As someone who struggles with depression, the topic of present joy is very real and pertinent to my everyday. It’s not something that I think about only when I reach a crisis or a particular turn in the road. No. I think about joy—the work involved in reaching and staying in a place of joy—all of the time. It’s a matter of survival for me.

This month I went on a couple of really beautiful, lovely dates with a certain young gentleman. They were fun—great food, great conversation, great company. Everything you would want from your first two dates with someone with whom you might start a relationship. Of particular beauty, the second date took us to the, new-to-me, Cincinnati neighborhood, Mt. Adams.

Mt. Adams sits atop a series of hills overlooking the river and downtown Cincy. It’s a place where cool restaurants, hipster bars, designer apartments and cobblestone alleyways line the streets. It’s a place where signs announcing opening weekend for the Mt. Adams’ Farmers Market grace public doors, where dogs walk their owners and where art and architecture are part and parcel of the community. It’s a place where the light dances with flower gardens, plays hide-and-seek along old brick walls, and beautifies everything in its path. In short, it’s a place of beauty, light and joy.

When I think about that second date with this particular gentleman, it’s this beauty, light and joy that I remember most.

Unfortunately, I don’t think my date noticed the beauty or the joy, either in me or in our environs, and there will be no third date. His reason? My “joy-quotient” was not high enough. Because I failed to portray myself as someone of “optimism and joy” (his words), he decided we were not compatible for the long-term.

For my date’s part, I don’t really blame him for this misunderstanding. Just that evening—the same evening of so much light, beauty and joy on Mt. Adams—I shared with him some of journey with and through depression. Most people advise against sharing such personal stories at first introductions, but I’ve never been one to follow that advice. To know me is to know my testimony of faith and it is impossible to share my testimony without revealing my personal struggles with depression. I’ve never allowed depression to define me and to share about God’s work through my sadness is always an act of worship.

But it should come as no surprise when someone hears my story and misunderstands. For me, living with depression is not unlike someone who must learn to live with Type 1 Diabetes—once you learn you have it, you treat it, manage it and deal with it. For others, especially a potential suitor, mention of depression may easily signify a “red flag” of the highest degree.

Hearing that there would be no third date because of my supposed lack of “optimism and joy” was a hard rejection. It cut straight to the core of my desire to run hard after joy—and not the fleeting kind called “happiness,” but the real, centered-on-Jesus joy characteristic of an “abundant life.” After hearing this particularly harsh rejection, my type-A tendency turned on and I offered him a rebuttal—an argument as to why and how I was, in fact, a person of optimism and joy. I offered a rebuttal despite my own hesitations to argue in these situations, as I know all too well that matters of the heart are often inexplicable and always complicated. I don’t think “arguing” someone into “liking” you makes good use of either person’s emotions.

As it turned out, however, my argument wasn’t for my date. It was to battle my own insecurities and self-doubts that told me my date was right. Despite all of my efforts to live in a place of joy, what if others only see the depressed me. What if I really am not joyful, or even merely happy? What if depression does define me? Does sadness make one un-dateable, unlikeable…undesirable?

It’s very tempting to think this, all things considered.

But it’s not true.

What’s true is that constant optimism and so-called joy are not prerequisites for Christ’s love to dwell in you. Christ himself was well-acquainted with grief and sorrow. What’s more, Jesus does not require us to have the joy-thing completely figured out before we can be in relationship with Him, nor does he promise there will be no tears when we walk out our journey of faith.

In a powerful, and timely, reminder of this truth, my devotions took me to Hebrews 5:7—

“During the days of Jesus’ life on earth, he offered up prayers and petitions with fervent cries and tears to the one who could save him from death….” (NIV, emphasis added)

Like us, Jesus carried sadness with him. Burdens. His heart ached. I am not any less desirable because I feel deeply, sorrow often and shed tears easily. What’s more, God is always at the ready to hear my fervent cries and tears, and he likes me no less for offering them up to him frequently.

Tears, sadness, burdens and heartaches. And beauty and joy.

And third dates.

Yes, please.