Just for a moment, stop digging. Look at the ocean. Can you sense its inconceivable power, its vast, wild, dangerous fertility? Good. Now we've got us a metaphor.
Passion—including the manifestations of passion we feel within ourselves and therefore call "ours"—is not something we can grasp or own but a force of nature, connected to and influenced by things that extend far beyond any puny human self. Finding it isn't like bagging an expensive trinket; it's like leaving comfortable, familiar terrain behind us and throwing ourselves into the sea. Many of us avoid taking the plunge. We turn away from the ocean, ignoring the roar of breakers, refusing to notice how our hair prickles when we smell the salt water. Then we spend years looking for our "lost" passion in the sand of a grotesquely overpopulated place I call the "Isle of Yeah-but."
The Island of Yeah-but
The "yeah" pushes us toward our passion; the "but" stops us dead in our tracks. Yeah-but prefaces infinite justifications for avoiding the things our hearts find compelling.
Try this: The next time you hear yourself say "Yeah, but...," ask yourself if you're describing a genuine obstacle that cannot be circumnavigated. If not, do exactly what your Yeah-but says you shouldn't. Write that novel. Adopt a puppy from the pound. Resist oppression. Keep the "yeah" and kick the "but."
If this feels overwhelming, the way still unclear, you may need to address the factors that trigger Yeah-buts in the first place. In the areas where you're stuck, you're probably feeling one of the Three Fs: fatigued, forbidden or fearful.
Next: How to get unstuck: fight fatigue
If your inner life is so blah that you don't enjoy anything, or if you know what you love but find yourself stuck in Yeah-but excuses, ask yourself, "How old do I feel?" If the answer is "Really, really old," you're probably too tired to embark on the sea of passion. Fatigue can cause an absence of physical desire (an exhausted body isn't programmed to win races or make babies), a loss of mental acuity, and/or a flat emotional profile.
At times, this may reach the level of depression. One day a client oozed into my office, slumped into a chair, and said she was depressed—only she said it so slowly that I thought she said "deep rest." In a way, this was accurate. Depression can be part of a general shutdown, meant to turn us toward healing. A tired body, a tired mind, a tired heart can't—and shouldn't—be passionate about anything but rest. So if you're exhausted, care for yourself. Curl up with the cat and watch TV, sleep, read, sleep some more. Eventually, you'll wake up feeling like it's time to go for a swim. One important caveat: If you aren't feeling refreshed after a couple of weeks' rest, it's time to see a doctor. You may have a condition, such as a chemical imbalance, that can be alleviated only through professional care.
Often stuck people have learned through experience, example, or explicit instruction that passion is bad. You may feel stuck if your fundamentalist parents railed against sin or if your suave intellectual friends mock anyone who seems enthusiastic. We'll do almost anything to avoid shame or. To see whether you have been disimpassioned by social judgment, complete the following sentences with whatever comes to mind.
If I didn't care what anyone thought, I would.....
If I knew my parents would never find out, I'd.....
If I could be sure I'd do it right, I would.....
If you thought of things you've never actually done, things that make you giggle with embarrassment, you're probably forbidding yourself to follow your passion. You've learned to expect negative judgments, so (consciously or unconsciously) you avoid intense feeling and anything that causes it.
The tragic thing is that many people never realize there are places where they can swim with confidence. It's true that some social environments are vicious, but others are warm, accepting, loving. Think of the things that you'd do if they weren't forbidden. If they don't violate your own moral code, start doing them—without telling the people who would judge you.
You'd think this would be obvious, but it isn't. I've watched incredulously as dozens of clients who are just getting unstuck seek support from the very people who got them stuck in the first place. They confide in their militantly atheistic friends about their call to the ministry, or tell their pessimistic, puritanical mother that they want to dance, dance, dance! Don't make this mistake. You know what sharks look like, and the places they lurk. Avoid them. Instead share your passion with folks who are likely to support you. In doing so, you'll add social approval to the inherent joy of following your passions—and it will feel fabulous.
Next: Conquer your fears
One of my clients—I'll call her Paige—was a tall, gorgeous, intelligent athlete preparing to try out for a professional team. The pressure triggered a host of fears Paige had suffered since childhood. She began to replace training with eating binges, and she started gaining weight while losing strength and speed. We spent some time discussing Paige's history of physical and sexual abuse. This lessened her fear, but didn't eliminate it entirely. Why? Because Paige really cared about making that particular team, and there was a good chance she'd fail, and that was scary to her. Period. To get unstuck, we have to take this kind of risk, fear or no fear. Waiting to feel brave so that you can act brave? Sorry. The only way to develop courage is to act brave until you feel brave.
In Paige's case, this meant doing two things every day: nurturing the scared little girl inside her, and getting that scared little girl to the damn gym. We called it the soft-heart, hard-ass approach. If you're stuck, I'd advise you to adopt it. Care for your heart by soothing it, but follow your dreams even when you're scared. Make friends with the fear that tells you you're doing something real and important, that you're breaking out of your comfort zone.
Once she adopted this new approach, Paige realized that it was getting her in good enough shape to be a model as well as an athlete. Suddenly, making the team wasn't her only way forward. By feeling the fear and doing something anyway, you do risk failure—but you will still get unstuck, often in ways you never expected.
In the ancient classical world when mariners launched a ship in rough weather, the captain would shout to his crew, “To sail is necessary, to live is not.” If you never leave the Isle of Yeah-but, if you don’t attend to your fatigue, embrace forbidden hopes, and act in spite of fear, this statement will always be Greek to you. But once you have come unstuck and begun to live passionately, once you feel what it is to ride that wild, gorgeous ocean, the cry of the seafarer will come to make perfect sense.
More Martha Beck Advice On Finding Your Passion
- Four-Step plan to get your life on track
- Why you need wildly improbable dreams
- Are you on the right career path?
From the September 2003 issue of O, The Oprah Magazine.