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.
In his debut novel, Kelly weaves a page-turning, plot-twisting tale that explores the spiritual depths of identity and relationships, amidst themes of healing, grace, faith, forgiveness, and freedom.
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Dr. Kelly Flanagan is a psychologist, author, consultant, and speaker who enjoys walking with people through the three essentials of a truly satisfying life: worthiness, belonging, and purpose. His blog writings have been featured in Reader’s Digest, The Huffington Post, The 5 Love Languages, and the TODAY Show. Kelly is the author of Loveable and True Companions.