Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Virtues - Passion

The most common of all follies is to believe passionately in the palpably not true. It is the chief occupation of mankind.
- H. L. Mencken (1880 - 1956)

Passion embodies a strange set of dualities: ecstasy and misery. Perhaps it is this fluctuation between joy and fury that makes it both popular and despised. There are innumerable objects of passion. Any person, place, thing, or idea can be venerated. The manner in which passion is expressed is even more diverse.

If this weren't confusing enough, the results of each passion and method of devotion can also vary, based on the person. Nothing definite can be said about whether passion has a positive or negative impact. Sometimes there is a positive impact for others and a negative impact for the individual. Many are the reverse, and provide comfort to the devotee at the expense of others. What's more, passion defies control, so perhaps understanding it can never help the passionate person.

The word passion derives from the Latin passio, meaning “suffering.” This in turn is a Latinization of the Greek word πάθος (pathos), which means “arousing sympathy, pity or compassion.” This derivation helps illustrate the Christian use of the word, which is applied to Jesus' crucifixion (and the crude obsession with the gory details leading up to it).

A common theme among most definitions is that passion compels. Passion bridges the gap between words and deeds. It is fervor, the urge to act. It provides the drive for nearly every change in human history. Passion is inspiring, if not inspiration itself. However, passion has a way of causing fixation, preventing one from seeing the big picture.

Passion has been described as both a virtue and a vice. In fact, the Stoics based their entire philosophy on removing passion from one's life in order to attain a feeling of apatheia. This is not the same as the modern term “apathy.” Instead, they sought total self-control, to the point of not even desiring to do wrong.

On the other hand, many religions are “enthusiastic.” Enthusiasm is an outburst of passion, sometimes abstract in nature, other times directed by ritual. This term also originates in ancient Greek: ἐνθουσιασμός (enthousiasmos): to be filled with, or possessed by, a god. This is done in various ways by many different groups, both ancient and modern. From the rituals of the bacchanal to Pentecostals speaking in tongues, it is a common component of religion to encourage a constructive outlet for the frantic emotions pent up in humanity.

Perhaps passion does more harm than good, but I certainly don’t see it that way. Passion can also be the need for human beings to connect to others, seek approval, and enjoy similar interests. It is our passions which bind us, just as strongly as they divide us. One person’s crazed fanatic is another person’s soul mate. What if the trick was not controlling our passions, but just giving each other enough space?

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