Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Why "What are you passionate about?" isn't really a good question.

It’s a question that I was asked many times throughout my conservative, Bible-belt based youth, though in different ways. Whether in a personal conversation with my parents, at church, or at some youth convention or camp, I was challenged multiple times to think about what world issues I care most about and how I might contribute to the greater good in that area. It was usually worded something like this:

“What are you passionate about?”

Passion…you keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.

Don’t get me wrong, the point of this blog post is not to criticize anyone who is encouraging folks to find a cause that they can get behind. Whether or not you believe that your interest in a given issue was placed in you by a divine being, it’s a great idea to take that interest to the next level and actually do something about it. If everyone in the world (or even just the first world) chose one cause to support, be it with time or money, the result would be felt across the face of the entire human experience.

What I’d like to propose is that we refine the way we go about it. Here’s why.

Most of us aren’t really doing anything about any of the world’s problems. And it isn’t that we don’t care or think we should be doing something. It’s that we’re too busy, we have our own problems to fix first, we don’t know how to get involved, etc. There is an endless list of excuses that we let get in the way and numb us to the pain of others. I would know, because I’m as guilty as anyone else.

So when a youth pastor looks out at his hormone-ridden flock and asks, “What has God given you a passion for?” What that really translates to is something like, “What do you think you could spare some time for after school and social responsibilities?”

But that’s not what passion is. If you’re passionate about something, it means more to you than just something to write in the “volunteer work” section of a scholarship application. If you’re passionate about something, you’ll invest in it other than when your church family is paying for you to travel to a different country for a week or two with all of your youth group buddies. If you’re passionate about something, you think about it a whole lot more than when you’re asked what you’re passionate about.

When it comes to world issues passion should demand a place among your priorities and not settle with the scraps of leftover time we call “when I’m not busy.” Passion should be more than a reputation boost that gets you an awesome new profile picture holding an impoverished-looking African child who you knew for a few days. Passion should be embers glowing in your chest that spark into flame with the slightest provocation. Passion should be a thirst that you know you’ll never quench yet you can’t possibly be happy if you don’t try. Passion should be painful. It should grieve you. It should linger. It should bleed.

Maybe I’m being dramatic. But as for me, I want to be one of the few human beings who knows a passion like that.

And right now, I have to admit that I don’t. I care an awful lot about education. And after living in a developing country as a volunteer teacher, I care about it even more. I daydream about how I can help improve education in impoverished and underprivileged places pretty frequently. But I’m still developing my passion for education.

I guess that’s the silver lining in this little rant. Not having a passion for anything doesn’t mean you should hang your head in shame and walk away! It means you should look at what you care about and invest in it. You’ll probably find that the more you engage an issue…the more you care about it. The more you taste it, the more you understand it’s complexities and nuances, the more it will mean to you…the more you’ll feel those embers glowing in your chest.

And thus I propose not that we stop asking the question. Rather, I would like to suggest that we start framing it with wording that more helpfully reflects what we really mean:

“What do you want to develop a passion for?”

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