David S. Buckel was a prominent attorney and advocate for civil and environmental rights. In 1993 he worked on a lawsuit on behalf of Brandon Teena, a transgender man who was raped and murdered in a small town in Nebraska. Teena’s life and untimely death were later retold in the award-winning Boys Don’t Cry.
CNN recently published an excerpt of an email Buckel wrote not long before his passing. “Pollution ravages our planet, oozing inhabitability via air, soil, water and weather. Most humans on the planet now breathe air made unhealthy by fossil fuels, and many die early deaths as a result— my early death by fossil fuel reflects what we are doing to ourselves.”
Last month, in what’s known as a “protest suicide,” he set himself on fire.
He set himself on fire.
My partner and I disagree on the value of passion.
I tend to think that passion is temporary, ineffective, and insignificant. It ebbs and flows.
He tends to think that passion is necessary, formidable, and life-changing. It inspires our very existence.
I think passion is like cereal: part of a balanced breakfast. It can lead a horse to water, but it can’t make him drink.
He thinks we have no purpose without passion. Without purpose, our lives are meaningless.
Whether he’s right or he’s wrong, passion isn’t the answer.
If Buckel is Right
I don’t know whether or not Buckel was a man with nothing to lose.
And I don’t know whether or not I believe that passion should set us on fire.
But if he was right, as in justified– (and here I don’t mean to disrespect his legacy, his loyalty, or his personhood. I also don’t mean to be crass or insensitive.)–
But if he was right, then I’d argue that it wasn’t actually passion that killed him.
The desire for change did.
The desire for staunch and immediate solutions did.
The desire for concerted civil and political action did.
The desire for a national platform or an international stage did.
Passion, by herself, didn’t do it.
If Buckel is right, then we should be willing to die for our passions. Perhaps our passions should even light a fire in other people to observe, to acknowledge, and to participate.
If Buckel is right, he doesn’t get to enjoy the fruits of his passion.
Whether he’s wrong or he’s right, we need something more.
If Buckel is Wrong
If Buckel is wrong, then we should never let our passion morph into self-righteous rage. Perhaps we should turn our passion outward, not inward. We can be willing to die for our passions, but we shouldn’t let passion kill us.
Not like that, Lord.
If Buckel is wrong, then we should never become too passionate. There’s a limit to what passion, by herself, can do for us (and by extension, for the rest of the world).
If Buckel is wrong, then we should keep our passions in check. We should pair them with niceties like joy, happiness, and love. We should use them in relationships and sprinkle them onto our commitments.
If Buckel is wrong, passion must be neutralized.
Passion Isn’t the Answer
Since I was very little, I’ve always wanted to be a writer. I’ve written greeting cards (on construction paper), motivational bookmarks, letters to toothpaste companies, poems, haiku, and Japanese tanka. I’ve written research papers and captions; I’ve written thank you notes and postcards. I write on everything– tinfoil, sandwich bags, paper towels, tissue paper, paper bags, plastic bottles.
Even if I never publish anything, or sell anything that I’ve written, or create anything that’s truly significant, I’ll always be a passionate writer.
It keeps me up at night. It wakes me up in the morning. It visits me in times of want and in times of plenty. It peers over my shoulder. It distracts me during meetings, in movies, and at meals. It’s always with me, watching and waiting.
It affects my spending habits and some of my long-term choices.
Being a writer is part of my identity. You can’t tell me that I’m not passionate. And you can’t take that away from me. I won’t let you.
But here’s the thing– I don’t always write.
Save for this blog, I wouldn’t write at all. (Before this blog, I hadn’t written in years.)
My passion for writing doesn’t make me kinder, or freer, or even happier.
It doesn’t make me a better friend, or steward, or caretaker.
My passion for writing doesn’t make me more disciplined or more successful or more affectionate.
It’s not meant to.
Passions can change.
They’re not always productive.
Sometimes they do more harm than good.
Sometimes they stifle our growth and development.
Sometimes, as we age, we even lose the ability to fully experience them.
We’re just no longer capable of enjoying-completing-performing-experiencing our passions.
Passion is useful, motivating, and inspiring.
But passion isn’t the answer.
We need something more.