A study of the relationship between identity and action

Seeing as summer plans have become the dominant talking point on campus, and asking seniors what they plan to do after graduation is less rude than it was a month ago, I wish to consider what has actually happened in the last thirty days. What does it take to “get it together” for another summer break, or more importantly: how do you “find your passion” by graduation?

I suppose this is the primary task of these four years, and by my observation, except for a lucky few, it seems to run down to the wire. We often treat passion as an elusive, rigid object, though our own experiences reveal that this is not what a passion is.

The ancient Greek and Latin terms for passion denote suffering and endurance. Sister derivatives such as patience — endurance — and compassion — suffering with another — still honor their etymology today. Not only does passion not recall suffering anymore, but it also often implies passivity or reception, though it was never meant to. This is particularly evident when passion is compared to patience or compassion, both commitments to virtuous action. Too often we expect that when we “find” our passion, our self-doubt will evaporate, and we will enjoy the fruit of these four years’ work for the rest of our lives. The transformation of passion into an object suggests a devolution in our relationship with suffering and indeed any sort of deep feeling.

Over the course of several hundred years, passion became something alien to oneself that came upon an individual unsolicited—whether as a psychotic fit or erotic emotion. In the fourteenth century, passion could mean any number of physical afflictions, especially mental illnesses. In the fifteenth century, negative emotion and desire fell under the umbrella of use. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, passion survived in its original role only in religious settings and otherwise signified strong emotion, most often sexual, frequently pitted against reason and virtue. As religion has faded in the West, the religious application of passion developed by Christians in the early days of the Church no longer tempered its use, and the erotic sense of the term lost its negative stigma and gained romantic significance.

Passion seemed to be dying, as iterations of the term steadily declined from 1800 to 1980. The evolution of self-determination theory in the 1970s and 1980s from earlier studies of intrinsic motivation reinvigorated passion’s use. Passion as a self-defining activity proved crucial to those searching inwardly for “why,” providing a sense of self that would allow judgments of self-efficacy in relation to the achievement of goals. A popular 2003 study in the American Psychology Association’s Journal of Personality and Psychology highlighted the relationship between passion and identity. Essentially, and unsurprisingly, the study found that pursuing self-defining activities boosts psychological well-being and that “one’s passion also determines the quality of engagement in the activity,” and “being passionate toward a given activity will lead the person to engage in the activity frequently, often over several years and sometimes a lifetime.” The passion — not the activity itself — forms identity.

What does this mean for passion’s power? Former poet laureate of California Dana Gioia says passion implies submission, not necessarily to its object; but it inevitably requires the person’s willing or forced surrender to the passion itself… Therefore, passion can never remain a single emotion. It may begin as a focused desire, but, as it grows and deepens, as it resists all sensible urges to control or extinguish it, passion eventually becomes all of the emotions it engenders… it demands all or nothing.

For the 22 or 23 year old about to throw their cap and wave to the golden dome, we may say: Look no further for your passion. You have been living it the last four years, and even before. Your passions have been taking form with or without your direction.

I observed freshman year that it is apparently quite easy to pass through to senior year without growing up at all. Now, as I approach that time, I might excuse myself from this shared fate and say that time stood still as long as I resided at Notre Dame. But what alarmed me freshman year was the truth: it is quite possible to never grow up, to not order my passions. Augustine writes in Book VIII of Confessions that “we are dealing with a morbid condition of the mind which, when it is lifted up by the truth, does not unreservedly rise to it but is weighed down by habit.” In conflict with ourselves, we are less than, even “dissociated” with, ourselves.

“Yet,” Augustine says, “this was not the manifestation of an alien mind but the punishment suffered in my own mind,” which actually proves a reason for hope; hope in God’s grace, if not our agency. Passion is “the consequence of distorted will” according to Augustine, and “by servitude to passion, habit is formed, and habit to which there is no resistance becomes necessity” (VIII.V). Passions illuminate both our weakness in sin and our strength to endure. As the “appetite that exceeds the accepted bounds of good taste, common sense, social code, financial prudence, and moral convention… the unconscious articulating its desires,” our passion tells us who we are.

The passion of the Catholic Faith — the Passion shared with Christ — demands as much, even more, than any other that might develop. Gioia writes that we can learn to love the right things and  make passion’s energy “our own…  The labor grows out of desire.” We can refuse to acknowledge that we are impelled through time. We can choose to think that our actions are unrelated, that we can switch to loving what is innocent and wholesome when we reach a certain season of life. But with Augustine we might say, “Let it be now!” and, with Eustace Scrubb, find that “it’s a good kind of pain.”

How do we progress in relation to passion in these four years? We do not find it, but feed it, deepening our engagement, our curiosity, our hunger, our anger, our love. It is our great power, especially as a Catholic university. Ave crux spes unica. Will we allow our passion to be defined by Christ’s? When we seek our passion, are we hoping to end our suffering or to discover the burnished blade of human desire that God entrusted to us?