Honors Convocation 2022

Assistant Professor of Political Science Jonathan Chow delivered the keynote address “Finding our Passion in a Time of Grief at Wheaton College’s Honors Convocation, which was held completely in person in Cole Memorial Chapel on Thursday, May 5.

Finding our Passion in a Time of Grief

By Jonathan T. Chow

If we recognize that the potential for suffering and grief is contained within love and passion, then the question, “What are you passionate about?” becomes much more profound than a career choice. Instead, it asks: “For what joy will you willingly open your heart? For what purpose will you willingly assume the burden of suffering and grief?”

Sometime in January of last year, I had an epiphany while standing in my son’s empty bedroom in the mid-afternoon: I was a ghost and I was haunting my own house. The bedroom was small, about the size of my office in Knapton, with a shiny hardwood floor and bare, newly painted cream-colored walls. All the furniture in the room was empty and waiting to be used: the bookcase, the drawers, the white IKEA crib with a bare mattress, the rocking chair that had once belonged to my late grandmother. I sat in that chair, sank back into the cushion, and silently watched the rays of the winter sun darken from gold to copper before it sank below the horizon.

Let me go back a bit. In the summer of 2019, I left the city of Macau in southern China, where I had lived with my wife and our infant son. I had just accepted a new position here at Wheaton College. After six years of living overseas, it was finally a chance for me to come back home to Massachusetts, where I was born and raised. When I arrived here, I was alone, but I wasn’t worried. I expected that it would take a few short months for my family to get through the immigration process before they could join me in the States. But, then, three months turned into six, then twelve, then sixteen, and then I stopped counting. The COVID pandemic meant that I could not travel abroad to visit my family, and so we had no idea when we would be reunited. We exchanged photos and videos nearly every day, but I could not help but grieve. I was grieving for having missed my son’s first year, his first steps, his first words. I was grieving for time that I knew I would never get back.  

I want to talk today about grieving and loss, but also about love, and passion, and some of the ways in which they are inseparable from each other. Let me start with passion. It wasn’t all that long ago when each one of you was agonizing over your college application essays. If you were like me, you probably received some advice about the importance of “finding your passion” and emphasizing to admissions committees just how passionate you were about playing the piano, kicking a soccer ball, painting, debating constitutional law, or writing anime fanfiction. To do something with passion was to enjoy it. And implicitly, that meant doing it with a focus and determination that promised future academic and career success.

Over the last several years, there’s been a backlash against the notion that students should “find their passion.” The counter-logic goes something like this: “telling students to pursue their passion is bad advice. What you’re enthusiastic about at 21 won’t necessarily be what you’re enthusiastic about at 35 and frankly, just because you’re passionate about writing anime fanfiction doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll be able to pay the bills with it. It’s better to be ‘practical’.”[1]

Then there is another view that I think has become more prominent over the past two-and-a-half years, which basically asks: “How can one talk about finding one’s passion when we’re living with the constant threat of a pandemic, or the threat of war or political unrest or climate change? How can one talk about finding one’s passion when the world is on fire and we’re exhausted, anxious, and dispirited? How can one find passion when every day is Blursday?

To answer this, I think we need to reassess how we understand passion. Our modern understanding of passion is bound up with notions of romantic love. William Shakespeare depicted Romeo and Juliet’s ultimate expression of passion as dying needlessly for one another—their good sense having been consumed by a fatal case of hormonally induced ardor. Oddly enough, our culture seems to believe that this sort of reckless enthusiasm has something to do with finding a fulfilling career. I did a Google search for the words “passion” and “career” and found 634 million results.

Let me offer an alternative perspective. Passion isn’t just enthusiasm. In his book, Forgotten Among the Lilies, the Catholic priest and spiritual author Fr. Ronald Rolheiser describes a fundamental passion at the heart of human nature. He writes: “We are fired into life by a madness that comes from our incompleteness. We awake to life tense, aching, erotic, full of sex and restlessness.”[2] What Father Rolheiser means is that so much of what we strive for in this life is driven by a sense of un-fulfillment and incompleteness. He describes this as the fundamental dis-ease—not disease but dis-ease—of the human condition, what he calls “the holy longing.” It is against our nature to remain at rest for long. At a place like Wheaton, this restlessness can appear as a drive for achievement, a striving to do better in our learning and our research and our teaching. We see it in the drive to create justice in our communities. These are all to the good, but there is also a dark side: stress, frustration, a sense of inadequacy or inferiority. Nevertheless, these manifestations of our dis-ease are inextricably linked to our unending quest for wholeness, for an affirmation that our existence matters despite our smallness in this universe.

Looking at passion from this angle suggests a different and older understanding of the term, one that derives more directly from the Latin word passiō, which means “suffering.” In the late second century, Tertullian, a Christian theologian from the Roman province of Carthage in modern-day Tunisia, used passiō and its various cognates to describe the sufferings of Jesus on his way to the crucifixion.[3] Thinking of passion as suffering illuminates how love demands sacrifice. Sometimes, that sacrifice manifests as work. Sometimes as the risk of losing that which we love. By opening the floodgates of our hearts, we also open ourselves up to the possibility of disappointment, rejection and heartbreak. In love, whether love of a person, a vocation, or a dream, the risk of heartbreak always accompanies the possibility of consummation. The motto of Wheaton College is “That they may have life, and may have it abundantly.” To live an abundant life is to live with abundant love. To live with abundant love is to live with abundant passion. To live with abundant passion is to open one’s heart to the possibility of joy, but also of pain and grief.

I’m especially aware that today marks the first Honors Convocation since the start of the pandemic in which we are physically gathered together in the same space. Some might say that it’s another sign that we are returning to “normal.” There is some truth to that, but I also know that there is no going back to what we had before the pandemic. Collectively, we have been scarred in ways both large and small, visible and invisible. Some of us have lost a sense of smell or taste. Some of us have lost loved ones. Many of us continue to wrestle with the demons of loneliness, anxiety, and uncertainty about what we once took for granted as stable and unchanging. There has been grieving, sometimes grieving in anger—over the loss of precious time with family and friends, long-anticipated travel, rites of passage like weddings, graduations or moving away to college for the first time. There has been grief over the destruction and senseless loss of life in Ukraine, the seemingly endless ways in which people do violence to one another both at home and abroad, and the ways in which information and stories can be so easily twisted and conscripted into the service of dehumanization. It is important not to deny this grief or be embarrassed by it. To deny our grief is to deny the truth that the people, places, opportunities, and lives that we grieve are precious to us. We grieve because we love what we have lost.

What does grief have to do with passion? Here, I know that I am treading on sensitive, perhaps even sacred, ground. Whatever you are grieving, that’s dear to you. It is not my place to tell you how to grieve what you have lost. Instead, I simply want to offer an observation: the things for which we grieve can give us important clues as to what we are truly passionate about.

If we recognize that the potential for suffering and grief is contained within love and passion, then the question, “What are you passionate about?” becomes much more profound than a career choice. Instead, it asks: “For what joy will you willingly open your heart? For what purpose will you willingly assume the burden of suffering and grief?”

In just under two weeks from today, my family will mark the one-year anniversary of our reunion here in America. In that time, I have been growing into my role as the father of a very energetic preschooler. The silence that had haunted me at home for my first two years here has been replaced with the sounds of running feet, raucous laughter, and the occasional scream of pain when I step on a stray LEGO. Our anxiety over the immigration process has been replaced by more mundane concerns, like “whose turn is it to do the dishes?” or “how can we get our son to sit still long enough to finish his dinner?”

I still grieve for the time that I lost with my family, but I realize now that the grief of our separation gave me a visceral clarity about my priorities. When I finally hugged my wife and son at Logan Airport, it did not erase the grief of the lost time, but I nevertheless felt a surge of calm purpose. I knew where my passion lay, and therein also lay the potential for a new bursting forth of life.

May we have life. May we have love. May we have passion, even when it is accompanied by the grief and suffering that mark love’s labors. And may we have it all abundantly.

[1] Cf. Ben Horowitz. “Don’t Follow Your Passion: Career Advice for Recent Graduates,” (May 28, 2015), Columbia University. https://a16z.com/2015/05/28/some-career-advice-for-all-you-recent-graduates/

[2] Ronald Rolheiser, Forgotten Among the Lilies: Learning to Love Beyond Our Fears (New York: Random House, 2007).

[3] “passion, n.”. OED Online. March 2022. Oxford University Press. https://www-oed-com.wheatonma.idm.oclc.org/view/Entry/138504 (accessed March 26, 2022).