One Sunday morning while waiting for Anne to get out of church I struck up a conversation with a woman whose kids used to attend the same primary school as did our daughter. This woman was worried about her daughter’s future, which from the mom’s perspective seemed to hinge on the girl being accepted for enrollment by a prestigious university. The girl was getting excellent marks in high school, but lots of kids do well in school. According to the compiled wisdom of guidance counselors and other moms, a 4.3 GPA and great SAT scores aren’t enough. To get into Princeton or Stanford or wherever, the girl must have something extra that sets her apart from the other bright high achievers flooding the applicant pool. That something extra is a “passion.” On this particular Sunday morning this particular mom was at her wits’ end about her daughter’s prospects for a successful life. She lamented, “the only thing my daughter has a passion for is boys.”
My first reaction was to think: that’s fine — plenty of novelists and filmmakers build careers telling stories about that kind of passion. On further reflection I found it unfortunate that the word “passion,” which is a perfectly good word for describing someone’s emotional attraction in some sort of activity, has to be tainted by sexual innuendo. But now I’ve changed my mind: maybe the connection between work passion and sexual passion ought to be acknowledged.
Freud regarded all personal activity — work, play, art, war — as energized by sublimated sexual drive, or libido. If your libido can find a satisfying outlet, then you stick with it. But the outflow of libidinal energy can be stifled through failure, criticism, trauma, repetition. Then the libido backs up on itself, becoming a force of repression and self-destruction. No longer experiencing the flow of energy necessary to engage actively in the world, you become bored, sluggish, emotionally numb, static. In short, the person suffering from a short-circuited libido no longer experiences a “passion” for anything.
I think Freud’s model remains a useful one. If you’ve got a good flow of libidinal energy going, you may find yourself vigorously pursuing any number of activities. If the flow is stymied, there’s no pleasure to be found anywhere and every activity becomes a fatiguing chore. I don’t know that it’s necessary to attribute all libidinal energy to the sex drive, but when I think about it, is the kind of energy that makes sex worth pursuing really all that different from any other sort of passion? The pursuit of any passion is pleasurable in its own right. The pursuit becomes infused with even more energy if your passion seems to be reciprocated by someone else. The energy fueling the passion isn’t dissipated by having that passion satisfied; instead, you feel renewed and recharged, so that pretty soon you’re ready to go at it again.
According to the libidinal model, it’s not really appropriate to say you “have a passion,” as if it were a kind of personality trait. Nor is a passion just a strong interest in and aptitude for and expertise at doing one particular activity. Rather, having a passion is experiencing an outflow of energy that you can pour into an activity that renews rather than depletes your energy. Considered as a source of potential energy, passion is free-flowing and unchanneled — you can find yourself passionately engaged in any number of pursuits that happen to present themselves to you. You’re more likely to concentrate your libidinal attention on a particular outlet if that activity continually re-energizes you. If you perform a particular activity successfully, if your passion is reciprocated by others who also enjoy pursuing this activity with you, if others value your performance, then this activity may grow into a “passion.”
You might be engaged in many passions at once, or you might pursue a series of passions over the course of a year or a lifetime. A passion isn’t a thing you either have or don’t have, as if it were a piece of yourself or a growth attached to your ego. Rather, a passion is a source of energy that flows through a channel directing that energy into the world. Passion is more a way of concentrating your energetic engagement with the world and with other people. It’s a force that lets you become an active agent, a subject rather than just an object. It’s a paradoxical kind of force that is replenished by the act of expending it. Cultivating a passion means learning how to recognize ways in which your libidinal energy is continually reinvigorated instead of being continually drained out of you until there’s no juice left.