The hibernation of childhood passions

(And how to make them stir)

As children, we love full force. We don’t compromise on our interests. We drop things if they become boring, and we keep on picking up and dropping every thing we come across until we have assembled a unique, tangled raft of things that keeps us afloat as we grow.

Sometimes I am stunned at my capacity as a nine-year-old, to understand my entrapment and escape it […] Yell. Jump. Play. Out-run those sons-of-bitches. They’ll never live the way you live. Go do it. — Ray Bradbury

It seems that many (most?) of us don’t retain this approach as we grow older. Our endless experimentation is dismissed as ‘play’, which wilts in the face of increasing levels of ‘work’, we bend to natural peer pressure and we struggle to ignore the loud voice of consumer marketing which demands that we arrange our lives around our things.

There’s no more room in our lives for the endless play that made us who we were. And the self-defining interests that surfaced as a result of that play — they can go into hibernation. I would suggest that many of us know how this feels, and that, because it is the norm, we don’t know how to escape it.

For me, as with many children, one of my things was the natural world. As a child I was obsessed with bugs and plants and animals. My grandfather rescued difficult dogs and we walked them all weekend. We lived in Lanzarote for a year when I was two and I would come back to my mother with hands full of the insects I had found around the house. At primary school I found a spider’s egg sack on the fence and wrote an activity log while watching it at playtimes. My father, a sometime landscape gardener, taught me to plant shrubs and build a bird table and we tried to make an outdoor ant farm which was quickly deserted by the ants.

When my father died I was 10, and my life diminished to the point that it fit neatly within four walls. I ate a lot of bad food, listened to music and, despite moving out to the country, lost my interest in the outdoors. Even my lifelong dream of becoming a vet dissipated under the strain of choices forced by school. Other interests grew, but I see now that something was always missing.

I’m lucky. Scientists have posited that all humans have a hankering for the wilderness (perhaps because we gained a natural advantage by moving away from densely populated areas). So, for me, it was only a matter of time before I realised what I’d been missing all these years.

It started as a faint desire to spend my annual leave in mountainous areas. I also started running long distance, and so spent more time outside, running on trails. And then I read George Monbiot’s book Feral and felt something fully wake up inside me.

Here are four things you can try to find and wake your own sleeping passions:

1. What were you known for as a child?

Ask your family and friends this question. Did you always have your face in a book? Did you endlessly put on plays in teatowel and tin foil costumes? Did you show kindness to others beyond that which was asked of you? The people who loved you most might be able to help you build a list of things that are still hiding away in you somewhere, waiting to be prodded awake. Or there may be stories in the family — about your mud pies, or your treehouse, or your bossiness — that you already know by heart, and that give you some idea. In short, the key to your identity might be written into the very code of your family. Make sure you search for it.

2. Look at your existing hobbies in great detail.

What do you do for fun at the moment? For a lot us, this might not be a comfortable thing to admit. Many of us spend countless hours watching TV or spend too much money getting drunk with friends. But that might be a fair place to start. List the things that you do regularly in your spare time — all of them. Now interrogate each one until you’ve broken it down into its constituent parts. Be specific. Do you love Breaking Bad? Why? What is it that grips you about it? Why? Do you have fun at the gym? Why? What is it that grips you about it? Why? Ask questions until you force yourself into specifics. You might be watching excessive amounts of TV because you are living vicariously through characters who are doing something you want to do. Or you might be spending hours in the gym because you suspect in your heart of hearts that you need to be fit for a half-formed dream of an adventure someday.

3. Learn about the state of your passion today.

If you have a pretty good idea of the sleeping passions inside of you, but you can’t seem to chase them anyway, this activity might help. In the years since you were a child, you’ve grown smarter and the world has changed — your approach will need to be different too. For every good thing in the world, there is something, right now, that is threatening it. For every good thing in the world, there are people, right now, fighting for its existence. When I read Feral, which is about the need for re-wilding our world in the face of increasing biodiversity loss, my love for the natural world suddenly became more than a selfish interest to follow someday. I realised that the option might not be around forever. What is happening right now in the world around the things that you love? Can you find good writers who are creating compelling stories made to stir you into action? If so, read them. Learn. Find groups in your community that are taking actions and listen to what they have to say. Search for relevant TED talks. However you like to learn, learn about your passion and you might just manage to rouse yourself to action.

4. Be a scientist; experiment on yourself.

Take one day (or at least two hours, if you’re pressed for time), and plan an activity that involves one of your childhood passions. You are testing a hypothesis: Is this still a source of joy for me? So be scientific about it. Don’t bring anyone else with you; they might affect your reactions. Don’t take the time out when you’re stressed or pressed for time; you might be too distracted to really focus. Do plan an activity that should be comfortable/fun in itself for the time you have allotted — you don’t want to be so cold on your country walk that it becomes miserable. Once you’ve protected the time and solitude, and you’ve planned a reasonable activity, just go and enjoy yourself. Don’t over-analyse. Go home when you’re tired. Get a notebook and write about your day: record your results. What happened? Did it bring you joy? Your conclusions might be cloudy, but at least you’re trying. Repeat this experiment and you will slowly get to know more about yourself. Nobody else can do this experiment for you.

A word of warning: this process is hard, and it can make you sad sometimes. What if you find out that you should have been doing something else all along? For me, it’s worth it. I feel I owe it to the ten-year-old who lost herself in the changing world around her. You may wish to ask yourself whether you feel the same.