Like many women I know who devoured her “Eat, Pray, Love” travelogue or came to appreciate her affable girlfriend-guru approachability in the wake of its seismic success, Elizabeth Gilbert is a friend in my head. Having been fortunate enough to interview her on two separate occasions, I can attest she’s every bit as lovely and endearingly unpretentious as she comes across. But even before, and just as likely without, those opportunities, LG would still be a woman whose wit and wisdom I savored as echoes of the gentle affirmation and candor I look for in my most intimate friendships.
And recently, amid the fanfare of press for her latest book, “Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear,” she stunned me with a liberating truth. In an interview with New York Magazine, LG shared the following about pursuing one’s passion, the daunting and plain bewildering advice so frequently shared as a guidepost for many looking to create a fulfilling existence.
“We live in a culture that very much fetishizes passion and certainty. I think sometimes people lose their way in the creative path because they’re being told to follow their passion,” she said. “Forget about the notion of passion, and give your attention to your curiosity. Passion burns hot and fast, which means it can come and go. Curiosity is so accessible and available …It doesn’t have to set your hair on fire … It just has to hold your attention a little bit more than everything else does. It’s how to have the most interesting possible life — constantly saying, Well, what would happen if I pursued this?”
I needed to hear those words, because in going to Tanzania as an orphanage volunteer this summer, I thought I might be delivered to the great “aha”: the clearing that revealed to me my purpose, the clicking into place of what had felt elusive, opening my life to what I was put here to do, with the gifts I’ve been given.
But the truth is, I’ve returned with even greater frustration and uncertainty about what I want from my next chapter and how it will look. I’ve thought about opening an orphanage to better provide for the children I carry daily in my heart, or perhaps a school, and been immediately intimidated by the logistics and finances of such an endeavor. I’ve thought about making a home in Arusha, where I could be close to them, but without some greater plan for impacting their lives in a way that would assure them a brighter future, such a move would be of service to neither of us.
Every now and then, I ponder returning to school for a master’s in social work or some other degree in the nonprofit field. I fall back on interests I’ve toyed with over the years, chief among them becoming a certified poetry therapist or working in hospice care. And I think about the certain passion that has always been mine, my writing, and whether abandoning it, at least professionally, is where my true calling lies.
But LG’s words, while especially timely, resonated beyond this particular struggle. For I have been wondering about my “true passion” and the sense of purpose it would galvanize for what sometimes seems like an eternity.
Yet when I look back on the last decade of my life, following my curiosity has indeed been the key to unlocking amazing possibilities and adventures. When I, in my 30th year, decided to become a wedding officiant with Journeys of the Heart, it wasn’t because I held a burning desire to marry others. The idea that I could stand up before a couple to share in their love in such a profound and sacred way was never even a glimmer in my imagination. And yet when a friend, at the time the administrator for Journeys, told me about the work its officiants did — this during a casual dinner at a bar just before taking in a Marc Broussard concert — I was immediately intrigued.
I said something along the lines of, “That must be the best job in the world, to marry people,” speaking more as the unabashed romantic that I am than the woman who believed she was about to find her calling.
Nonetheless, when my friend told me that Journeys was currently looking for additional officiants to train and wondered if my response was more than just pat enthusiasm, I found myself scheduled for an interview with the executive director within a few short weeks.
I was curious enough in that moment to follow the spark of interest that flared. And to this day I am still awed, and grateful, that I get to be of service in this way. Performing weddings is something that brings me immense joy and satisfaction. But doing so would have remained an option outside the realm of possibilities for my life if i’d waited for the thunderbolt of passion and clarity to steer me toward such ceremonial ministry.
It was the same with my decision to become an interfaith minister later that year. The idea had been an occasional flutter through my mind from the moment I began interviewing staff from two local ministry schools in the Philadelphia area and the students who attended them in order to write an article for the newspaper where I worked. Hearing the stories of how those programs had transformed lives and deepened relationships made me wonder how I could better inhabit my own life were I to cultivate a greater emotional and spiritual self-awareness.
But there was no relentless hunger to answer that question, no all-consuming surety that becoming an interfaith minister was for me. When I became a wedding officiant, it seemed only natural that I concurrently explore that path, and so I enrolled in one of the schools featured in my article. And what I can say with absolute conviction now is that so much of who I am today I blossomed into in those 18 months. The love, compassion, and joy with which I strive to enter each day were so completely and tenderly nurtured throughout my studies that it forever altered my walk in the world.
I know what it is to follow the heart. And in some ways, both of those decisions may have had their roots in the whispers that float up from the longings we often don’t even know we carry.
But I also know, as LG has reminded me, that were I to wait for an extravagant upwelling of emotion or boisterous trumpet blare to accompany every little thing that catches my interest, hoping that will be the sign to crack open the door of destiny, I’d spend a lot more time denying myself the life of my dreams than I would shaping it.
Ultimately it is up to me to create the meaning I seek, trusting as much in the potential of mild curiosity as I do in a wilder beckoning to set me on the path where passion is more often found.