August 29, 2004

Passion is what lets us know we are alive.

Where passion is not found in oneself, in aspects of one's daily existence, something to provide an approximation of the same "rush" will be sought elsewhere at any and all cost: but as maximal personal amusement/entertainment/release deriving from minimal personal effort, without any self-motivated drive to self-improvement.

Such a rush might come upon writing or sharing a well-written rant, releasing frustration and perceived inability to do something about a constant annoyance in a few choice words. Some seek it in drug usage, or sometimes other, potentially less physically-damaging forms of escapism. A few seek it in potentially life-threatening pursuits. Many follow a more societally sanctioned route by seeking to outperform the others of their chosen social circle in some way, either by keeping up with the Joneses or by deliberately marching to the beat of a different drummer (yet marching, all the same): here, one way or another, the rush is fed directly through consumerism and the spending index. Another frequent outlet is physical, or simulation-of-physical, or even in surrogating another's physical competitive achievements (and perhaps all of these also surrogate for life-threatening pursuits).

It is worth noting that, in all contexts but that of drug usage/escapism, competitiveness - always based on some standard exterior to one's own independent drive to continually improve, be it a numerical value or the other team - is absolutely essential. (Perhaps this pattern parallels the recent findings that people can and do become addicted to physical exercise?) Where personal entertainment/release substitutes for inner passion, even constructive criticism cannot but be resented, because there is no innate hunger to improve: and the most common reactions to any criticism will be to discredit the source, to close oneself off from input entirely, or simply to give up. ("Work was hard, so we quit.") In the absence of an internal drive to improve, there must be an exterior bar in which one places value against which one can measure one's own superiority (or that of one's chosen surrogates) to others.

(Perhaps this might be another reason why, even in so-called classless societies, human beings always end up establishing increasingly rigid pecking orders? It does seem to be more important, to human beings as a whole, to identify oneself as better than some - even if that implicitly requires being worse than others - rather than accept that parallel societal value might come in a wide diversity of packages.)

In the absence or active rejection even of such an external standard; when, regretfully, it becomes obvious that most of us won't have achieved perfection instantly on our first time out: why bother even trying a second time? let alone a third? or a fourth? Measured this way, against a perception of increasing effort and diminishing returns: what incentive to keep trying at all?

Passion does not - cannot! - arise cored in something which comes automatically: but the passion makes the work required to better oneself within the passion so instinctive, so second-nature, so inevitable, as to create the illusion of the skill having come easily.

And yet many of us who have access to these words will have been raised in a society which strongly implies that personal meaning should come as easily as finding the right clothing.

There is a phenomenon common among soldiers exported from relatively stable, peaceful countries into war: upon their first few engagements, many, many of them report feeling absolutely and utterly alive, as they have never felt before. They lived. Others ... did not. War - the imminent risk and power of life and death - seems to have a way of giving meaning to their lives.

I do specify "power" because the same is emphatically not true of those who experience war from a position of helplessness, of familiarity with the randomness of life and death. In those cases, frequently - although not anywhere near as frequently as with the newly inserted soldiers - there might also be a sense of renewed life, but often mixed with guilt: I lived! but so many others died ... why did I deserve to live? New soldiers just coming in from stable, technologically highly-adept countries won't have that issue. They know why they lived: they are the ones who are supposed to, of course; just as they are supposed to have the power of life and death over others. The greater the technological gradient, the lower the immediate reality of death: to the point where, in relatively stable, peaceful countries which have no first-hand knowledge of the realities of war within the average lifetime, many military recruits - and, more interestingly, their families, even their parents - have no real conception that embarking upon military careers means that they could die. Where military recruitment is voluntary, recruiters are extremely careful to maintain that image: joining the military as investment in one's education, experience, future; rather than defence of one's country or need or even duty born of citizenship ... any of which might evoke the spectre of possible personal risk.

In a nation unfamiliar on a personal, immediate basis with the everyday realities of living during war; in a nation which perhaps has lost its sense of personal meaning: might national aggressiveness, either against others or in its deep division against self, possibly become a national surrogate to fill the vacuum left by the absence of a strong - independent - sense of self?

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