Take this as a giant maybe, a question to test, a hypothesis. In reflection tonight a few things struck me that, together, seem to encompass a lot of life.
The first point was about passions. I was observing how someone close to me is driven by a passion, an inward drive to consume something past or connect with something present or create something to come, and I reflected on how, when I was younger, my passions were targeted toward silly stuff. Not bad things, but, I mean, I did a mock draft of all seven rounds of the NFL draft in order to create in my mind who might be the original Jacksonville Jaguars. I drew up lineup options for Wake Forest’s basketball team after each class of recruits. I developed the minor league depth chart for the Tampa Bay Devil Rays on lined notebook paper. I didn’t just play fantasy sports; I fantasized about running real sports teams. It was very much a passion.
There’s nothing particularly wayward about that. I think the skills I developed around planning scenarios and analyzing trends and data and looking ahead have translated into skills I use today in my vocation and work. Granted, there’s probably something worth a psychoanalyst’s time in the fact that I have a proclivity to fixate on worse-than-mediocre teams (sort of a “Bedford Falls Complex”), but otherwise that passion for sports wasn’t bad per se. Nor all that unusual.
I suspect that these sorts of passions are intended to help develop the young. The world is a lot to wrap your mind around, and developing competence requires making a lot of mistakes that, in real life with hearts and souls of others at stake, are painful if not disastrous. Having “pretend passions” like sports of Harry Potter or Game of Thrones to focus on allows the young to get some reps in for real life things, while focusing on arenas that aren’t ultimately important or often even real. I needed to learn how to think, how to learn, how to lead, and those harmless passions were a playground to develop some of those skills.
It wasn’t that I “grew out of them.” I see their limits now, yes, in ways I didn’t when I was younger and had less worldly experience. I still love the Rays, Deacons, Jaguars, to a degree, but they get less of my time and attention because they are less central to my soul. But I didn’t so much abandon them as displace them in the center of my life with more important things. I have real work to do that requires that part of myself. My marriage and family and community and other key relationships claim the center of me. So as Paul talks about putting aside childish things in (I Corinthians 13:11-12), so those passions of before have become memories, diversions for which I have less time but enduring fondness. (#Duuuuuuvvaaaaaalll) By and large, I have not rejected those passions of my younger days so much as replaced them with real reasons to be passionate.
In an odd way, the best analogy I can draw on is about pain. When I was less experienced, little things hurt a LOT. When I had my blood test to apply for a marriage certificate, I almost blacked out. (In my defense, the phlebotomist wasn’t having a great day.) But a few years later, when pancreatitis almost killed me, it gave me a different spectrum of pain. That stuff I thought really hurt before? I understood why I thought it was bad at the time, but now, in the light of experience? NBD.
And, to my shame, I find myself judging those who remain obsessed with the stuff I left behind. Have they nothing more important to occupy their center? Are they escaping some reality that is more drab than it should be? Did they never grow up, or are they just running away from the hard parts of reality?
That’s not the most charitable approach. But I wonder if one of the failures of our times is the inability of our society to help everyone recognize the very real, very important potential objects of passion in their lives, or the failure to develop the maturity to help us recognize that true life is found not in a constant escape to fantasy worlds but in the digging into the passionate things around us that sweat and bleed, or the structural barriers that prevent too many from connecting the ways they spend their time with objects worthy of their passions.
Beyond passions, though, I am painfully aware that a lot of my life is driven not by anything that I’m passionate about, but by things I am just not attending to. A whole lot of my daily existence is driven by habits – habits are the life I live when I’m not paying attention. Too often, what I eat, what I do (or don’t do), how I talk, what I read, what I listen to, are all unconscious non-choices. They are habits. They are default modes of operation. And while some of them are positive, and some are neutral, a lot of them are negative.
If replacing passions is an exercise in awareness, changing habits is a frustrating realization of the power of UNawareness. How do I weed out the habits I only notice ex post facto? How do I quit wasting time that could have gone toward something worthwhile – a passion, or at least a wise choice (like, say, sleep)? When April and I were relatively newly married, we watched a lot of prime time TV. That was a habit, and while it left us with a shorthand vernacular of quotes from Friends, I often look back with regret on the hours we spent focused on Chandler and Joey instead of each other, or something else enduring. Parenthood weeded that out of our lives, for which I am grateful, but I’d love to claim more agency in shaping my life than the power of habits reveals.
And, that said, I recognize my good fortune. My regrettable habits eat time and add calories, but they aren’t horribly destructive. My sense, from the folks I know who have struggled with deep addiction, is that addiction isn’t a passion so much as a habit that has a venomous hold. As someone with a little OCD can be thrown in a tizzy by a disruption of the way things should go, so the addict is thrown by the lack of the substance of addiction. Unlike passion, which points us toward a better place, addiction is a habit that traps us beneath a baseline of meh-existence. I am fortunate that my habits are not so destructively powerful.
But there’s a lot of life that isn’t fully intentional pursuit of passion or sleepwalking habit. What is that, exactly?
I started to call it consciousness, or mindfulness. Or the present. But those are all about the opportunity in-the-moment to choose between passion and habit. That’s really valuable, but there’s a dimension of life that exists beyond that intention-subconscious polarity. And I realized a beautiful thing: that “other thing” is the essential reminder that we are not alone. It is the collision of a subject with another subject. It is the real world breaking in to my world. I can walk through my day focused on my passions and weeding my habits away, until somebody else stops me and asks for directions. Or tells me they love me. Or hits me with their car. All of those interruptions are reminders that we aren’t meant to write solos but ensembles. They remind us of our need for each other, not just to achieve our individual ends, but to remind each other that we are not God. When the world throws us on our heels, it usually feels like an annoyance, or, worse, a tragedy. But it is also an awakening, as sure as the one that helped me see beyond the play-world of fantasy football, that we are meant to lift our eyes higher and see a far more mysterious and beautiful world beyond the borders we build.