Fintan O’Toole: The push to be passionate is a passion-killer
Coming soon: the passion of the panel beater
‘Try this little game. Put the phrase “passionate about” into a search engine and then add a random word.’ Photograph: Getty Images
Could we reintroduce the death penalty for crimes of passion? By which I mean the crimes against language and reason committed by those who can’t like something or be interested in something but must “have a passion” for it. We are in the midst of a passion pandemic. It is peculiarly joyless and deadening – passion is a grim and implacable imperative. You may no longer say, for example, “I quite enjoy my job as a biscuit baker”. You must say “We are passionate about making excellent biscuit and cracker products”. (This is an actual sentence from a recent Irish Times business interview.)
Try this little game. Put the phrase “passionate about” into a search engine and then add a random word. Passionate about + wallpaper? Bingo. Custom Wallpaper: “We’re passionate about wallpaper”. Let’s make it harder. Ear wax: “we asked someone who couldn’t be more passionate about the subject, ear nurse Melitta Swanepoel from the Ear Clinic”. Manure? “McCloskey’s passion may have been singing in a barbershop quartet. But instead of chasing an unrealistic passion, he decided to get passionate about his work. So what did McCloskey get passionate about? Manure.”
Passion used to be connected to its linguistic roots in suffering – the passion of Christ is his mental agony in the Garden of Gethsemane and his physical torment on the cross. By analogy, a passion was something you suffered from, an overwhelming emotion (grief, hatred, greed, love, joy, desire) that took possession of your senses and drove you out of your mind. It was a state to be feared – the thing to do with passions was to cool them.
But in our culture of hyperbole, passion can only be a good thing. Even if the object of your passion is stupid, the fact you are passionate about it is innately admirable. Thus, five men caught doing doughnuts in their cars on a main road in Co Kerry earlier this year pleaded in mitigation that they “had a passion for cars”. Greg Kavanagh, the property developer who was discovered to have threatened the governor of the Central Bank that he would spend millions on a public campaign against him if he didn’t get his way told The Irish Times: “I am very passionate about what I do and sometimes I express myself in a very robust way.”
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The passion for passion is creepy in another way, too. It has given employers the right to claim, not just a fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay, but ownership of an employee’s entire emotional life. Go to an interview now and tell them you’re smart and hard-working and good at the job. You’ll be out the door in five minutes.
Where’s your passion for cleaning toilets, or picking mushrooms or making up hotel bedrooms?
Look at the job ads. Accenture is seeking someone “passionate about digital marketing and sales”. To work on Vodafone’s service desk, you must be “passionate about exceeding customer expectations”. To get hired as a sales rep for a coffee company in Leinster, applicants must “be passionate about developing themselves”. Curry’s PC World in Blanchardstown will hire you if “you’re passionate about the latest innovations”. A software company is “looking for someone who is passionate about the cloud-based future of infrastructure provisioning”. A “food service assistant” (waiter?) in Cork: “You are passionate about delivering great service”. A florist in Dublin: “the successful applicant . . . will be passionate about the trade”. McCauley’s Chemist in Midleton wants a cosmetics salesperson “passionate about carrying out make-uppers”.
Maria Klos Aesthetics in Dublin wants someone to do some blow-drying on Saturdays but only if they’re “passionate about hair”. My favourite is the search for a panel beater in Baldoyle: “You’ll be passionate about the industry.” (Coming soon: The Passion of the Panel Beater.)