The Tyranny of our Passionate Interests

As all Stoics know, excessive emotions, such as passion, are detrimental because they set us up for a fall, either from the aftermath once the thrill is gone or from disappointment in not having the thrill.  Avoiding passionate emotion, such as irrational love (perhaps lust is the better word), anger, high pitched excitement, etc… makes sense in the Stoic ethos, and I have no quarrel there. I see a slight difference, however, between passion in its adjectival form and “a passion,” meaning a pursuit or interest to which one invests a great deal of time, effort, self- esteem, and other costs.  Although less obviously detrimental, such passions do have a side that threatens tranquility (the Stoic goal).  The easy answer is to pursue an interest but avoid going to extremes and allowing it to assume too big a part of one’s life. That certainly sounds like the reasonable (and therefore Stoic) approach. I have identified for myself another problem: the difficulty lies not in my excessive love for the pursuit, but rather in how much of the burden of my life the pursuit is shouldering.  Stated otherwise, it is not so much a question of loving too much the particular pursuit, but in how much I am asking that pursuit to fill voids, take up slack, and otherwise make up for the shortcomings or difficulties in life. When that burden lands on an interest, the interest can become a love/ hate experience.  Not only might I love doing something—maybe I don’t at all — but I place an undue amount of energy and focus on it because I am running away from some very troubling realities.  I can start to even feel somewhat a victim of my passion—the safe harbor I have created has thorns, but where else can I sleep?

Passion and Applying to College


1. Any powerful or compelling emotion or feeling, as love or hate;

2. Strong amorous feeling or desire; love; ardor.

3. Strong sexual desire; lust.

4. An instance or experience of strong love or sexual desire.


September and back to school for upper class high school students means, at least in many communities, preparing for college—or more precisely applying to college, a part of which is the self-revealing essay. The guidance office at our high school and the admissions officers who spoke at the information meetings that I have attended have adopted the use of the word “passion” as supremely important.  We are told that colleges want to see that the student is “passionate” about some endeavor.  As a Stoic and a person who can use a dictionary, I find that word poorly chosen and object to that criterion.

A quick glance at the pretty simple definition in the dictionary shows how misused or objectionable that standard is. Why would a student’s capacity for overwhelming feelings indicate success in college or career?  One might intensely love some activity and not in the least be studious, intelligent, insightful, innovative, diligent —all far more important qualities for higher education and after. In fact, if a student achieved a high level of competence at something that he or she did not like much, that would indicate a valuable quality of determination. Does one’s intense feelings justify neglecting the other courses that don’t incite one’s passion?  Passion, in areas of life that require self-discipline (or in life generally), is not beneficial. It is curious that anyone in the admissions process has seized upon this word.

Perhaps this criterion of passion is simply sloppy use of language and what is really meant is enthusiasm to achieve a notable level of accomplishment in some endeavor; still it is the level of accomplishment, not the feelings that are relevant. Most likely, and this could be the good news, colleges don’t really care about passions and are just indulging in reckless rhetoric, excusing themselves from a genuine and accurate use of words to conceal that they just want great SAT scores, top grades, stellar athletics, and or innovative and dedicated community service.  I think accurate use of language and intellectual honesty should weigh in as important criteria–for applicants and admissions officers.