Live Passionately, Not Fearlessly (Part 2 of 3)

“Courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the judgment that something else is more important than fear.” –Ambrose Redmoon

Living stories defined by our passions, with a sense of purpose and vocation, instead of being seduced by our skills alone, can be absolutely terrifying. Take it from me. I grew up a timid kid, and not much has changed. That’s why I married my wife. She had a tattoo and studied in Spain and jumped out of airplanes and seemed to dare the world to keep her from doing what she believed in. I was in awe of her determination.

But for many of us, maybe even most of us, stepping out of the safe harbor of our skills, and into the vast openness of our passions, can feel dangerous. Like stepping out of a plane at ten-thousand feet with only a bag of nylon strapped to your back and some stranger’s assurance that it will be good. Like free-falling. And while plummeting can be exhilarating, it will be scary. In my psychotherapy practice, I’m a witness to trembling souls who ache to step into the free-fall of their passions.  At times, I see my reflection in them.  And I think we fear making the leap for at least four reasons.

People will think you are crazy. When you forsake the seductions of skill—achievement, accolades, wealth, security—most of the world will see a fool. And that kind of judgment may cut you deep, because at your quivering core, it will probably feel foolish to you, too. In the film Field of Dreams, Ray Kinsella is living the American Dream. He has a big house, a bountiful farm, and a beautiful family. Outwardly, he is a picture of success and well-being. His skills have served him well.

But he is dying inside.

So, when a supernatural voice in his cornfield exhorts him to pursue his passion for baseball and the redemption of his father’s baseball hero, Shoeless Joe Jackson, by replacing his crops with a baseball field, it awakens a passion he is helpless to resist. As Ray levels his cornfield, we witness a jarring juxtaposition: while Ray is coming to life and talking to his daughter about Shoeless Joe with a contagious energy, the townspeople look on with a biting skepticism. We overhear them ask the question, “What the hell is he doing?” And then we hear the response, “He’s going to lose his farm…damn fool. “ You may not be plowing under a cornfield with your passion, but you might end up leveling a career, digging up a way of life, or turning your back on a harvest of some kind, and the on-lookers are going to scoff.

You are going to mess up. A lot. Even if people don’t question your sanity, they will be quick to point out your mistakes. But I can’t think of a better way to kill your passion than by trying to do it perfectly. You’re walking a new path, and it’s probably an unfamiliar one, so you are going to stumble. When you do, people are going to be there to point it out. And even if you could hide from the criticism of others, you won’t be able to hide from yourself—the worst critic is probably going to be inside of you. That critic got there the hard way: it was carved into you with words, both intentional and unintentional. As it turns out, sticks and stones aren’t the only things that break us.

People may not pay any attention at all. I’m not sure which is worse, for people to call us fools and tear us down with criticism, or for us to do the thing that is closest to our secret heart and have no one take notice at all. We spend our lives trying to earn the benevolent attention of parents, teachers, peers, and the barista at Starbucks. Our skills give us the best guarantee of an audience. But following your passions may take you out of the limelight and into lonely territory. It might feel like you’re free-falling all by yourself. And if there’s anything worse than taking a risk, it’s taking a risk alone.

And, finally, I think we are afraid to leap because there are no guarantees. We live our lives seeking stability, assurance, and security. We pretend that we can guarantee a particular conclusion. So, when we forsake the safety of skill and seek the danger of our passions, we unmask the illusion of certainty and leap into the terror of who-knows-what-comes-next. The landing may not be soft, it may not work out, some stories don’t end the way we want them to. It may cost you a paycheck, or a reputation, or a relationship. I suppose, depending on the passion, it could end up costing your life. And that kind of fear paralyzes.

So, our fears stand between us and our passions like an ancient wall, impervious to the erosion of time and the elements. We wait for the wall to crumble, but while we do so, precious time and life is ebbing away. I think we get confused and assume that we must first resolve our fears and the dangers of living passionately before moving forward with extravagant fondness. But that will never happen. Because living passionately is by definition to live on the edge of fear, venturing into the new and unknown with trepidation. If we want to get started with our passions, we are going to have to climb directly over that wall of fear.

In the field of psychology, a new approach to treating anxiety and fear has emerged in the last decade. It’s called acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT), and it’s a paradigm shift. For decades, the goal of therapy was to eliminate anxiety by changing thoughts and behaviors. It didn’t work. As it turns out, if you plan to live, you’d better plan on fear as well. The growing wisdom is that we do not eliminate our fear; rather, we learn to accept it, decide that we value something in our lives more than we value the absence of fear, and then we courageously go after it. In other words, when your path is riddled with fear and uncertainty, you had better be extravagantly fond of where that path is taking you.

And so, we discover that the passionate life is also the courageous life, because we begin to walk directly into fear, with an extravagant fondness for the stories we are telling with our lives.

After completing his baseball field, Ray Kinsella looks upon it, and we learn that the sentiments of the townspeople echo Ray’s own thoughts, when he whispers, “I have just created something totally illogical…am I completely nuts?”

But Ray says it with a smile.

That’s what living passionately does to us—everything gets turned on its head and it may be scary, but the fear gives birth to life and purpose and meaning. The frightening becomes thrilling. Foolishness is transformed into pleasure. And we mess up along the way, but we discover that we wouldn’t have it any other way, because when we start to follow our passions, they become like oxygen, and living them becomes like breathing. We don’t wait for someone to applaud the perfect breath; we breathe because there is no life without it. And even when no one is noticing, living in the middle of our passion teaches us we can tolerate loneliness and the loss of attention. We discover the attention was cheap and living with purpose has a value we couldn’t have fathomed, and we wouldn’t trade it for a crowd of any size. And we come to experience the truth of the really good stories: they don’t necessarily end safely. Some of them end with the beloved character dying with purpose in the middle of their passion: loving a wife and kids through a terminal cancer, giving the last hiding place to their child with the soldiers at the door, or jumping in front of a bullet or a bus or a train to save another life.

So, maybe there is a guarantee: that regardless of how we go out of this life, we will go out on our own terms, living passionately. We jump out of the plane. We step out of our skills and into the vast uncertainty of our passions. It feels crazy, we make mistakes on the lonely way down, and the landing isn’t guaranteed until it has arrived. We fall with fear and trembling, but our heart also hammers with the extravagant fondness for what we are doing in the world. And if we’re going to land hard—and we all do eventually, don’t we?—we may as well land in the midst of the things we love, the things that bring us life and joy, not nursing a 401k, but instead nursing a world back to life and creativity and what is good.

What’s Your Story: I suspect I was just scratching the surface with my list of the reasons for not following our passions. Have you encountered other fears that held you back? Did you overcome them to pursue your passions and, if so, what did you value more than your fear? Please feel free to share your story in the comments below, or if you are reading this by e-mail or RSS feed, click here to comment.

Note: Next week, I will post Part 3 of this reflection on living according to our passions. I think it will be entitled, “Live Passionately, Not Mindlessly,” and it will unpack the ways in which our life is expanded when we follow our passion. If you would like to be notified of that post and future posts, you can subscribe by e-mail in the sidebar. You can also receive notification by joining me on Twitter. And, again, thanks for reading. It’s a gift.

 

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.

  • Authentic Bay

    I started my blog about living authentically 4 months ago. Two months ago I reached out to a neighbor who i barely murdered the man he lived with and worked for and then I attended the memorial service for the man who was killed – all of these things challenged me to live my truth of oneness and unity – compassion. I thought that was it until I got a scathing comment from one of the friends of relatives of the man killed. The worst fear of this recovering “people pleaser.” I wrote about how I chose to respond in my most recent post “i’m a nutcase?” http://authenticbay.com/2012/03/22/im-a-nutcase/ which ended up generating several more comments from this individual. I felt afraid and threatened and commented about it. There is always more on this journey but I celebrate my freedom and knowing the truth of who I am at a deeper level having faced this storm. I wasn’t sure I had it in me until I experienced it. I am grateful i lept and was not intimidated into silence! Bay

  • Bocabonita

    I love your blog. Your posts always seem to be incredibly timely in my life. I think that I’ve only ever had a few times where I have felt the need to go after something…despite my fears. He was the love of my life. And loving him meant leaving a lot- including family- behind. In the end, the relationship didn’t work out, but it taught me about what a love for something, or someone, can do to me. Although, from that time that I allowed myself to love so deeply and so…crazy…I haven’t really been able to do it again. I worry so much about what people say and how their opinions will change that I don’t do much out of the ordinary anymore. I think I’m missing chances to find better things in life- IN ALL AREAS. And I wonder if my “window of opportunity” is closing.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Thank you for sharing your story. When following a passion has not worked out well, it can certainly make it scarier to try again. When this is the case, it may help to identify several people you trust as wise and objective, who are unrelated to each other, to give you trustworthy counsel about the passions that you now want to follow. Sometimes, a therapist can be a useful addition to that “board of trustees,” too!

  • Sharalyn Hay

    Oh man, this hits on so many things it’s hard to know where to start. I think the biggest obstacle to living passionately for me is to give up “the plan”. I am a recovering control freak. A very unorthodox relationship has made me realize that enjoying something for *what it is* not what I can make it is what life is really all about. Perhaps this seems too simplistic, but it is something that has been an utter revelation to me…

    • drkellyflanagan

      The simplest things are often the most profound, Sharalyn. And often the most difficult to live out. Thanks for sharing!

  • Kim

    “We don’t wait for someone to applaud the perfect breath; we breathe because there is no life without it. And even when no one is noticing, living in the middle of our passion teaches us we can tolerate loneliness and the loss of attention. We discover the attention was cheap and living with purpose has a value we couldn’t have fathomed, and we wouldn’t trade it for a crowd of any size. ”

    THIS. In the moments when I feel lost, or alone, or empty, writing always brings me back to me and I realize that I have everything I have, right inside of me, which is the best gift I’ve ever received.

    I’ve spent a lifetime trying to fill up the hole inside, and it turns out I had the power all along to fill it up, just by pushing past my fear and paying attention to my passion.

    What a great post.

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  • lifeattuned

    Thank you for this. You have given me a desire to make sure that I am living each day fully and not blindly stumble through life held back by fear.

    I think one of the big fears that holds me back is the fear of not being good-enough, the fear of not being able to make it if I follow my passion. Security in the status quo is comforting.

    I am lucky to work in a field that I am passionate about. I remember being challenged by a trusted mentor in undergrad to “dream big” and get out of my comfort zone. Having a support system and a cheerleader is a big advantage when starting to think about what our passions are. We may get overwhelmed by fear, but having even one person who says “you can do this” suddenly makes following our passions a lot less scary and un-doable. In my past, this person was my faculty mentor. Now I am blessed to have a husband that believes in me 100% and encourages me towards my goals – however crazy they might be.

  • Ann Voskamp@Holy Experience

    Grateful for your ministry here.
    Thank you.

  • Sara Richins

    So glad to find your blog! The psychology classes I took in college I found to be aggravating. The theories they were using showed a lack of understanding of humanity and what purpose there is to life. As I read between the lines, I suspect you have an understanding of that purpose and can therefore offer meaningful perspective.
    We’ve been experiencing the kind of fear that accompanies following your passions. My husband was laid off December of 2008, and we took that opportunity to make a career change. It led him to develop new skills that would help follow those passions, but he remained either unemployed or underemployed for the last three years. While pursuing small opportunities to build his experience, family members would ask if he’s found a “real” job yet. Friends at church have shown little interest in what he’s pursuing, and some who are employment specialists have discouraged him from following a passion that we feel is inspired by God. Recently he’s taken the plunge and started his own business, and his clients and colleagues have truly been impressed with his work. But with little support from those closest to us, it continues to be a lonely road. It is an experience that has opened my eyes and helped me learn just what you described: to sacrifice my emotional comfort or securities to do what really matters.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Sara, You’re not alone. I know so many people who experienced the same thing in 2008. The handful that are steadfastly using the crisis to go after their passions are an inspiration to all of us. Thank you for your courage.

  • beidi

    Thank you for this post. I feel like I’m making some “radical” decisions too. Soon I will graduate with my MSc, my family and friends expect me to find a job, work long and hard for a Public Health career. Inwardly I expect more, it’s lengthy to explain why and how… but I am choosing to delve into hydroponics to grow local produce and promote it. On many levels this agrees with my ideology of a good life (and hence Public Health), from the individual (eating organic, real food) to the system (sustainable food price and source, reduce use of crude oil). The resources are within reach, and I have a partner who believes and works together on this… yet I experience all of the four conditions you described, and it took some timely reflection for me to be sure that I have sound reasons and a sane mind. I suspect this will follow me for as long as it takes, whatever “it takes” means to me.

    Whether brave or brash, I know I’m one who cannot hold myself down when I get a light bulb-moment. I am very glad to read your writing!

    • drkellyflanagan

      Beidi, May you land in the midst of the thing you love, and may you land softly. Best of luck to you!

      • beidi

        Thank you, it always makes my day to receive a blessing!

        My parents don’t seem to think so though. I might have rash to let them into my plans this early, and they were outright against it, for their good reasons. I feel myself do a double-take… I guess things like that would come to make or break your decision. Wish me luck!

  • Stanley

    Hi, your post is so inspiring. It really struck me. Coz for me I excel in my skills, I’m brought up in a competitive environment, where your skills matters more than anything. For the past 30 yrs of my life, I seem to have done everything right, I did well in school, get into a course that will brand me for life as a skilled worker, a very specialised skill. In fact I’ve worked as a dental surgeon for the past 5 years, I’m very skillful, as far as my ego has told me, in fact I’m going into a specialist programme to make myself even more skillful. It has become so ingrained in me that I’ve lost tracked if I’m passionated about what I am doing that’s why I’m good at what I do, or I’m so skillful at my job that I have the illusion that I became so skillful because of my passion.

    I definitely enjoy my job, but is it where my passion lies, I’m not so sure. How many of us can truly be sure of their passion. For me, I’m still trying to find out, meanwhile I’m sinking deeper into living skillfully.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Stanley, I’m glad the article was thought-provoking for you. In my experience, it is never too late to identify our passions, and sometimes we can find creative ways to blend them with the already skillful things we are doing. Best of luck to you!

  • Working it out

    Hi Kelly,
    I just want to thankyou for writing these posts. I saw someone post one of your posts and I started reading your backlogs.
    This one on passion is so pertinent to me. I had a passion which is in software testing which I am doing for my work, but have been questioning about whether it is still my passion. While I like the work, I felt I need to pursue something else. I had always wanted to learn psychology, so I’m now doing a psych degree while working. I don’t know where this will take me, but i am hoping that somehow I will work it out. People have commented that it is very different to my vocation, and wondered why I would do it, and whether it was wise, but you blog post has given me that motivation to keep going despite others’ doubts. Thanks again!

    • drkellyflanagan

      Software testing to psychology is quite a leap, and I admire your courage and determination! I’m glad the posts have been encouraging. Please let us know how things are working out down the road–your story can be a huge encouragement for those of us contemplating big changes!