Live Passionately, Not Skillfully (Part 1 of 3)

Human beings can endure anything.

If they have a purpose.

In the daily lament of a psychotherapy office, the truth of this is articulated to me by bewildered souls whose search for comfort and happiness takes a backseat only to their search for meaning. And I was reminded of it again, several weeks ago, by the tears of my eight-year-old son. His teacher had called again, but this time to let us know that she was worried about his demeanor while completing his schoolwork. She used the word “depressed.” So, I took him to the College cafeteria (because any conversation is better with all-you-can-eat donuts and bottomless Gatorade), and I asked him about what he was feeling at school. Before the words were out of my mouth, pools of tears were in his eyes, and through trembling lips, he said, “It’s just that God gives everyone a skill, and mine is school, and I don’t want to disappoint anyone.”

Can a stomach cramp and a heart melt all at the same time? Let me assure you, they can.

We talked about the skills he sees in the people around him: one friend is “tough like a man at everything he does,” another friend has a knack for humor, and he described some people as “brainiacs.” What I said next made him blink hard and look at me like I was crazy: “I don’t think God gives us our skills. I think we get our skills by accident, like we get our hair color and eye color.”

And maybe you think I’m crazy, too. The faithful among us might even think I’m a bit heretical. But let me explain.

In my office, I’ve begun to notice a recurring source of misery in a very counterintuitive place—right in the middle of our finest skills, abilities, and talents. We hone our skills and build our lives around them, but a feeling begins to grow inside, and it is completely disorienting because isn’t everything working out as planned? This embryonic dread is sometimes described as hollowness, or emptiness. As we begin to swell with it, words like pointless and worthless begin to surface. And before we know it, we’ve given birth to a burnt-out life, we hardly recognize our loved ones, and we are desperate for a roadmap in this crumbling story.

I think we write our life-stories with our skills because that is what makes sense to us. Our skills create stories characterized by great achievement. Or the possibility of ridiculous wealth. Or the power to step on the necks of others, rather than being the one who carries the boot prints of life. Or the false (but oh-so-comforting) sense of stability and security that comes from knowing, with certainty, that we can handle the task before us. Or the very recognition and admiration for which the stomach of our psyches has been positively growling. And we are seduced into idolizing our skills by the people around us. Our parents swell when we bring home a report card with a bunch of As. Our coaches tell us how important we are to next year’s squad, and somehow echoes of glory emanate from the future. The awards begin to flow, and if nothing else, you can be skilled in showing up at school, and be awarded for perfect attendance. So we live the seductive life, but we slowly, dreadfully, discover that our skills don’t give us a sense of purpose and meaning. I guess you could say, our skills do not tell a very good story at all.

But something else does.

The dictionary defines passion as “a strong or extravagant fondness, enthusiasm, or desire for anything.” Extravagant fondness. I like the sound of that, because I think it holds the seed of purpose and meaning. To live passionately is to be extravagantly fond of the things that we are doing in the world. When we engage our passions, we begin to tingle with life, our energies multiply, and we awaken to a desire that is thirsty and satiated all at the same time. The teenager who quits baseball so that he can have more time to write poetry, because the lines of verse make his heart quicken; or, the opposite, the high school kid who quits doodling in his notebook and puts in three extra hours at the batting cage, because the shiver of a triple running up his arms makes his heart throb. The college student who changes majors way too late in the game, because the business classes are leaving her hollow, but gazing up at the stars on that astronomy field trip last month ripped open a sense of wonder in her that she wants to live in forever. We sell companies and go back to school to become a teacher, or we retire to start companies that employ only felons, because our hearts ache for the plight of someone who is not all that different from us. We pull the kids out of public school, because our fondness for teaching cannot be tamed and we are awed by the minds of our children. Or we start sending them to public school, because the desire to be a student again has been gnawing at us for over a decade and it has finally chewed its way through, and the passion we feel is like floating.

And when we begin to live passionately, we birth an extravagant fondness for the stories we are writing with our lives.  I think that we must remember that our passions are always meant to tell a beautiful story, because we may be seduced into settling for something less. For instance, if we are “passionate” about video games, but our life is shrinking and our skin is growing pasty, it may have nothing to do with passion and everything to do with hours of fun and a brain full of dopamine. Because our true passions are expansive—they tell stories that are an invitation to freedom and peace and more.

As my son and I were sitting at that cafeteria table, and his head was cocked in an expression of immense skepticism, I added, “Maybe God doesn’t give us our skills, maybe the real gift is our passion. Maybe our passions are knitted into us, and maybe we were meant to enjoy them and to be creative in the world through them. Aidan, what do you think is your passion?” His lips had stopped trembling, and now he nibbled on the lower one thoughtfully. Then, those lips cocked to the side in a knowing grin, and there were again pools in his eyes, but now they were shimmering with glee. He looked at me with a peaceful confidence and said, “I love to learn.”

This time, my heart melted and my stomach flipped.

My son does love to learn. He is passionate about the world and how it works and knowing all about it. What story will his life tell if he holds on to his extravagant fondness for learning and refuses to get bogged down in his skillfulness at school? I’m not sure, but I can’t wait to find out. Because when our lives become a story drenched in extravagant fondness, I think we become a people of joy and energy and creativity and purpose.  And when our lives are saturated with that kind of meaning, in the worst of times we discover that we can endure anything, and in the best of times, we live our stories awash in the glory of the world around us.

What’s Your Story: I believe that we give a gift every time we share our story. Perhaps you’d like to share about a time you followed your passion rather than just your skills, and tell us about how it changed your life. Please feel free to tell one of your stories in the comments below, or if you are reading this in your RSS feed, click here to comment.

Note: Next week, I will post Part 2 of this reflection on living according to our passions. I think it will be entitled, “Live Passionately, Not Fearlessly,” and it will deal with the barriers that begin to arise once we have decided to live passionately. In two weeks, I plan to post Part 3, which will unpack the ways in which our life is expanded when we follow our passion. If you would like to be notified of these and future posts by email, please feel free to subscribe in the sidebar. You can also receive notification by joining me on Twitter. And, as always, thanks for reading—it’s a gift that you give to me.

Kelly is a licensed clinical psychologist and co-founder of Artisan Clinical Associates in Naperville, IL. He is also a writer and blogs regularly about the redemption of our personal, relational, and communal lives. Kelly is married, has three children, and enjoys learning from them how to be a kid again. You can find him on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • George

    I like this. You’re a great writer and its good to see that somebody else actually thinks about life. I agree with the passions statement, and I think that’s how most of us feel. I’m just wondering how our passions relate to what we do in the world. If we have a skill that makes us more money than our passion, should we peruse it to provide? Or does passion always trump practicality? Also, I wonder what you do when your passion ceases to exist, and you’re still in a position where you feel you need to continue pursuing it for financial reasons. I’m not sure. I would like to think you go for your passion no matter what.

    • drkellyflanagan

      George, thank you for your kind words, and for your really thoughtful questions. I think the tension between lucrative skills and life-giving passions is precisely what many of us are trying to solve/balance. I do think we have to pursue our passions, but the reality is that we often have to do that within the constraints of our current situation (e.g., mortgage payments). The extent to which we want to pursue our passions will probably impact the length we are willing to go to to rearrange our situation to make it possible. I appreciate your questions, they make me want to write another post about this tension!

  • Kim

    What a gift you gave your son…I love that you heard him, REALLY heard him, and helped him see, so young, how much potential there is for meaning in his life, no matter what.

    “Extravagant fondness” made me smile. What a great phrase.

    I’m finally re-discovering my passion of using words to find meaning. And I’m SO grateful.

    Thanks AGAIN for starting my Saturday with a breath of grace.

    • drkellyflanagan

      You don’t often find poetry in the dictionary. “Extravagant fondness” was a true gift. : ) Thanks, Kim.

  • Authentic Bay

    Thank you for sharing so open-heartedly. Through my blogging, I have found that I am passionate about discovering who I am authentically and living from that place…discovering my own authentic rhythm…my unique purpose..transmitting a clear signal to find others who are like-minded. It has little to do with material gain and everything to do with living in real connection with others…which requires me to be willing to be vulnerable – scary stuff. I find it takes tremendous courage to live with that intention and to write about it. In case you want to read more about what I am passionate about and how it began…this is the web address to my second blog post that I wrote last December entitled “Interesting post Bay, but why are you blogging?”…Could it be because I’m selfish? http://authenticbay.com/2011/12/05/interesting-post-bay-but-why-are-you-doing-it-blogging/ Thank you for sharing your passion, transmitting a clear signal and connecting through your words – it makes me feel that I am not so alone…more connected : )

    • drkellyflanagan

      Thank you, Bay! I’m looking forward to reading the post.

  • Catharine Phillips

    Hmmm. Left parish ministry (24 years of it) in 2007 to return to my dream at leaving seminary in 1983: to work with clergy and clergy families. I am discovering what it looks like as I go. It may never pay much at all, and we clergy are hard nuts to crack, as I have discovered from my own therapy journey. Yes, when it all lines up, my heart sings. I am done with the schooling part and paying attention to the heart-singing, passion part. This week I discovered another preacher who left congregational ministry and spoke to rediscovering his passion. He writes about it here:
    http://tertiumsquid.com/lent-2012/rising-cold-space
    He provides company for me, as do you when you write about passion and sharing that with your son. Thank you.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Thanks for sharing, Catharine. I like what you said about getting done with the schooling part so the heart-singing can begin. I remember a mentor in graduate school encouraging me, “Get this degree done as quickly as you can so you can get out and do what you love in the world.”

  • DMarie

    I think you are on to something. Although we do have some natural talents or gifts that lead us. When I was 2 my aunt took my sister and I for a short hike. She remembers my sister whining and me hiking happily up the trail. She remembers thinking I was a little more gifted with physical activities. My sister is very creative. She loved to paint and plant mom’s flowerbed when she was young.
    .
    I started running when I was 38. (Now 49) I have little natural skill, but love to race. I am passionate about it and am happy to share with anyone that wants to start up. When someone tells me they hate to run… I laugh and tell them it’s good to have hobbies. I think I may change that a little to say we all need passion in our lives! I have other interests too, when I lose the ability to do this one I will pursue them. The same sister is passionate about quilting now. Maybe we should have little in common but we do. I think we need that passion. It fuels all the other days, activities, and sorrows of our lives.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Wonderful story. I often find that recollection of these early anecdotes can be a useful guide in uncovering our passions. Hopefully we have reliable sources to go to for these memories!

  • agirlinsaltlakecity

    i just found your blog linked from “a blog about love”—and i’m so excited. thank you for writing.

  • jlanewell

    I have told my children for years we all have gifts from God. I do believe that but I think how we use those gifts is in pursuit of our passion. When my son went to college he was a Computer Science major. He was good at and he could learn it very easily. But he was passionate about History. He came home one weekend and was afraid I would be upset for wanting to change his major. I told him that it was fine to change his major and I want to him to pursue what he was passionate about.I believe we can always get a job to pay the bills but when you follow your passion you can possibly change lives.

  • Kayla Merriman Scott

    I love this. And I, like many others, believe that God gives us gifts. Some are more apparent than others, but either way, He expects us to hone into them, develop them, and use them for good and His purposes. As we do, we find joy and passion through those gifts. At least that is how it has been with me. I love helping others and giving others hope. That is why I have made some of the choices I have in my life. I have changed my major (luckily not too late) and find complete joy in learning what I’m learning. I am hoping that the course I am taking keeps me this elated. And I hope I have the courage to change course when I am no longer in line with God’s will. Everything God gives us is to bring us joy and to lift others.
    Thank you for your wonderful insight.

  • ktina1

    You guys are such great parents. I love my niece and nephews so much, and the beginning of that blog tore my heart up, but the way you handled it was just so cool and so effective. Great job Kelly, as always. –I know this isn’t what you were looking for (praise) when people read this, but I had to give it to you anyway, because you deserve it.–

  • chocolatesa

    For someone who’s never had an idea what career to choose this gives me some thinking to do. Is it possible that our skill and our passion is the same thing? How do you find out if they are? If you have a passion for something, but have no schooling in it, but still consider yourself to be (relatively) skilled at it, what do you do?

  • Debbie

    Thank you for this topic and for opening my mind just a little more. Have spent my life raising a large family, and now that they are grown and successful, I find that I am on my own. My children have been my passion and now my grand children. However, I have felt that there is something missing. In reading your blog today, I realize I must have a personal passion somewhere deep inside me that has been lieing dormant. I hope to discover it, because life is rather empty without it.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Debbie, don’t stop until you do! And make sure you’re not searching on your own. Make it a group project. 🙂

  • violetv

    I just stumbled upon your blog. Thank you for a great post. It’s interesting to find my thoughts confirmed by someone else. I have been good at one thing for most of my life and now I am nearly close to completion of my PhD in that field. But in fact the line between passion and just skill is quite blurred because I do enjoy it even when sometimes I’m not doing very well, and I get the thrilling feeling when I excel, sometimes.

    On the other hand, there was something else I have always wanted to do, and I started doing it 6 months ago. I bought a violin and took up classes, I’m sure my passion for violin is greater than my passion in academics and research. But then I find that I’m actually doing quite well in violin (This sounds a bit silly to say and I’m generally skeptical of praise but I’ve started to believe my teacher is not the sort to say things he doesn’t mean) and so the line between passion and skill blurs again.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Thank you for sharing, and you make an important observation. Oftentimes, skills and passions overlap, and this creates a whole new level of possibilities, as well as tensions and pitfalls. Best to you, as you pursue both of your passions!

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  • L

    Thank you, this article really helped pull me out of a deep funk.

    • drkellyflanagan

      I’m glad it found you, and you are very welcome. : )