“The Art of Seeing” by Michael Milton
I have no special talents. I am only passionately curious.
I really need to learn to mind my own business. I eavesdrop. I eavesdrop all the time. In my defense, overheard conversations often inspire this column, though truthfully, my initial intention when I bend my ear in the direction of others’ chats is more a nosey bent, not a literary one.
On the bus rumbling through Bed-Stuy recently, I actually missed my stop while straining to hear two twenty-something men in a deep heart-to-heart, tete a tete. I’m not an obvious eavesdropper. In fact, I have developed a whole repertoire of other worldly facial expressions which remove me from any list of obvious suspects; I gaze mournfully up at the sky as though lost in deep consideration of spiritual matters; I hum under my breath and move my fingers over an imaginary keyboard, replaying in my mind some sad Chopin Nocturne; I’ll open up whatever book I’m traveling with and stare at the pages (and even turn one occasionally—unread) while I listen to what others are pouring out in their conversations around me.
So sue me. No, don’t. I’m already wondering how I’ll pay my health insurance next year.
One of my fellow travelers said to his gloomy friend, “You have to follow your heart, man. Live your dream. Live your passion.”
I cringe upon hearing those words, risking my current cover. I’m staring out the bus’s window, feigning interest in the Bethany Baptist Church at 141 Decatur Street; sadly, it deserves my whole-hearted interest, as it is a stunning building in the Gothic revival style. But I am far too preoccupied at present.
“Live your dream??!” I want to shout at the two men. “And how do you plan on accomplishing that?” I restrain myself.
This reminds me of a conversation I had at the gym the other day, after having just seen a rerun on television of the now deceased New Age Wayne Dyer, author of Excuses Begone, Change Your Thoughts, Change your Life and Wishes Fulfilled. He, too, was urging his audience towards living their passion. I was fuming when I began a session with my personal trainer Shakim.
“Be myself? Be here now? Follow my passion?” I barked at him. “If I were following my passion, I’d still be in bed, eating chocolate, drinking my third espresso and waiting for someone to join me there… a blonde, I think! I most certainly wouldn’t be here at the gym with you, drenched in my own sour smelling sweat, pushing weights around and mindlessly walking uphill on a treadmill!”
“If I were following my passion, I’d still be in bed, eating chocolate, drinking my third espresso and waiting for someone to join me there…”
In fairness to the two men who are now de-boarding the bus, I DO occasionally see some glimmer of truth in these little pithy self-help catch phrases. The problem is that the handy homily, as sprightly as it might sound, simply doesn’t provide any real information. How can I BE myself if I don’t KNOW myself? How do I know my passion? How do I know which of my wishes, if fulfilled, will truly make me happy? I can only hope that the books out of which these sayings evolve give more concrete information around what is required to follow one’s passion.
I come to the gym because I have a desire to be healthy, to be in reasonably good shape, to fit comfortably into my wardrobe, to sweat out toxins. As an overly coddled urban creature, I think somewhere deeply recessed in my mammalian brain is the urge to test my physical mettle in some manner. I mean, come on. Who knows when I’m going to need to outrun a saber-toothed tiger?
But is the gym my passion? I am there six days a week. But I’d say my time at the gym is a more active version of taking a One-A-Day vitamin; I am interested in living well and looking good and feeling positive for as long as possible. If I have to give up an hour of my day at the gym to make sure all of that is possible, well, ok. But is that a passion?
Anything I might be willing to identify as my passion requires more than what the word implies by definition; a strong and barely controllable emotion. I am, at times, passionate; my writing, for example. But writing is a muscle of its own that requires daily exercise. It’s rarely “barely controllable.” It’s an oft-practiced habit, as is my singing and eating healthy. These are on my list of things I might be tempted, if pressed, to name as my passions.
Yes, I occasionally slam out a poem in an hour and never change it, a moment of passionate expression. But what sustains my writing is the ability to simply show up—good day, bad day, off day, on day—and do what I have to do in hopes of a moment or two of inspiration which I might also be able to identify as passion. Passion implies something obvious, explosive, burning hot and fast; a long lived passion, however, requires staying power, patience and an acceptance that even with passion comes bouts of boredom and disinterest.
“Be yourself,” is one of the most annoying New Age sorts of phrases I can think of. Really? Be yourself? So few of us know ourselves enough to actually BE what we don’t really understand. I have often heard people saying “I’m tired of doing all of this for others. For now on, I’m going to be myself!” Good luck with that. Exposing the little bit of themselves they might know something about usually includes a blast of raw anger, frustration and fear, minus compassion or empathy or care for the others they are so sick of.
I suggested to a friend that perhaps she would like to consider being the very best of herself. She didn’t like that. It sounded like work: It is. It sounded as though it required an investment of time: It does. It sounded like something other than living passionately: It is.
Whatever problem had arisen for the fellow sitting across from me on the bus that brought his friend to utter, “Follow your passion,” came, I know, from a caring place. I just hope that the fellow needing the guidance knows enough to understand that a lot of homework is required to discover one’s true passion and a lot of willpower to sustain it. Passion might be the trigger; sticking with it down dark and lonely streets, as well as along sunny walks, takes resolve.
A dream doesn’t become reality through magic; it takes sweat, determination and hard work.