At a dinner recently I listened to a man describe his hobby. He likes to paint with watercolor. But he just lets them stack up. “I don’t have a passion for it,” he said. In contrast, I attended a workshop for linguists and was astonished by the intensity of their devotion to the most obtuse aspects of language.
Which made me wonder about how any of us generates a passion.
My own path has been a series of diverse motivational stepping-stones. I wanted to be an athlete, then an artist. I tried both. Now I’m a writer. I was telling a writing friend recently that maybe my current passion would eventually give way to something else. She was surprised.
But while these passions influence my sense of identity, they don’t define me. I’m what I call a serial enthusiast. I jump headlong into some subject area or activity, learning everything I can, until the passion recedes. Then I move on. Another one inevitably takes hold. And I never backtrack. There are things I’ve liked all my life, but these passions – they have their season.
I saw this notion of serial enthusiasm demonstrated in a character from Susan Orlean’s 1995 New Yorker story, “The Orchid Thief.” Or perhaps, I should say that it became vivid to me in the 2002 film adaptation of the story, Adaptation.
Meryl Streep plays Susan Orlean. She’s on an assignment to cover the trial of John Laroche, who’s been arrested for poaching orchids from Florida’s Fakahatchee Strand State Preserve. Chris Cooper plays Laroche, a unique character with a penchant for passion. He knows how to dive in.
There’s a scene in which he’s driving his van as Orlean interviews him. He moves quickly through his various past interests. First there was a love of turtles, and then Ice Age fossils. Replacing this was a passion for collecting 19th-century Dutch mirrors.
Orlean wants to know how he can get so involved in something and then just detach and move on. Doesn’t he invest his whole soul? Doesn’t he miss it?
Laroche says he once fell profoundly in love with exotic fish. He even took up skin diving to find just the right ones, and had sixty aquariums. Then one day, that was it. "Done with fish.” He no longer even goes into the ocean.
Orlean is puzzled. However, she’s also aware (in the film version) that she’s never experienced passion to this degree. She returns to New York confronted with her own hollowness. Although she joins her friends in making fun of Laroche, she secretly wonders what it feels like to have such a consuming force.
I love Laroche because he gets it. He knows how to fully immerse in a subject area or project and glean it for its full impact on his life. He also knows when he’s gotten what he can. He understands that when it’s time to move on, “Done with fish.”
At least he has experienced profound passion and driving fascination with something that calls to him and gives him a way to enlarge his world. He knows how it feels for a passion to choose him.
By taking up this assignment, the Orlean character in Adaptation (no reflection on the actual author) has been given a gift. She’s been allowed to see such passion up close in the form of his obsession with orchids. She follows Laroche into a dank, dangerous swamp full of risk and the potential to get lost to see why someone might persistently seek the rare bloom of a Ghost Orchid.
The Ghost Orchid is the central metaphor. In the film, it has properties that, when ingested, help people to, as Laroche put it, “be more fascinated.”
We should all ask, what is the Ghost Orchid in my life? What grabs my attention and draws me close? What excites me so much that I must respond? In what would I willingly invest my soul?
Some theorists say that we create our own source of fascination. We find something to which we have a natural affinity, what I call a “quickening,” and use it to organize our goals. But I think it’s stronger than this. I have affinities for quite a few things that don’t call me like a full-on passion does.
You know it when you feel it. You get that fluttery sense that something significant is at hand and you move toward it. You make room for it in your life and experience its awesome bloom. Maybe it affirms your goals, or maybe it will completely change them. You're in its presence more than it's in yours.
For some people, a single passion motivates their entire life. It’s who they are and they'd never give it up. For others, like myself and John Laroche, serial enthusiasms work better. I know that whatever compels me toward that deep immersive experience will likely wear thin. But that’s okay, because other things not yet known will replace it.
There’s no point in trying to eat something that has lost its flavor. I’d rather have many consuming if finite passions than wonder what it’s like to have even one.