Around the millenium our young adult daughter held a family conference to help her sort out her career plans. She was considering a number of competing options; her most important criterion was to find something that she felt passionate about. I remember being struck by both the expression and the idea itself. Growing up I had mostly heard the word “passion” in one of two contexts: the “Passion of Christ,” referring to Jesus’ suffering on the cross (as in the St. Matthew Passion), or – in cheap paperback books I wasn’t supposed to be reading – as forbidden, sexual desire. The term “passionate” in the sense of “burning with enthusiasm” just wasn’t that common back then. And one’s choice of a college major and future career was more likely to be governed by aptitude tests and parental influence. So our daughter’s decisive vote for a passionate choice set me thinking about changing times, values and linguistic usage.
I wondered whether this emphasis on personal fulfillment was in part a reflection of generations of self-help books since the 1960’s. “Follow your bliss,” the mantra of mythology guru Joseph Campbell, had always seemed an unattainable ideal to a dutiful daughter like myself. Nowadays one is more likely to hear how important it is to “follow your dream.” In any event, I’ve been trying to emulate my daughter and bring more passion into my life.
And I’ve discovered that the world around me is full of reminders of this new doctrine. Radio, television, the morning paper all reinforce the idea that it is no longer enough just to enjoy or be interested in something; one must feel passionate about it. For example, the Boston Globe yesterday explained the terms of modern marriage: “Today you want people with shared passions, similar interests to you, similar career goals, similar goals for their kids” (“Marriage of equals becomes the norm” 2/28/2016, A10).
Even more emphatically, a full-page ad for Suffolk University in the Globe (July 31, 2014 A16) announced in a full-page ad:
PASSION IS A REQUIREMENT,
NOT AN ELECTIVE.
At Suffolk University, going through the motions isn’t going to get it done. …. The fact is whether you burn to be an interior designer, an entrepreneur, or a cancer researcher, Suffolk can help you set the world on fire.
If you are unfortunate enough not to burn for your studies you can always opt for competitor Bryant University, which “will inspire students to discover their passion” (ad on NPR), after which you will presumably qualify to attend Suffolk.
Scholars and administrators must also bring passion to their work, as suggested in a memo from Chancellor Keith Motley of UMass Boston (Sept. 17, 2014).
Earlier this week, the University of Massachusetts Boston hosted … a conference that draws professors and administrators with a passion for community-engaged scholarship from institutions of higher education around the country.
In other fields too passion has become a sine qua non. Speaking about his graduation to new roles after playing Harry Potter, actor Daniel Radcliffe expressed his relief: “I’m very lucky that I don’t have to do something I’m not really passionate about.’” (Boston Globe, August 3, 2014 N11). Donors to the nonprofit Oxfam will feel especially motivated to emulate the monthly contributors Peter and Dianne Antos, whose financial support “is a year-round passion.” (Oxfam America flier “Help Create a Future without Poverty 2016).
Even corporations – which as we know are now “persons” – must demonstrate passion in order to compete. I hear on NPR that the pharmaceutical company Baxalta is “passionate about improving patients’ lives.” The company’s website (http://www.baxalta.com/baxalta/) makes sure we get the point:
• Baxalta: Passion and Purpose.
• Serving patients is our inspiration and we are passionate about improving lives.
• Learn about our passion to make a difference in patients’ lives.
• Our Values: Passion for Improving Lives
• We are a global pharmaceutical company passionate about improving lives and advancing innovative therapies in hematology, immunology and oncology.
Another NPR sponsor, AVFX, is “an audio visual staging company offering …. services for meetings that matter, events that inspire and trade shows that engage” (http://www.avfx.com). It echoes Baxalta with a similar approach: “AVFX: our passion shows!” Even PBS brings us Rick Steves’ travel program now “in part out of a passion for better understanding our world.”
And appropriate to our social media culture of sharing thoughts, feelings and activities, it’s not enough just to find and follow your passion. You will need a website company like Squarespace to help you “showcase your passions.” A beautiful website or blog from Squarespace will enable you to “share your passion with the world” (https://www.squarespace.com).
In the wake of so much passion I ask myself whether we are being subjected to a familiar media and marketing strategy: ever greater degrees of excitement must be evoked in order to attract and hold the public’s attention. Consider today’s tv newscasters, who convey their infotainment in a hyper-agitated voice while gesturing importantly with their hands, clearly with the intent of keeping their viewers in a constant state of heightened alarm. How different from the sonorous and reassuring Walter Cronkite or the gentlemanly Peter Jennings of years gone by. Reality shows with screaming audiences and hysterical participants fill the channels. We observe a similar phenomenon in this year’s presidential campaign, where candidates are measured by the level of passion among their supporters; especially millenials, raised in a cultural environment of constant exuberance, yearn to “feel the Bern.” The followers of populist Donald Trump substitute the passion of resentment and hate for reason and policy.
I decide that I am perhaps too old for the passionate life after all. I’ll be satisfied with more modest goals: the rewards of relationship, the enlivening pursuit of various interests, the comforting groundedness of habit, the enjoyment of fixing a meal or going for a walk. Maybe it’s mostly a matter of inflated terminology anyway; I could embrace hyperbole and simply claim that these are my “passions.” I switch on the tv and watch as an ad flashes across the screen. A frolicking puppy slides into the kitchen to be fed. As the age-appropriate dog chow pours into the bowl, the announcer reminds me that all’s right with the world: “Purina. Your Pet, Our Passion.”
Next entry: Mock Orange Reboot
Previous entry: Back to Nature