Pursuing a passion

I can almost guarantee that you’ve been asked this question at some point in your life: “What is your passion?” Other ways of framing that question include: What do you deeply care about in life or work? What do you love to do? What wakes you up in the morning and excites you or what keeps you up late at night? What’s that thing you cannot not do? 

Your answers to these questions point to your passion. Bass Connections Project Teams reveal intellectual passions. Some are passionate about reducing health disparities in hypertension outcomes. Others are passionate about assessing climate change risk of rural coastal plain communities. Some are passionate about hip-hop pedagogies and education for citizenship in Brazil and the United States. This is how we normally talk about passion (in addition to the “take my breath away” kind of romantic passion).

But is this normative understanding of passion what passion truly is? I raise this question because the Latin etymological roots of the word “passion” mean “to suffer.” Passion is more than emotions or about feeling good. In the Christian tradition, the week commemorating the suffering and death of Jesus on a cross is called Holy Week, but it is also known as “Passion Week.”

“Passion” is a serious subject, a life and death matter. When someone asks, “What is your passion?”, they’re asking, “For what are you willing to suffer?” To take it even a step further, when you’re passionate about something, you’re willing to die for it. So if someone asks you, “What are you passionate about?”, they’re asking, “For what are you willing to die?”

This should give us all pause. I may be passionate about my favorite NFL football team, the Miami Dolphins, but am I willing to suffer and die for them? No way. You may be passionate about a certain genre of music but are you willing to suffer for it? Probably not. With this core conception of passion, meaning “to suffer,” on our minds, what is your passion? What or who would you give your life for?

Your passion may not make sense to everyone, and so some might stand in the way of it. They might think you’re nuts to pursue a certain direction or a particular task or what they deem to be a risk. People with good intentions may get in the way of your purpose or passion. On one level, it could be that they don’t want you to suffer for a certain cause. On another, it could be that they think your suffering will not bear the fruit they wish to see in your life.

Of course, pursuing a passion could lead to an unnecessary negative impact on your health. This is not the goal, and we should be careful. The goal, in fact, is to live. Often your passion is what makes you fully alive, not fully dead. There are enough people walking around dead on the inside. We don’t need any Dukie zombies. What the world needs is you fully alive and well.

When you give of your total self in pursuit of a passion recognize that you will suffer for it at times due to hard work or late nights or sacrifices made or an intense focus. It won’t be easy, but it’ll be worth it because you won’t be living someone else’s life; instead, you will be living the life that’s been dying to live in and through you. Pursue a passion and paradoxically, you’ll live.

The Rev. Dr. Luke A. Powery is Dean of Duke University Chapel. His column runs on alternate Mondays.


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