When Passion is a Requirement

Have you ever had the impression that people would like you to be more passionate about things than you can realistically be?

For many of us, it may seem like this, and all the more so we consider the media an important point of contact with the world. Morning shows, ads, life-style blogs, ads again, job offers, and for the final time, ads – all of them promote the images of passionate, energetic people who go about their daily activities with a smile running all the way around their heads.

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…Or throw books around themselves in a frenzy. Photo by Lacie Slezak

But it’s a silly approach where you show excitement as the only acceptable state to be in, tell your readers to boost their energy like it’s the only thing they can possibly need, or require a steadily exorbitant level of passion from job candidates.

It probably won’t be a surprise to you if I say that being in low spirits from time to time is only natural, that low-energy people can be happy in their lives just as well, and that a lack of passion doesn’t entail being no good at what you do in life.

The fact is that those periodically miserable, low-energy, unenthusiastic people can be just as good as friends, partners, parents, teachers, construction workers, artists, dentists and whatnot.

We are the way we are, and that’s okay.

Still… there’s always this shade of doubt when we think about ourselves, isn’t there? Whatever we do, it just doesn’t seem good enough when we compare it to the enterprises of the ideal, passionate people we’ve been trained to look up to.

Let me tell you a secret: I’ve struggled with my self-image as a writer for many years. Me writing + other people reading it + us together talking about me writing? No, that just doesn’t compute.

Why? Because I’m not passionate about writing, and how am I supposed to tell people that?

Let’s give it a try: I haven’t felt all my life that I should write. Holding a book with my name on it is not my biggest dream. I don’t wreck my sleep to write. My life is not defined by the stories I’ve written. Sometimes when I want something written, I force myself to write it because I have no enthusiasm for it. In fact, I suppose I’d be just fine without writing.

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Photo by Green Chameleon

It’s just that I like to write, and some people like my writing. But when I think that, panic enters the stage because it sounds so terribly insufficient that I want to withdraw all the signals I’ve ever sent to the world outside that yes, I want to be a writer. Because if I’m not passionate about it, I’m not a real writer, no?

This doubt has its effects on the work itself. As with writing, so with other hobbies and endeavours. Every so often, one gets discouraged by adverse circumstances. Or one lose interest in what one does, and may even forget about it for long stretches of time. Very often, one’s lack of passion translates into a lack of motive to develop your skills.

If you add this self-doubt to the fact the world favours passionate people, it’s easy to call oneself a good-for-nothing, lie down and be sorry for oneself.

But don’t do this just yet! Because I’ve some important things to tell you. Here they are:

I. You are fine the way you are. You don’t have to be passionate about something to “count as a valuable person”.

II. You can be good at things even if you’re not helped along by passion. Without it, it may just be slightly more difficult in certain respects.

III. After you’ve admitted that you don’t feel passionate about things, it’s time for you – not for anyone else who may see your lack of passion as a shortcoming – to decide what to do with your time, skills, and energy.

But I can’t help you with that last one. Too busy writing.

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Life Is Not A Race // Word Issues #6

A few weeks ago, I was scribbling a note on the blank space of the last page of a short story written by someone from the students’ association. It went something like this: “the heroine’s actions seem random, there’s no pattern to them… that might signify immaturity (and I don’t mean there’s anything wrong with immaturity!).”

At that, I wondered why I should feel the need to explain that there is nothing wrong with immaturity – that, in other words, immaturity isn’t a fault.

It’s as plain as the nose on your face: you will probably agree that the word “immaturity” can justifiably be understood as describing a phase of life preceding maturity. A phase of life, not a personality trait – yet we usually use this word to describe the latter, most often to summarize somebody who did something stupid which we didn’t much like.

But if we give it a little thought… immaturity in the latter sense of “personality trait” may well dominate someone’s behaviour in both the immature and the mature phase of life. Well, then?

We all make mistakes and, very often, have a hard time finding the right paths for ourselves. But even if we keep blundering, does that mean we should get summed up as “immature”? Does that mean our lovely mistakes, the time we spend deciding on the right course of action only to choose the wrong one, our troubles, worries, and profuse amounts of acting out should be dismissed as unimportant?

Do you know what age slot Erikson designated as the maturity phase? It was 65+. That’s just to (randomly) quote an authority before I proceed with a piece of unsolicited advice to make your lives perhaps a bit less plagued by worry:

Maturing is a slow process. It’s okay if you haven’t yet mastered all the skills that come with it, like wise decision making, or good time management. It’s okay if you don’t know how you’d behave in each and every kind of situation. It’s okay if you’re not ready to take up all responsibilities that someone may expect you to take. Remember: life is not a race.

And, by the way… don’t you think there’s something inherently awesome about immaturity? You can act random like the heroine from the story I mentioned, and it’s just the natural way you act. And then, as that phase passes, you learn more and more about the kind of behaviour that suits you. You make choices about what responsibilities you want to take up. You basically learn and learn, and learn some more.

Personally, I wanna keep being slightly immature indefinitely.

Protection. A Story

When I was a kid, I liked to watch as my father welded pieces of metal together. He’d wear that big dull grey mask that always seemed dusty and, when I tried to lift it, felt as heavy as the world. That was his protection. It saved him from going blind due to the overly bright light.
It worked – he never did go blind from welding. But as time passed, and my young eyes, accustomed to being wide open when I watched him at work, gained more focus, I began to notice a different blindness in his movements, opinions, and habits.
He’d go tired for days. I could see it in his movements: the fatigue of the muscles; of the mind, perhaps; the back pain that stooped him more and more every day. When he watched the news, he did it without the agitation he once showed at the mention of any one topic that stirred opinions. His own opinions froze. He stopped paying attention to what he ate. Lard sandwiches day in, day out – he didn’t care what it was doing to his heart.
I think he was blind to it. His heart, I mean. It sounds foolish but what else could make a man shut himself off from friends and family and go on like he was the only person in his own world? Not talking for days, not sharing any of his pain, physical or otherwise? It must have been blindness. A wise woman once told me people go blind due to bad experiences because they don’t want to look back at them.
It’s fall, and I’m remembering him again: his muffled voice when he explained to me about welding from under the mask, the prolonged periods he had of being alone with books, which later turned into days, weeks, months of not talking at all, the shaky gait and eyes that were forever avoiding us.
I wish I had that welding mask of his but I couldn’t find it even though I’ve tried to every November when I come to see our old home after visiting his grave. When fall comes in, I start to feel unsure. I spend evenings thinking of how, as a kid, I saw a man go blind and become a different person. I’m worried this could happen to me; to my future, which then would get as if erased; to my family, who’d probably be scared.
I need some sort of protection against it. At those times, I have this silly idea that the mask would help.
But it’s just a mask that a man mislaid somewhere and died. I must come up with something better.

Our New Writing Contest: PRESS ANY KEY

Hi there!
A couple of students from the Jagiellonian University, including me, is organizing a writing contest for students from any place in the world whose native language is not English.
For more information about the “PRESS ANY KEY” contest, click HERE.
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Join us, and together we can rule the world of story-telling!

A Door in the Life. A Story

I close the door behind normality and enter the children’s psychiatric ward I work in. A young girl who came in ten days ago after a suicide attempt says hello as she passes me by in the corridor. So she started to speak – that’s great, I think.

It won’t be long, though, till I get discouraged and unable to feel happy about my patients’ small steps. It happens every day: I come to work geared up to help patients fight their illnesses – which I always wanted to do – and then I get disgusted by them. The children start to scream like they’re mad, they fight, cut their wrists with pieces of broken mirror, it turns out one has been molesting some of the younger ones.

They’re mad, I say to myself. They’re ill, the other nurses say to each other. We can’t do anything is what we all want to tell ourselves.

I must measure the blood pressure of those with psychosomatic illnesses, ask everyone if they’ve pooped, administer the pills – look into those unhappy faces as they take the cups from me… They look particularly unhappy in the morning, maybe it’s the anticipation of another day here, or maybe it’s compassion that makes me see them this way at this time of day.

I’ve been watching patients for the last seventeen years, and although all of them have had different personalities and different illnesses made them suffer in different ways, I’ve learnt that after some time spent here, there is one thing all of them have in common: shame. Somehow, some way, the shame of being treated in a psychiatric ward infiltrates and slowly poisons the life of each of these children.

It might be through their parents, who can’t keep the shame to themselves and eventually spill one cruel comment or another when visiting. It might be school, or the media. Or it might be us, the staff, who sometimes also fail to hide our reluctance to the mentally ill, and let it come out in monstrous ways.

A colleague is shouting at someone angrily. I’m sitting in the nurses’ room filling in reports. Are you out of your mind!? she shouts at a child but I’m not coming out to see which one it is. Right now, I want to shut myself out from it – so, filling in reports. The colleague will come in a while to tell me what the child’s done, anyway.

All of us, I suspect, have some attitude issues. I actually have to fight: fight with my latent aversion to those children whose long-term neglect, deconstructed personalities, unhealthy notions of their own relations to others, often show in appalling acts of self-harm or violence.

This is why when the door to normality closes, I feel like I’m walking inwards… not into the ward, but onto a battlefield. My own private battlefield where my fists are my weapons, and I clench them not to use them against anyone, but to stop the feeling of sickness.

Around noon, it comes in a flood. The patients go to dinner, and I watch over them. Some of them scream they’re not hungry, some throw food on the floor and then step on it. Once a boy with Tourette’s approached me with a fork in hand and said he’d stick it in my eye if I don’t call for his parents. His parents had stopped visiting a week and a half before, saying they’d come back for him when we’ve fixed him. Just like the little boy, I felt as enraged, I felt helpless, I felt sick.

Today, sickness lets itself be felt physically. There’s gravy for dinner, and one of the anorectics is smearing it over the edges of her plate to have less of it to actually eat. I stifle my disgust and tell her to stop, but she’ll be doing that again when I avert my eyes – which I’m doing without delay, thinking again that I can’t do anything.

There’s some peace after dinner, usually. Some of the “slowed down” – either due to depression or the strong sedatives we use on them – even go have a nap. Sometimes, one or two of them refuse to take their afternoon pills, but they give up rebellion as soon as one of the staff mentions the doctor who we can always go and fetch, and he’ll come with a big dose of sedative to be injected intramuscularly.

But generally, I have time to think about how sick I am of it but need to carry on, and how this job isn’t for me, nor am I good enough for it, but what can I do now, and how relieved I am to think it’s only three hours more to go home, but then again I’d come here for another round the following day.

My mind is sleeping after I’ve gone through the same thoughts for the fourth, maybe fifth time this afternoon. But somebody wakes me: it’s this girl who, ten days ago, swallowed too much pills but it still wasn’t enough. She’s standing at the nurses’ room’s entrance, leaning on the doorframe. She looks like she’s come to speak to me. Speak to me?…

She didn’t want to do it, she says. At the moment, she wanted to just go quietly, but now after she’s caused so much pain to her parents, the only thing she wants is to curl up in the hospital bed, drown in shame and never go home. But she wants to live, she assures me, she wants to live now.

It’s fascinating, the mixture of emotions children attempting a suicide get thrown into: there’s sadness in plenty, there is anger, but then there is the shame, and something like repentance – those promises they make that they will want to live when they only get better – and more sadness, and maybe… It might be only on my part, but maybe there is also hope that deep inside, there is a will to live.

The girl is crying. Says she couldn’t bear it any longer, so she came to speak to me. But I can’t say anything. I’m turning my face slightly away so that she doesn’t see I’m crying, too. I would hold her but I’m not allowed to. For the millionth of times, something came upon me in a flood.


 

My story has also been published here. Check out this site for some merrier stories!

Writer’s Anxiety

It was autumn, and a strong south wind was blowing in Buenos Aires.

He was facing the sea, and occupied with a desperate strife to recall his younger self into being, “Proust lies,” he was thinking, “you can never succeed searching for lost time…”

He sort of missed his younger self — the trembling, helpless being who wanted to be a writer, but once got criticized harshly for a novella, and suffered, suffered truly and shamefully, not willing to admit that critique could make him suffer…

All that was left now was an imperfect recollection, and the ability he now had, as a great author, to offer support to that young man he once was. To say, “here I am, you know. You’ve made it.”

But it was imperfect, and the helping thoughts he thought to help the young Witold Gombrowicz got lost to the wind…

***

And some sixty years later, a young would-be writer was sitting in front of her laptop, rereading the passage describing it from Gombrowicz’s Diary, and then — with caution, with some bashfulness — she started to type.

All along, she was thinking, “we’re in this together. Me, you, and this great author. And you, too. Yes, you.”

***

I based this on a passage from Witold Gombrowicz’s Diary. The book isn’t available for free on the internet, and all I can offer is a quote in Polish I once shared here. Those of you who can read Polish, and would be interested in what I wrote about this passage as a nineteen, even more bashful writer, can also go here.

Otherwise, just go buy the book. It’s totally worth it.

The Open Notebook. A Story

The crayons had colour in them, at least. Sharon could switch off the TV set, busy herself with drawing, and stop listening to how people die around the world.

But she wouldn’t be able to stop thinking about it anyway. The speaker was just telling the story of two children abducted from their parents. Sharon didn’t know the word “abduction” but the pain on the couple’s faces felt familiar. Were her parents abducted from her, too? Would it help if she went to television and tell about it?

The black one was half-used-up; she had been drawing her father’s bearded face with it time and time again. And besides father’s, there was Abigail’s face: pretty, but the colour of ash, marked with short slanted lines, and dead tiredness were more conspicuous than the regularity of features.

“The kidnappers threaten to kill the child,” added the speaker with a neither-here-nor-there smile that signified a happy family life. Killing again, Sharon thought drearily, and replaced the black crayon in her hand with a brown one.

On the piece of paper before her, trees were growing one by one in the foreground, hiding her father. His face was still visible behind them — one more — it wasn’t.

She put the brown crayon back and heard sobbing from the other room. Not loud, but Sharon was expecting the sound, and so she heard it as soon as her mother began to sob.

“Gail?” Not knowing whether to stand up and go to her, or stay put in front of the TV, Sharon froze. “Gail?” she asked again, not realising that what came out of her tightened throat was really a whisper, and that her mother couldn’t hear her.

She didn’t in fact want to go. Abigail’s room was dark with the curtains drawn and no light on, and Abigail was probably sitting on the bed with her head drooping low. Sharon didn’t like hearing her mother cry. Neither did she want to see her sitting in the dark.

Sharon had tried time and again to bring Abigail to the middle room, make her talk, and wake her up from the state of sullen slumber she’d been in since the news of father’s death was confirmed. They didn’t even go to collect the body, or do anything about arranging the funeral; uncle Jim took care of everything.

So it had lasted for seven weeks, and all of Sharon’s attempts passed to the repository of failed-things-you-do-for-love, which she didn’t even know existed in her mind.

Gail wasn’t calling for her. She was just sobbing quietly, and apparently didn’t hear Sharon’s voice. The girl turned her attention back to the news speaker.

It was war again. This time it was taking place at a university. 148 civilians got killed, and Sharon wondered why. It made no sense to her although it managed to produce worldwide agitation — it had been on the news for three days in a row.

She began to feel restless hearing about war again. Each time it made her think about why it had to be her father — just why it had to be him travelling in that targeted car. He wasn’t even a soldier. He was a rescue worker. Why didn’t anyone —

Sharon didn’t notice when the crayon she was holding slipped from her hand. She was getting dizzy from trying to understand; stupid from going over the facts; weary from questioning death. Reaching for the settee for support, she stood up and slowly went out on the porch.

It was so bright out there she squinted immediately, but before a minute passed, she was able to see objects distinctly again. The beautifully decorated columns around the porch; the flowers, which haven’t died so far only because aunt Mary came once in a while and watered them; the round wooden table and, standing on it, father’s ashtray, now filled with rainwater. It glistened in the sun; for a moment, Sharon wanted to call on Abigail to come and see it.

“It’s so beautiful here, Gail,” she whispered, and the well-known fear gripped her again. She was scared of going back inside to hear her mother cry, see her lying on the bed for hours, slipping away from reality; but she was scared of leaving her in the house alone for too long, too.

She turned to the door and opened it. Again, she had to wait a minute until her eyes got used to a different kind of light. In the living room, the crayons lay scattered on the floor, and the TV was still on — she forgot to switch it off — showing some cartoon. Abigail must have been there to change the channel.

Coming up to the settee in front of the TV, Sharon noticed there was also an open notebook left there. The cold grip on her chest tightened even more when she stooped to read the notice scribbled there in Abigail’s handwriting.

“Sharon Will you go from here with me? I can’t bear any longer Sharon I need to find him”

***

And Sharon knew for sure that death was here to stay. Apparently, he felt welcome here in this house. She also knew that she would have to take better care of Abigail now so that she doesn’t “go find him”.

And that from now on they would go hand in hand with death; like partners; like enemies.