The circle of your passion

Posted by on Sep 24, 2010 in Humanitarian work, Writing | 9 comments

It’s been a week. For me, it’s been a week of finishing the draft, enjoying a brief high, then falling (temporarily, let’s hope) into a big black woeful hole of not feeling like doing anything at all, and wondering how we can possibly have been in Laos three months already, and whether the rumours are true that we’re staying here for the next couple of years. On that front, it appears so, unless the powers that be mandate otherwise. I’ve had ample time to mull all of this over during a string of nights when sleep eludes me until late – midnight or 1am – and sometimes only arrives after the sort of help that comes in little bottles with child-proof caps on them.

For Mike, it’s been a week of waking up early – in the 3’s or the 4’s, occasionally the 2’s – with his mind jumping ahead to the day. The biggest meetings of the year took place yesterday, and coincided with a week-long delegation of all sorts of people that be all sorts of powerful, and not all of whom arrived on the scene happy. We think they be leaving happier, we think. There was a lot of smiling and nodding at the big partnership dinner last night – then again there was also lots of beerlao, which tends to help with the smiling (but not with the sleep, no, not with that).

A couple of weeks ago Mike and I had dinner with a friend, Gabrielle, who Mike first met in the Vanuatu almost three years ago. In January we had dinner with her in Melbourne. Since then she’s moved to Hanoi. Two weeks ago she swung by our new town.

So we met at Utopia and drank Saffron Robes and cheap Chilean wine and gazed upon the Khan River and talked. We talked of things that humanitarianers often seem to talk about when they cross paths for an evening and drink and look at rivers.

  1. How and why did you decide to make this last move/take this last job?
  2. How are you finding this massive uprooting and replanting of your life?
  3. What about the job itself – where are the rewards and the pressure points?
  4. Is it worth it – this move, this job, this whole field …

There is a lot wrapped up in that last question. I could write a whole series of posts just on the different variables that come into play when trying to calculate the opportunity-cost of this work and of this lifestyle. There are issues of meaning and purpose to be considered. And efficacy, community, motivation, finances, and safety. And, of course, passion.

Gabrielle calls this sort of conversation tumbleweeding, which I think is a delightful word. It brings to mind a tangled ball of wiry stalks all intertwined – dense enough to hang together in a round yet light enough to be moved by the wind. A tumbleweed bounces and spins at the same time as it skips along. A tumbleweed goes places. (Sometimes it just goes in circles, but that too is appropriate.)

I wonder what usually happens to tumbleweeds in the end. Do they pick up so many leaves and twigs on their journey that they eventually stop moving and settle into being just a pile of sticks? Do they get snagged on bushes, never to work themselves free? Or do they break apart – thin pieces of brush skittering and sliding in every which direction?

So, passion. That was our primary focal point that night.

“Are you passionate about writing?” Gabrielle asked me.

“Sometimes I get a great day, or hour,” I said. “Those moments are incandescent. I lose track of time. Afterwards I’m tingling with that happy sort of electricity that comes when you don’t want to be anywhere else, doing anything else. I’m totally buzzed.”

“But,” I continued. “At least as often, probably more often, I sit there and it’s hard, and I struggle, and I want to be almost anywhere else, and I hate it. Except I feel compelled to do it anyway.”

“That’s passion,” Mike said.

“Huh,” I said.

Why do I primarily associate vocational passion with the electric, positive, purposeful, buzz? Wishful thinking, maybe, or is it possible to have those joyous mountaintop moments without trudging through some valleys? Are mountaintop moments over-rated, anyway? Should we really be aiming for a nice picnic blanket halfway up a pretty green slope?

And, if what we were talking about really is passion, how can you live inside the circle of your passion without it consuming you?

That’s what we talked about for most of the evening, sipping our wine, staring at the river, tumbleweeding around. We didn’t come up with the right answer, because there isn’t one. But Mike and I wandered home through the dark streets feeling refreshed and ready to face the windstorms of tomorrow.

After the week we’ve just weathered, maybe that’s what we need this weekend – some tumbleweeding. Or maybe a river. Or friends. Or some wine? Looks like we have options.

What about you: Do you feel like you’re living inside the circle of your passion? How do you keep from being consumed?

P.S. I could practically see the parental eye rolling in Australia when I mentioned wine (again!!). So, my beloved mother, this picture’s for you. It’s Mike, weeks ago now, disposing of the last wine we had at home because it was simply wretched stuff. The bamboo, much to my surprise, has suffered no ill effects.

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Orchid
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Ten things I learned this weekend

9 Comments

  1. Wine THAT bad? 🙂
    We know how hard it is to kill bamboo. And bad wine certainly won’t do it. They basically shrug off pure poison. So bad wine….Not a chance.

    • Yes, the wine was that bad. It may not have been the wine’s fault, but more the fact that stuff was bottled in France and subjected to a long, hot, sea voyage. Then it sat in a small un-airconditioned market here for what we must assume was weeks. Maybe months.

  2. I don’t think I have a passion. At least I don’t know what it is… I blogged about it here: http://itstrivial.wordpress.com/2007/10/08/323/. I love that book. I still have it.

    Interestingly, Aaron and I have made a specific point of not working at something we love. We’re all for doing things that we like and are skillful in (we’re not crazies into being miserable or anything), but agree that it would be likely for us to get burnt out on doing something we love by taking it on as a job. For example, I really enjoy baking and blogging, but I can see how becoming a baker or blogger professionally might steal my joy for baking and blogging because all of the sudden it’s not something I do only for enjoyment, it’s a “have to.” That, and usually there is no money in passion. Haha. Another bonus is that not feeling deeply about work affords us the ability to leave it at work when we come home.

    I realize this route is not for everyone and believe it takes tremendously strong people to work in their area of passion. Like you describe, the highs are so high, but the lows seem potentially so much lower. That takes hardy stock. 🙂

    So, instead of a comment about living inside our circles of passion, this is more a comment about consciously choosing not to. Maybe that means we don’t have real passions (and I’m cool with that). I certainly have never experienced being compelled to do something like you describe. Or maybe our passions aren’t even remotely marketable. 🙂 LOL.

    Another fun, thought provoking post. Thanks for writing.

    • I loved this comment, I read it out loud to Mike this morning while he was making breakfast, and we chatted about it up on the deck while we looked out at the green coconut trees (and listened to the sound of hammering and sawing below, but never mind). We talked about the last decade, and which jobs we’ve held have been within the circle of our passion and which haven’t, and the relative merits of doing something for money that doesn’t consume you most waking moments…

      Mike wondered whether he could work all day at something he wasn’t passionate about – whether that wouldn’t depress him to the point that he couldn’t find passion outside work either. I wondered that too, but think there’s really something to be said for not being consumed by what you’re doing to earn a living. I have really valued some of my jobs that I could enjoy (in a pleasant sense) while I was doing them, and then leave them at the office.

      I also hear you on the “trying to do something I really love for money might rob me of the very real joy it now holds”. I suspect I’m about to find out for me whether that’s the case with writing in the next couple of years. I’ll keep you posted.

      • I can completely see Mike’s point. And I will be pondering whether working in something that doesn’t set my very person afire has hampered my ability to be passionate about other things. I doubt I’ll come up with a solid answer (I rarely do), but it is a most interesting thought.

        Thanks for the dialogue!

  3. “Compelled to do it anyway.” That’s the best description of passion I’ve come across. Sometimes it seems like every writer I talk to has long stretches of wonderful where words are pouring and their fingers fly across the keyboard, with only the occasional bout of head banging against the keyboard instead of fingers. I’m glad that I’m not the only one who feels like this. (Selfishly enough.)

    Like you, I automatically associate passion with electric highs and mountaintops. For me, those moments, when they come, make it all worth it. The mountaintops aren’t overrated, just elusive. And when they come, you recognize the high, treasure it, and try to make everything else comparable. Nice picnic blankets seem lovely, but suspiciously like settling for something less than what could be achieved.

    • Yes, I think the ups and the downs and the love/hate are not uncommon for writers, though Elizabeth Gilbert gave a great TED talk on nurturing creativity and how she doesn’t want to be/chooses not to be consumed by the highs and lows that can come with the writing life. But, like you, I’m sort of glad I’m not the only one who often finds it… hard.

  4. Nice essay Lisa, I’ve thought quite a bit about this subject and have noticed that both sprinters and marathon runners can have passion. Though the sprinters are often more sensational, I think most of us are marathon runners. I heard a cool perspective that defines work as God’s gift to us that allows us to bring people together in loving community for mutual benefit and support. For example, me being able to comment on this forum is the result of thousands of people doing their job well; those who maintain the internet, those who designed and manufactured our computers, those who manage the electricity etc … So if we think of work like that, we can be passionate about something bigger, seeing ourselves as a critical element. And then of course there is the even bigger picture of reflecting God’s character through being a worker of integrity, which is something that merits at least a little passion ; ) As far as making money doing what you love goes, I think it’s totally worth a shot, but is not necessary to live a fulfilling life.

    • Good points Nick. In some ways I see the passions of the sprinter and the marathoner as similar – both have to dedicate themselves to regular training over months and years to perform in their event. But in other ways it must be a different set of mental skills that you bring to the table to perform in an event that’s over in the blaze of less than a minute versus one that stretches over miles and miles. Both of them, though, would have to find a way to keep their drive for achievement and improvement under control, to keep it from consuming them, to find a way with being content with the possibility of second place, or tenth. I wonder how they do that, or do most people just focus on the possibility and prize of first?

      And as for “I think it’s totally worth a shot, but is not necessary to live a fulfilling life…” Amen.

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