"So, what are you passionate about?"

A younger friend told me that he gets asked this question a lot, and that he doesn’t know how to answer. So he asked me how I’d answer it. I laughed and asked if he was serious.

He said he was.

Well, I’m an etymology geek. I like to find out the history of words. When we’re talking about something, I want to be sure that we’re really talking about what we think we’re talking about.

The word “passion” has its roots in the Latin word “pati”– to suffer, endure. It used to be used predominantly to describe Christ’s passion. His physical suffering. The Passion Of Christ.

So when somebody asks, “What is your passion”, I think the real underlying question is, “What do you suffer for?”

Well, you asked. I hae a few different answers, and they’re all sort of connected and related.

I’ve never really fit in.
I’ve never really had a friend.
I’ve never really felt truly understood or appreciated.
I’ve never really felt like I was truly, deeply valuable.
I’ve never really had something to truly call my own.

When I choose to suffer, I suffer in pursuit of healing myself on those terms. That’s my ‘passion’.

That’s why I’m writing a million words– because I want to climb my own personal mountain and conquer it.

That’s why I make and sell t-shirts even though it doesn’t make a ton of money– because I want to wear something that’s mine.

That’s why I immediately turn down job offers without even hearing the details– because I want to persist in a context surrounded by colleagues who accept me for all my weirdness.

When I think about it a little harder, I think I got this perspective from Eve Ensler, the “Vagina Monologues” lady.

She gave a TED talk that I watched a long time ago which deeply affected how I think about healing ourselves:

When I was a little girl — and I grew up in a wealthy community; it was an upper-middle class white community, and it had all the trappings and the looks of a perfectly nice, wonderful, great life. And everyone was supposed to be happy in that community and, in fact, my life was hell. I lived with an alcoholic father who beat me and molested me, and it was all inside that. And always as a child I had this fantasy that somebody would come and rescue me. And I actually made up a little character whose name was Mr. Alligator, and I would call him up when things got really bad, and I would say it was time to come and pick me up. And I would go and pack a little bag and I would wait for Mr. Alligator to come. Now, Mr. Alligator never did come, but the idea of Mr. Alligator coming actually saved my sanity and made it OK for me to keep going because I believed, in the distance, there would be someone coming to rescue me.

Cut to 40-some-odd years later, we go to Kenya, and we’re walking, we arrive at the opening of this house — and Agnes hadn’t let me come to the house for days because they were preparing this whole ritual. And I want to tell you a great story. When Agnes first started fighting to stop female genital mutilation in her community, she had become an outcast, and she was exiled and she was slandered, and the whole community turned against her. But, being a vagina warrior, she kept going, and she kept committing herself to transforming consciousness. And in the Masai community, goats and cows are the most valued possession. They’re like the Mercedes-Benz of the Rift Valley. And she said, two days before the house opened, two different people arrived to give her a goat each, and she said to me, “I knew then that female genital mutilation would end one day in Africa.”

Anyway, we arrived, and when we arrived, there were hundreds of girls dressed in red, homemade dresses — which is the color of the Masai and the color of V-Day — and they greeted us, and they had made up these songs that they were singing about the end of suffering, and the end of mutilation, and they walked us down the path. And it was a gorgeous day in the African sun, and the dust was flying and the girls were dancing, and there was this house, and it said, “V-Day Safe House for the Girls.”

And it hit me in that moment that it had taken 47 years, but that Mr. Alligator had finally shown up. And he’d show up obviously in a form that it took me a long time to understand, which is that when we give in the world what we want the most, we heal the broken part inside each of us. And I feel, in the last eight years, that this journey, this miraculous vagina journey, has taught me this really simple thing, which is that happiness exists in action; it exists in telling the truth and saying what your truth is; and it exists in giving away what you want the most.

I don’t believe that Steve Jobs’s passion was just to make beautiful objects.

It’s horribly presumptuous of me to make assumptions about a dead man’s motivations, I know. But I have an ugly opinion, and I’m choosing to share it. I believe his passion was to prove to himself, or to the Universe– that he deserved to exist. That he was worthy.

This might be confirmation bias on my part, and it says more about me that it says about the people I’m making oversimplistic generalizations about. But it seems to me that the people at the top of their respective mountains tend to be driven there by something a little more than mere curiosity.

They get up there, I think, because someone or something about the world told them that they wouldn’t be able to do it, that they wouldn’t be good enough.

People talk about how cool Elon Musk is, but they don’t really talk about the fact that he was bullied and beaten as a child.

Maybe you’ll find your passion on a nice holiday somewhere with a beautiful view.

That wasn’t the case for me.

I think passion is something you find in the long, dark night of the soul, in moments of utter, utter despair.

It’s when you’re faced with the infinite bleakness of existence, when all sense and meaning crashes and collapses around you.

It’s when you consider suicide, but find it utterly underwhelming as a solution. The world keeps turning after you’re gone. The red washing down the bathtub can’t change the color of the sea at all.

Passion is when you decide to SUFFER. Passion is when you decide to set yourself on fire, and there is nothing pretty about the burning.

So… what are you passionate about?