On Passion


“Light yourself on fire with passion and people will come from miles to watch you burn.”

― John Wesley

Recent discussions with beloved friends are swirling in my mind. Sometimes, disparate pieces of information converge, and like primordial soup, line up perfectly to create something nifty. When Dante, Sisyphus, and a flurry of personal creativity are shaken, not stirred, the result is a think piece about passion.

Being the good little academic that I am, my first move was to research. I pulled peer-reviewed journal articles and read all about Vallerand, who developed the Dualistic Model of Passion (DMP), which divided psychological passion into harmonious and obsessive iterations. (In case you’re interested in exploring this concept, the citation is provided.) But at some point, it occurred to me that I don’t really want to discuss passion and emotion in scientific terms. Not for this post, at any rate. Something about technical writing in regards to this very human experience just falls flat. No, what I want to talk about is the fiery, consuming passion of love and lust and fear and angst that is better illustrated by discussion than study.

“There is scarcely any passion without struggle.”

Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays

Passion encompasses a range of emotions. In fact, I think of it as any state other than complacency. Psychologically speaking, passion is engagement in an activity that we love and enjoy. But there is also passion to be found in the pain and anxiety that goes along with profound caring. Without it, the artist would be devoid of frustration as the physical work fails to translate mental images…the writer isn’t surrounded by a sea of crumpled paper…the lover doesn’t collapse into burning tears after the door slams shut.

As emotion, particularly of the strong variety, is not typically congruent with rationality, it may seem that passionate behavior is in direct opposition to logic. Certainly, it is not the measured, controlled approach to existence. Dante, (as promised) writes, “I felt for the tormented whirlwinds/ Damned for their carnal sins/ Committed when they let their passions rule their reason.” This is reflective of a perception that I fear pervades contemporary social attitudes. Have we condemned passion as too unruly for the respectable life?

“Your soul is oftentimes a battlefield, upon your reason and your judgment wage war against your passion and your appetite.”

Kahlil Gibran

In digging for answers among the words of unabashedly passionate people, I discovered an embarrassment of riches; countless reflections on the subject. I scribbled and cut and pasted and compiled, squirreling away quotations like wisdom acorns. Because when those moments of euphoric inspiration hit, and I’m pacing with a paintbrush in my hand and a couple of pencils stuck in horrifically messy hair, I need the justification to let go. To stop whatever aspect of mundane existence that I’m attending to, and follow the ideas. To paint monochromatic watercolors with cold coffee, and start a blog about…um…this.

In our quest to keep up with an Instagram world, where one’s life is forever organized and shiny, how many of these moments do we sacrifice? How often do we squelch the longing in our bellies in favor of what we perceive as more responsible pursuits? Banking of internal fire, fighting back love, feigning indifference lest we gaze, open-mouthed and starry-eyed at the golden complexity of a Gustav Klimt before us.

Tim Burton, master of owning his personality, notes, “Maybe it’s just in America, but it seems that if you’re passionate about something, it freaks people out. You’re considered bizarre or eccentric. To me, it just means you know who you are.” Indeed, Mr. Burton. We carefully modulate our reactions and dole out enthusiasm as if it is a limited resource. Lack of commitment is equivalent to self-preservation. Passion is a product of our innermost selves, a veritable snapshot of personality, and as such, leaves us vulnerable to the judgment of others.

“One by one they were all becoming shades. Better pass boldly into that other world, in the full glory of some passion, than fade and wither dismally with age.”

― James Joyce

I’ve done a bang-up job of touting the merits here, haven’t I? Fear not, dear creators and dreamers, all is not lost. Because along with that angst and frustration and vulnerability (shut up, MB) comes the payoff. The sheer pleasure and exhilaration of love, of being true to one’s deepest desires, are well worth the potential for heartache. Sweet torture gives way to lustful abandon…a headlong rush into the arms of whatever calls your name.

The carefully modulated life is cloaked in safety, but is devoid of the polar, intense emotions that feel like living. Shutter the soul, or throw open the windows, welcome the storm, and laugh as the rain lashes your face. Breathe deep, as others suffocate in stagnant air, looking askance at the flush of joy on your skin.


Curran, T., Hill, A., Appleton, P., Vallerand, R., & Standage, M. (2015). The psychology of passion: A meta-analytical review of a decade of research on intrapersonal outcomes. Motivation & Emotion, 39(5), 631-655. doi:10.1007/s11031-015-9503-0


One thought on “On Passion

  1. Tim Burton makes a valid point: indicating your obsession or passion for a subject, particularly something of an academic nature, has traditionally been scoffed at, ridiculed, dismissed. The whole idea of being “cool” is itself antithetical to passion. Even the etymology of the words themselves clue us into this fact. One cannot remain “cool” and composed, after all, if one is undergoing a cavalcade of suffering and torment (“passion” deriving from Late Latin “passionem”, meaning “suffering”).
    Incidentally, one of my passions has always been language, etymology and philology…not something which could be broadcast back in the school days without some sort of mocking rebuke from my “cool” friends. Fortunately, I’ve jettisoned those sorts of cretinous fuckwits from my life :).
    Hasn’t this changed in the last decade or so, though? Now that almost everyone you meet self-identifies as a “Nerd” of one variety or another, it seems that expressing your passion for a parochial pop-culture or scientific concern has become not just acceptable, but commonplace. If true, then I think that qualifies as a victory for Intellectual Culture, right?


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