When I ask people these days why they’re involved in some cause, they tend to reply that they are passionate about it, which doesn’t satisfy me.
See, passion is an emotion, and as such it is morally neutral. People who work at Sarah’s Inn told me that they are passionate about ending domestic abuse, but Hamas was so passionate about destroying the state of Israel that they slaughtered over 1,000 innocent victims.
For me, passion is not a satisfying reason for why people choose to invest themselves in this or that. I also need to know what they are passionate about, and on that basis I will make an ethical decision about whether it’s worth doing or not.
My problem is that lots of people these days seem to be replacing ethics with psychology. Instead of saying, “That’s good or bad, right or wrong,” I hear lots of people saying, “I’m not comfortable with that.” You don’t have to defend how you feel.
What’s interesting to me lately is that I hear people responding to what Hamas did and how Israel plans to respond with emotional language like “outrage” or “sadness” or “anger.” Rabbi Max Weiss, in a service at Oak Park Temple on Oct. 7, expressed how he and most Jews were responding to the atrocities committed by Hamas by talking about how they felt. He said that it was like they were all “sitting shiva,” all in deep mourning for the loss of a family member.
But he and almost everyone I talk to also use ethical/religious language, including the word “evil” to describe the situation and add that we had a duty, a responsibility, an obligation, to destroy the evil.
Psychological language was simply inadequate. “Feeling” words were supplemented by words of action and duty. “Should” had to be added to “feel.”
Let me share some personal history. When I was growing up 70 years ago, I was taught in many ways that, to be a real man, I couldn’t show my feelings. That is what women do. Women were emotional, flighty, moody — not of much use in a crisis. Men had to be steady, controlled, rational, even-keeled, dependable. I learned to express my love not by saying, “I love you,” but by being responsible and dependable.
I think my first wife was attracted to that, but as we got further into our marriage, she asked me to start talking about my feelings with her. Talk about getting out of my comfort zone. Now, 40-some years later, my adult children tell me they didn’t feel close to me when they were growing up. They appreciated my dependability and everything else that men were supposed to do, but they didn’t feel the emotional connection they longed for.
A lot of us men got the message, and we’ve tried to learn new “love languages,” but I fear the pendulum has swung too far the other way. We’ve become so “passionate” about making diversity work that we hesitate to call any behavior right or wrong for fear of offending a neighbor who thinks differently than we do.
That is, except in the culture wars. We tend to migrate into lifestyle enclaves in which everyone thinks and values pretty much the same way. Around here, if you are not “woke” you pretty much stay in the closet for fear of getting emotionally clobbered by the like-minded majority. I confess that I feel most comfortable with folks who think and see the world as I do. You noticed I used the word “comfort,” right?
The problem is living that way prevents us from getting a lot of practice making the necessary ethical decisions that have to be made in the public square when the square expands beyond our homogenous cultural boundaries.
In the locker room before the game, football teams try to get pumped with passion. However, when the team starts the fourth quarter three touchdowns behind, the teams that fight on are not motivated by passion but by character traits like grit and determination.
I was not passionate about being a parent or a pastor. Passion might energize athletes for a hundred-meter dash but not for a marathon. Marriage, parenting, leading a church, running a small business — all of those are long-distance races with emotional highs and lows. Parenting, for example, isn’t a game with nine innings but more of a season with 162 games.
Joe Biden gets criticized for not being emotional enough. He, in other words, generates some light but not much heat. He doesn’t express much passion. Donald Trump, in contrast, generates a great deal of heat — another word for passion — but almost zero light.
When I was a pastor I was more like Biden than Trump. My people seemed to be OK with that for 25 years.