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Passion and Intention as a Basis for Effecting Progressive Social Change

I might add a third possibility: doing what one is called to do. That is to say: going beyond the narcissism inherent in indulging one’s passions, to accepting one’s destiny.

This essay reflects upon an exchange I had recently with an internationally known activist.


Here's my recollection of our exchange... I began by noting that he had identified rail transit between Cincinnati and Cleveland as the top priority for Ohio--and that no one in the group had questioned his decision or even asked him to provide his reasons. I also mentioned that other than myself the rest of people in the room were among the most knowledgeable, most active, and most committed supporters of more ecologically sound living to be found anywhere; yet they at the same time still posed questions of substance to him.

Then I asked him what we should tell a person who come to us seeking advice on what specifically to get involved in. I guess I tend to think like a project planner; so I anticipated that he would reply in terms of priorities. Instead, he replied that we should tell people to do what they feel passionately about.

And that is what I'm writing to address, and for several reasons:

  • People may not know what the choices are for action that they might subsequently get passionate about doing -- they may still lhave to learn.
  • People may be able to get passionate over more than one thing -- whether it be substantive or procedural, and whether it involves their substantive knowledge or their procedural skills; and they may look for guidance to help them develop their own personal action plans.
  • There may be shortages of skills or knowledges, critical shortages -- and a person might choose to act on one of their passions, not knowing that in doing so they had overlooked opportunity to apply other skills or knowledge about which they might feel just as passionate, but which also would have helped to meet the critical shortage.
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  • Considering that both a person's passions and unquestioned deference to them can only have been constructed within the very social institutions that we are working to change, it seems to me that re-considering passion as the first organizing principle for this effort would be appropriate. Community for example rests on shared responsibility, not on indulging personal passion. The same goes for duty, stewardship, and other lofty notions. Hillary Clinton was right, of course: it DOES take a village!

Let me elaborate by including an extended quote from The Tao Is Silent, Raymond M. Smullyan (1977):

"Now, I have never tried my hand at farming or gardening. I know in advance I wouldn't like it. I find the IDEA of gardening most beautiful, poetic, spiritual and full of religious significance, and I feel great love, respect, and spiritual kinship with those who love to garden. But if it should ever come to my actually doing any gardening, I would run a mile like a frightened rabbit!

"Now if for some economic reason I HAD to do farming or gardening, then, of course, it would be a different story. In that case I would fear that my best course would be to try to get to like gardening. Maybe I would first pretend to myself how much I love gardening; I would keep reminding myself of its "poetic and spiritual" value, and who knows, after a while I might actually found myself liking it [...]” (From this point, the author continues a meditation on how he might proceed.)

I guess I included this because Smullyan so clearly distinguishes between doing what he likes to do and doing what he discovers he must do. It’s a distinction that I so much wished had been acknowledged in that discussion. And, I might add a third possibility: doing what one is called to do. That is to say: going beyond the narcissism inherent in indulging one’s passions, to accepting one’s destiny. (On the former, see Christopher Lasch’s, The Culture of Narcissism [1979]); on the latter, see Rollo May’s, Freedom and Destiny [1981] In this matter people sometimes act on the basis of what I refer to as “non-oppositional resistance”.

Here’s why I think this is important… In situations like the well-known activist’s talk that inspired this essay, were the people in the room prioritizing helping other people prioritize instead of indulging their own passions, we might collectively have “heard” other openings for action. An open mind is a terrible thing to waste.

robert letcher

Robert A. Letcher, PhD
June 10, 2009

Robert A. Letcher, Ph.D describes himself as "an academic with a disability instead of a portfolio, a writer, and a Qigong practitioner who tries to help people learn".