Passion is not friendly. It is arrogant, superbly contemptuous of all that is not itself, and, as the very definition of passion implies the impulse to freedom; it has a mighty intimidating power. It contains a challenge. It contains an unspeakable hope.
-- James Baldwin, Tell Me How Long the Train's Been Gone
It seems as if we live in a time inured to passion and the impulse to freedom. I see, so often, all too many intimidated by the power of hope. Afraid to speak its name. So many people driven by calculated decision-making, the complete focus on the forming of a "personal brand," the creation of benign and safe art, the lack of an ability to articulate a calling -- the complete and utter infatuation with the virtual world. We are becoming a society that is consumed with the virtual, not the aspect of it that brings information and freedom and access, but instead that aspect that allows for charade and façade -- a profoundly vacuous existence that feels safer than the world of truth which can be dirty and messy -- but lived.
So often plugged in and invested in distraction, who will be our poets? So many seek to live through the experiences of others, maniacal about sharing snippets of their lives, but in curated photos of a desired life, an avoidance of the present. What of the moment of experience? The there. The now. Who will be our philosophers?
Yes, passion can force others away, it can burn hot and become exclusionary, but it can also bring near and be inclusive. Due to inspiration, it can invite others to walk, hand in hand, an attraction born of the very freedom it promises -- a freedom to feel, to have one's sight altered, one's experience embellished. The challenge Baldwin writes of is to take chances -- to strike out and use one's individuality to create and transform.
There is a danger in this kind of hope, this chance taken, as it can be unrealized, but when successful, the very world can change, relationships can deepen and art can be created that is tough, altering, affecting and illuminating. Too often we seek solace in safe spaces, we fear exploration. We will find fewer answers and create fewer questions in the insular world in which so many live -- the safety that so many seek. That is the great risk.
I have worked with young people for 20 years, young people who come from some of the most desperate socio-economic conditions allowed to continue in this nation. Everyday I am inspired by their endurance and capacity to heal and overcome the inequities they face, the traumas they have experienced. However, I am also concerned that too many of them are comfortable in just being -- I see a lack of dreaming, a lack of follow through and courage to be different -- a lack of passion for life.
Some of this lack of passion comes from the very experience of suffocating poverty -- a level of deprivation that exists for all too many in this country. It is one of the great injustices of America -- that this level of deprivation is allowed to exist, and that it leads to all too many becoming inured to possibility. The weight of life, of consistent disappointments, of unrealized desires, can result in a kind of numbness, as if one is wandering through the world seeking direction. I have seen, in ways that have scarred me and left me changed, how the twin oppressions of race and class can strangle vision, suppressing the desire to fight back -- to struggle for change. Many simply seek to survive.
I have also worked with some who have bravely joined historic movements for change, and they have made me profoundly proud -- of their bold commitment to struggle to make America live up to its founding documents and adhere to its articulated aspirations, to become the realization of liberty and equality and access for all -- the centuries-long dream of the enslaved, the indentured, the immigrant, the undocumented, the poor. But these have been the exceptions. All too often, the light that inspired these youth when they became, suddenly, politically aware, was extinguished. Instead, they sought only basic security. Though I understand this -- I hope for more for them.
I have seen this phenomenon as well within the halls of some of the leading academic institutions of the world. I remember when I began my law school studies at Yale. I was deeply fortunate to have the opportunity of the education Yale provided, and yet was struck, on a daily basis, by the insular and exclusionary perspective that was so rampant there: that leadership and change could come only from the world of elite education.
When I began my studies, I was sure I would find many fellow students deeply focused on the major challenges of the world -- climate change, gender inequity, international human rights struggles, the pervasive inequity of the legal system, continued unrealized equal opportunity for all without regard to race and class. And while I encountered teachers and colleagues who struggled with these great issues of our time, more focused on expanding privilege, amassing personal wealth, on easy and comfortable employment. I do not expect the majority of those with greater access to sacrifice for the greater good in large numbers, but I hoped that they would know the glory and greatness of participating in the struggles for humanity.
There is ample room for lives to be filled with complexity of purpose and personal desire, with sustenance and pleasure, with bread and roses. There is no reason one cannot be committed to the struggle for human rights, equity and peace, and also seek to travel the world and see it's beauty, to drink great wine, eat wonderful food and love hard. We need social justice fighters and artists. And many great individuals have been both. As Walt Whitman once wrote: "Do I contradict myself? Very well then, I contradict myself. I am large. I contain multitudes."
A challenge must be to understand both technology and the virtual world, and also the power of human touch and connection. To understand and use technology, of course, but not to become so entrapped by the vapid, how, like an opiate, it can keep one from becoming engaged with the actual struggles, change, art and experiences of authentic and real human beings. More must choose a path that is connected to the greater good.
We must use our gifts, our education, our awareness, our scars and opportunities -- our lived experience -- to work on the issues that bind us, as well as to seek answers and solutions to those that suppress and divide us. To be free is to be able to expand and deepen oneself through work and experience, while also working to create opportunity for others, to take on the status quo when it is unjust, to create art that challenges power and expected norms. Speak. Write. Create. Agitate. Challenge. Be large. Seek multitudes. It is our only hope.