This week, I am going to write about passion.
Calm down. I’m not talking about that kind of passion.
I’m talking about the passion that fires the engine of positive change. I’m talking about the kind of passion that motivates people to reimagine and push beyond the societal boundaries that no longer serve the society. I am talking about the Robert F. Kennedy kind of passion that doesn’t look at the world as it is and ask why but imagines the world as it could be and asks why not.
It was my book club that recently started me thinking about this kind of passion. Two of our books in the last cycle were stories of real life women whose passion forced dramatic and painful metamorphosis. The changes were ultimately creative and necessary, but the passionate lives that inspired those changes could certainly have been seen as destructive and dangerous in their time. The books were Desert Queen by Janet Wallach and Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain.
Desert Queen told the story of Gertrude Bell. Bell grew into adulthood in the first part of the twentieth century. Despite the suspicion with which polite English society viewed education and independence in women at the time, Bell fought for an education. She spent her adult life collecting new experiences. She became a renowned archeologist and prominent field researcher in the Middle East. She was instrumental in trying to forge and maintain a delicate balance of power and competing interests in that volatile region after the first World War. Historians sometimes refer to her as the female Lawrence of Arabia.
Testament of Youth is Vera Brittain’s memoir of her education, experience as a field nurse in World War I, and, ultimately, her crusade for pacifism. It chronicles her romance with the young man she loved and admired more than anything else in the world. He left a life of study, achievement, and potential to become soldier. Like many young men of the WWI generation, he died before he had a chance to build a life.
While the two books focused on two different themes (the development of the Middle East in the case of Gertrude Bell and the achievement of lasting world peace for Vera Brittain), both books demonstrated the passion with which the respective women pursued their causes. They lived and worked in roughly the same time period. It was a time period during which the world granted little respect for women who lived with the type of passion that is a combustible fuel for change. Both had to snarl and claw and outwit their way to their achievements. Both had lasting impact in the development of women’s rights. In some ways, the books are less about the Middle East and pacifism than they are about the power of independent, intelligent, strong women… and the richness and wonder the world deliberately refused for centuries in resisting the contribution of such women.
Despite my admiration for both Bell and Brittain, I have to say that I didn’t particularly “like” either book. I found myself feeling distinctly uncomfortable while reading the books. It took some reflection to figure out that it wasn’t the books I disliked, but the characters.
That’s right. I didn’t like Gertrude Bell and Vera Brittain. While I respected their accomplishments and admired their strength of character, I just didn’t like them. They came across as strong to the point of being strident, confident to the point of being arrogant, brave to the point of being foolhardy, and single-minded about their beliefs to the point of exclusion of all else… including personal relationships. I am happy that they helped create the world I enjoy today. I just didn’t find them all that appealing to be around, even in the pages of a book.
The stories of Gertrude Bell and Vera Brittain caused me to wonder if it is possible to be an agent of positive change with a gentler, defter, less corrosive… maybe less passionate… touch. Maybe the answer is no, especially for a woman and especially for a woman of their time. Maybe the only way to get the status quo’s attention is to bash instead of tap.
I’ve wondered about this before. I think about some of the women I’ve known whose achievements I admire. The women that I see as remarkable in what they have accomplished are filled with passion. Honestly, I usually don’t find them all that pleasant to be around. I wouldn’t say that they believe the ends justify the means, but I do think they are okay with some collateral damage in pursuit of what they believe is the common good. They are able to accomplish great things, but people tend to get hurt by the shrapnel. They do value the people around them (or, frankly, they wouldn’t have those people around them), but believe that everyone has the same burning passion towards the goal and forgives any incidental relationship damage. I think they almost believe that the relationships are stronger because of the drama they undergo in the pursuit of the goal.
Part of passion is swinging wildly on the branches of unimaginable highs and crashing to the depths of unbelievable lows. Me, I like being part of the pursuit and working with others to achieve a goal…. but, at a certain point, I like to return home from the jungle.
That may be the nib of it. People are just different for a reason. Even back in the middle ages, physicians believed people were governed by their different “humors.” They believed that a person’s health and disposition were comprised of blood (sanguine), yellow bile (choleric), black bile (melancholic), and phlegm (phlegmatic, of course). They assigned an element to each of these humors. The choleric humor was fire. People with an overabundance of the choleric yellow bile were thought to be filled with fire, heat, and aggressiveness. The phlegmatic humor element was water. People with an overabundance of the phlegmatic humor were thought to be cold and staid and predictable. Maybe the passionate change agents of the world, filled with fire and bile, do have to have a certain edge and single-mindedness that phlegmatics like me lack.
On the other hand, one of my personal heroines is St. Therese of Lisieux. I think anyone would say that St. Therese was passionate about her faith. She said that she could not do great things but could do small things with great love. Perhaps she did not do great things in her lifetime. However, in the centuries since, her life has touched the hearts and changed the souls of millions.
Perhaps there are different paths to passion and perhaps that is why we are all different. Our world needs all of our passion- no matter what that passion looks like- to focus on creating something wonderful. We can all contribute to that “something wonderful” in whatever way God leads us. In my case, I think that He has made me phlegmatically passionate!
What do you think? Who are your personal heroines and what does passion look like in their lives? How has passion motivated you to be the person you are? Please share your perspective by leaving a comment. In the alternative, you can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Have a passionate day!