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.

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About Kelly

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.