A girl I knew in Edinburgh told me about a conversation she’d had with a mutual friend. “I like Tim,” the friend had said, “but it’s a pity he doesn’t have any passion.”
I laughed, but it bothered me. Passion? I had passion. I’d spent hundreds of hours writing, hundreds of hours reading books of history and philosophy and science. What was that, if not passion? There were issues I cared about, if never enough to do anything about them, people I loved, if never enough to stay around.
I tried to bury the question in my mind, lest it disturb my calm, but the girl wasn’t the sort of person to let buried things lie. She talked, passionately, about emotion, about feeling, about human experience. How she could look at a painting or hear a song and cry, how she could exult at a friend’s love story, how she could lose someone she cared about more than anyone in the world and still choose to keep feeling.
I’m passionate in a different way, I thought. But I never talked about anything the way she did.
I left Edinburgh, and we went our separate ways. I still felt content, but sometimes, when I allowed myself to think about it, I would wonder if maybe that emotional steadiness wasn’t really more of an emotional flatline.
So I began to pay more attention. Travel is, if anything, a series of introductions. Every few days you’re a new person to someone else, and every few days you have to describe yourself again; an interesting exercise, if you’ve never tried it. In my steady, analytical, emotionless way, I began to notice a pattern: religion.
I was raised as an evangelical Christian. I attended a religious university. In my third year there, I renounced my faith. I was expelled and fired from my position on the school’s IT staff. I received emails from some friends saying they were praying that Satan would lose the battle for my soul. One hinted that I was possessed. Another approached me in tears and asked me to reconsider. Most simply broke contact. Back in Montana, my mother tried to hide the pain my decisions caused her, reiterated her love for me, and tried her best to get me to come back. In her mind, I was choosing not to spend the rest of eternity in heaven with her, my father, my brother, and my sisters. I was choosing the dark, and it terrified her.
It should have devastated me, but instead I detected no more than a few minor tremors in that emotional flatline. I bolstered my position with rationality and philosophy, lost myself in words and histories. Irrationally, I thought myself rational: if my decision is right, I said, than I shouldn’t feel wrong.
And yet, in conversation after conversation, hostel after hostel, the topic came up again. Sometimes I’d get drunk and rail about the harms religion causes, sometimes I’d talk, snidely, about the atrocities committed by the Christian emperor Constantine, falsely assuming that one can dismiss personal faith by means of impersonal history. Other times, I’d talk about my trip, assuming that I was only in it for the challenge of circling the world without flying, assuming that my journey and my loss of faith were unrelated.
Throughout, I sent letters back and forth with the girl I’d met in Edinburgh, rambling missives that took hours to write. She demanded more of me than simple intellect and description. She wanted to know me, the me that was beneath the carefully constructed arguments and intellectual positions. She drew things out of me that made my hands shake over the keyboard, things I nearly erased more than once before sending. More and more, what I’d taken for contentment and emotional stability looked like deep-seated denial, of compulsive insulation from any pain I might feel or cause in others. And more and more, what I’d taken for a purely geographical quest for adventure looked like running away.
The truth has become uncomfortably clear: I am a coward. I pushed the boundaries of my intellectual and physical comfort, thinking that doing so made me brave, but shielded myself from any of the emotional consequences. I maintained a careful distance from everyone who ever tried to be close to me, and thought that to think accurately was all the meaning I would ever need.
I’m a king in a castle, so afraid of a breach in the walls that I’ve just built more and more and more until I can’t even see out, let alone find my way. Left to my own devices, I would most likely keep on as I have been until I no longer believed there was a world to see at all, that emotion was weakness and that a flatline was happiness.
Fortunately, I haven’t been left to my own. Late night hostel conversations, rainy-day introspections, and book-long letters with a girl I met in Edinburgh are all doing their work. I’ve stopped building my walls, and started looking for ways to knock them down. The flatline is showing signs of activity. I’m sometimes unhappy, sometimes angry, but sometimes happy, sometimes excited, sometimes entranced.
And maybe, just maybe, I’m beginning to understand what it means to be passionate: I’m starting to care.