Wednesday, March 11, 2009

On Passion, Balance, and Not Selling Out

Warning: This is liable to be a very long post. I've been chewing on these ideas for some weeks, and I'm still not even sure I can spit it out intelligibly. But I'm ready to try.

One of the biggest compliments one can receive from a high schooler is to be recognized as "hardcore". This is approximately the "cool" word for one who is passionate about and devoted to something in a way that is worthy of respect (as opposed to pathetic). Teens in particular are searching for what is real and true, and when they see someone so fired up, they almost can't help but admire.

Passion excites. That's just in its nature. I don't mean the passions, as in philosophy, or Christ's Passion, as in theology. For the remainder of this post, the word "passion" refers to the noun form of the adjective "passionate", whose meaning you've all known since long before you began to study the loftier sciences.

Returning to my point: Passion excites. By definition, passion is intimately connected with strong emotions. When a passion is shared with another, the other is invited into the speaker's awe or outrage or whatever. The other then is able to experience the speaker's passion, even if he cannot understand. I was dining with friends recently when a musician, was asked what his degree was in. He responded "Math," and our tablemates were surprised. He then went on to briefly explain the particular discipline in which he'd specialized, and he did it with an affection and intimacy that brought it to life. Now, I'm not a math person, and I couldn't tell you anything about Abstract Algebra that I didn't just learn right now from skimming the Wikipedia article, but I walked away from that evening with a feeling that his undergrad studies had been in something beautiful, little though I understood it.

Think back to temperance. Not the Prohibition kind, but the virtue. Temperance is a balance, the mean between two extremes. As such, it is inextricably connected to truth: not to say that truth is the mean between two extremes, but that extremes develop on either side of the truth. Consequently, we very easily step aside from the narrow road that is the Way and lean toward the Left or the Right, if you will. But leaving aside politically charged metaphors: Isn't much of life about balance? Don't we want to be neither a teetotaler nor a drunkard? Neither a "sexually enlightened" free lover nor a virgin from prudishness alone? Neither an manipulative control freak nor a pathetic doormat? Neither obese nor anorexic?

You get the idea. We want our lives to be balanced. And we're certainly not attracted to people who've lost their balance. Addicts are an easy example. So are most people with whom we disagree politically or philosophically. But there's another way one's passion can be undermined.

Think back to high school. What was the worst "sin" one could commit? (I'm speaking in an irreligious context here.) Selling out. Calling someone a sellout is possibly the strongest invective known to teenager. And it was used a lot. The teens in question, of course, were not the sellouts themselves. Selling out is something that happened to an unfortunate number of people with age or fame. Let me back up a bit.

A sellout is someone who compromises their values for any number of reasons: money, fame, convenience, lack of zeal. It's usually someone who was particularly hardcore in some way or had a strong driving passion, but has normalled out, if you will, or gone soft (or mainstream). When someone sells out you lose respect for them.

My problem, however, is that a humble man sometimes looks like a sellout. And the catch-22 is that, in his humility, he won't correct the calumny. For instance: If one is a catechist just beginning to build relationships at a parish, and a guest speaker or higher-up catechist speaks some doctrinal error (major or minor), immediate confrontation is not usually the best course of action (for charity's sake). True, the scandal of the false teaching persists, but it's not the responsibility of the new catechist to coldly correct others' factual errors so much as to live the truth in charity and draw them to Christ (and to greater truth) in love. However, this makes the new guy look like he's just being a doormat. And perhaps he is, in humility, responding as did Christ to Pilate or Herod. And very probably, the fact that he's letting this obvious injustice go uncorrected, though by so doing he stops himself from committing worse injustices, pains him on top of his self-reflective realization that, to an outside eye, he looks like a coward at best.

That's only one of many possible examples, but they all serve the same point: Though becoming like Christ makes one more fully onesself, taking on His intense humility and accepting injustice as if it were deserved serves also to hide the self from others for the sake of glorifying God.

When one's primary driving passion is loving the Lord, lessons like the above are very important, because what's given up is a valuable gift to our divine Lover. Still, what must be hidden is often what's most important to us: St. Faustina, for instance, was forced to hide from her peers her intimate conversations with the Lord and to accept instead their complaints and belief that she was responsible for their errors.

Therein lies the essential difference between humility and selling out: The humble man has hidden his passions, whereas the sellout has simply laid them aside. And no reason for laying aside a passion like that can match with the gift of pure love that is humility. After all, since the days of St. Paul the Church has preached "Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God" (1 Cor 1:23-24).

Still, Christianity is a religion of contradictions. How else do you explain a simple illiterate visionary like St. Bernadette Soubirous meriting heaven right alongside a pillar of Western philosophy like St. Thomas Aquinas? What about a great mystic like St. Gemma Galgani, who hardly left her own house, along with Bl. Teresa of Calcutta, whose missionary charity is world-renowned? So, while humility is a pretty basic essential in the preparation for holiness, it must still be possible to wear one's passion on one's sleeve even when not surrounded by those who share such a love for Christ.

Because when people who care at all ask what you want to do with your life, they're less concerned with what your plans might be, because they realize those plans will change. Sure, they want to see that your life-plan is fairly rational, that you're not going to starve in the streets because you're so set on being an Elvis impersonator in Vegas that you refuse to start off with smaller gigs, but more than that they want to see your love for what you do.

Especially at our age. If we don't take advantage of the passion of youth now, how will we expect to ever retain such passion later on in life, when it no longer comes so naturally?

In short: I feel like I've lost the ability to relay to others with no base in faith and tradition the things that really fire me up and to which I wish to devote my life, which is a shame, because I would very much like for others to be able to see the joy and zeal that the Lord brings to my life.

Still, if I won't be remembered for the strong passions I held and the crazy things I did, I'd be quite content if what was said of my co-worker's grandmother at her funeral was said of me at mine: "She never said a bad word about anyone." It's not an absolutely unique way to be remembered, but I still think it's a pretty good goal.

And if you stuck through this all the way to the bottom, you deserve a gold star. If I could figure out how to make one appear next to your username every time you comment me, I would totally do it.

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