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Tea Time: Is there something wrong with me if I’m not passionate about anything?

an advice column

I have a huge secret, and it makes me feel so out of place here. I’m not passionate about anything!! I mean, I like things. I enjoy my classes and extracurricular activities. I like hanging with my friends. But I don’t have a driving passion. I hate the question “what are you passionate about?” because it makes me feel like I’m the only person who feels this way. I have to act like someone I’m not to answer. Is something wrong with me? Do I deserve to be here? Am I completely abnormal?

— sick and tired 

First, I do love a good existential crisis. Second, passion is a social construct. Passion is a social construct! 

In Latin, passion translates to passio, which translates to … suffering. The idea that the work you do is something you have to bleed for is so alluring. What an intense burst of feeling, knowing that you love something so much you’re willing to sacrifice all your time and energy loving it, working toward it, telling everyone that you’ve found the thing, your passion. There is a lot of religious imagery attached to passion, too, a big one being the Passion of Christ, where Jesus gets nailed to a cross and dies a dramatic death in what might be the grandest gesture of suffering there ever was. Then, if we skip ahead a few years to the Mayflower era, passion persists in the form of the good ol’ Protestant work ethic, which continues to dominate work culture in the United States today.

What I’m saying, Sick and Tired, is that your conception of passion is driven by the cultural moment we’re living in and all of the historical baggage that’s led to Right Now. Don’t give in so easily.

At its extreme, passion romanticizes work so that we work constantly and feel guilty about resting. It doesn’t help that pop culture hypes up passionate tropes. The starving artist dies for the craft. The mad scientist literally goes insane. Watch “Phantom Thread,” directed by Paul Thomas Anderson and starring Daniel Day Lewis, if you want to see how awful passion is sometimes, how unhealthy it can get and how a fanatic investment in one thing can ruin your interpersonal relationships. Maybe passion isn’t as pretty as it seems. 

Passion is commodified to the max when you think about social media. When someone asks you about your passion, they’re asking about your personal brand. So now, we begin to think about passion as not a small part of ourselves but the entirety of it. The whole damn thing. And then, everyone else has to be able to see your passion — preferably curated to maximize the efficiency of their judgement. We’re living in an internet world where displaying your passions can become your livelihood. (I’m looking at you, Instagram.) This just adds to the pressure of having a passion, so know that you’re not alone or abnormal or otherwise severely flawed; there are a lot of factors at play that are making you feel bad. Recognize this and don’t be so hard on yourself. 

Plus, you say that you like things. Maybe you wouldn’t call them your passions, but it doesn’t really matter what you call them, and maybe they’ll change (because we are, after all, very young). You can be passionate without feeling like you have to perform for others. A movie like “Paterson,” starring Adam Driver as a bus driver poet, always reminds me that the things we love are still meaningful even if we love them quietly.

Best of all, people who don’t have passions still live really good lives. If you’re enjoying your minutes, if you like your friends and your classes, then maybe you’re doing just fine. You don’t need a passion to complete you. Resist the urge to be like your passion-claiming peers. That is your subversion.

How can a freshman find his way in college? How can one know when the next party is? Or the coolest classes to take? Which professors to flunch? It’s all so overwhelming!

— Spin Rider

“Freshman year feels like yesterday” is what I’ve been saying a lot lately. It’s true. I didn’t understand North Carolina humidity. I was more or less heartbroken for all of the year. Over a guy I dated for two months. In high school. Haha. I felt fat because I’d been eating various potato-based foods at Marketplace and didn’t know how to control myself.

Point is, Spin, I too was overwhelmed.

Transition periods are always going to be uncomfortable. As they’re supposed to be. I’d like to think that after you typed, “It’s all so overwhelming!” you also silently thought, And I love it! because that’s certainly the masochistic perspective I wish I’d taken as a freshman. As a senior, I feel like I’m preparing myself to be a freshman in the Real World, and I’m anticipating discomfort and actually kind of looking forward to feeling the wide range of emotions that come with change. Uncertainty keeps you from getting bored, which I think is way worse than being overwhelmed. 

It might not feel like it now, but it’s sort of fun to be scared and excited and nervous about starting something new. It’s the premise for every high school movie ever. New girl in school: “Grease.” New boy in school: “Ten Things I Hate About You.” Classics. 

When I graduated high school, my parents gave me a book that I thought was cheesy but is actually a good book. I realized this because I just read it while trying to answer this question. The book is called “The ABCs of Adulthood: An Alphabet of Life Lessons” by Deborah Copaken and Randy Polumbo. Had I not been obsessed with reading high-brow literature, I would have appreciated this book sooner. A few letters I particularly liked: 

“B is for Bed: Make yours everyday.” It then goes into a very long sentence about how making your bed maintains order in your otherwise chaotic life. I actually have made my bed every day for the past three years. I do recommend this, but I recommend taking naps more. 

“E is for Empathy: Empathy is not an optional feature or an add-on. Empathy is the lifeblood of relationships, the glue between lovers, the intangible force that makes us human.” That might sound dramatic, but I also stand by it only because I’ve messed up before and it does not feel good knowing that you weren’t your best self. Trying to understand someone else, especially someone you really like (or liked), is an act of selflessness that might not be easy but will give you peace of mind when you need it.

“V is for Vulnerability: True connection is impossible if you don’t let down your guard.” College is the best time to be vulnerable. All of your friends live three seconds away, and fairy lights hung in dorms are crazy good at making you feel exposed. It might be hard to let your guard down when certain parts of college life encourage strength and unfeeling (re: classes, hookup culture). But I guess it’s worth it, for the memories. It also helps to romanticize your life. Pretend like you’re the main character in a movie so you feel less scared to do things like open up to people. 

“R is for Risk.” Take them. Take them even if they backfire. Do it for the story. 

The truth is there are no right parties to go to. There is no coolest class. Some of my friends flunch professors every semester. Many of them have never bothered. You figure out the details of college as you go, based off what your gut tells you. Your big picture values — stuff like risk and vulnerability and empathy and your bed — will guide you. And even then, unexpected things will happen. I feel like a wise old person. I am not that. That’s my cue to end. 

Alice is a Pratt senior. Her advice column, “Tea Time,” runs on alternate Wednesdays. Tea Time is accepting questions all semester long. Submit using the form below. The theme for next week is “shoot your shot.” Is there something you’ve been meaning to do? Some risk you’re not sure you should take? Spill the tea. 


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