Hannah and Papa J

Hannah and Papa J

Saturday, June 21, 2014

On passion

Dear Hannah,

Ask yourself whether a man who loses sleep over a woman, who can't eat, who gives her everything he has, thinks about her day and night, places himself in danger, vows to love her forever, and commits suicide because of her has a problem, or whether he's Romeo.  The answer is obvious: he's a Romeo if the target of his affections loves him back, and a psychotic if she doesn't.  He has exactly the same disease either way; our perspective on the disease's usefulness determines whether we give him praise and a play, or censure and a straitjacket.

I've heard many sensible men say that every kind of passion can be used for great things, if we would only keep them in their proper channels.  As CS Lewis said, the spirit to fight and war is good -- but only when warring against bad things; and the instinct to make love is worth celebrating -- but only when it's with someone you're married to, and it's consensual.  I don't necessarily disagree with these people, but I wonder whether the same passions that make us ignore food and sleep and danger to chase a lover could ever be as praiseworthy if they were manageable.  The joys and miseries of our lives are in our cards: some of us live lives of suppression; others pursue what we feel and get praise for it.  Most of us are a mix between the two; a few of us feel little to nothing.  Alcibiades was almost all vice; Aristides was almost all virtue: both of them had souls too big for their bodies; the former had vices too big for a nation.  Our decisions are our own, but what we struggle with, whether we swim with or against the current of our being, is a game of dice. 

All honor to the man who does what's right instead of following his inordinate passions; Solomon says, and rightly, that it's better to govern yourself than to be able to take over a city.  On the opposite end of the ideological spectrum, Jello Biafra sneers at the men who claim our emotions make us monsters.  They're both obviously right in their own ways, in that reckless passions and senseless conformity each make us monstrous -- but I doubt the hopeless lover would ever agree that the target of his affections is worth giving up, just because she doesn't love him at the moment.  And why should he?  He can't feel another way: to chase what you don't want is to reason without a reason.  Humanity lives on hope, and our only hope is in the things that we want.  Our happiness is in wanting the right things.

Your father,

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