Passion is the Adult We Do Not Become

Many people never outgrow the child; they demand ‘primitive merger’ with lovers, and life scenarios with ‘happy ever after’ endings, and the like. Letting the child’s consolations die is a major challenge to growing up and becoming an adult. But what are the adult’s consolations? These are more to do with the ego; ambition, triumph, success. This does not demand merger or happy endings, but it too relies on certain crutches; existence must be a puzzle that can be solved by sufficient effort, intelligence, power. The illusion that sustains the adult’s ego is ‘power over’ fate, and therefore the capacity to create one’s own destiny out of one’s own forcefulness. The child’s evasive myths are of one kind, the adult’s evasive myths are of a different kind; the child fantasises being in the arms of benign powers, like adoring parents; the adult fantasises the ego as a tough guy, standing alone, capable of blasting through every obstacle, and overcoming every challenge. Sex is the badge of power, as is worldly station: the proof the ego is rampant, unstoppable, all conquering.

Letting the adult’s consolations die is horrendously difficult, and few people do it. Adults may not need merger and happy endings, but they need predictable order and reliable control, they need measurement of outcomes, they need the definiteness that puts everything in neat and tidy boxes, or they cannot ‘play the game.’ Some adults just follow the rules that are preset, and some adults play the game to win even if they have to stretch the rules, entailing there are smaller and bigger egos in the world, compliant dogs who kow tow and buccaneering dogs who piss on the turf. But all adults are in the game, and that is also why they stick to the shallows, and evade the deeps: the game is laid out on the surface of reality, and only by remaining relentlessly surface in their perceiving and emoting can adults play the game that dominates their busy days, and vacuous nights. Take the game away, and if anything adults suffer more terribly than children forced by reality to give up their belief in Santa Claus. For, take away the predictable and the controllable, take away the measurement of outcomes, take away the definiteness that puts things in neat and tidy boxes, and there is no more game. This is when the adult ‘project’ of world mastery through the ego’s expansion hits the rocks and sinks.

Shipwreck in the adult is more far-reaching than early disillusionment in the child, because the adult has no where else to go, nothing more to hope in. The child can still hope beyond the bleakness that invades their world prematurely, deferring their happiness and fulfilment to some far off adult life, but the adult in ruination has no compensation: they can only run away by regressing to childhood, going backwards, since if they try to continue going forwards, by looking the future in the face, all they see is a vast and profound nothing. What disarms the adult ego is the reality that is outside the game, rendering it unplayable: the Daemonic takes the surface of reality away, like sweeping a carpet out from under the feet of someone who has naively and arrogantly assumed their egoic ‘progress’ is on ‘solid ground.’ The deeps of existence intrude, invade, undermine: suddenly the existential moment of awakening arrives, and the real growing up into adulthood, through embracing what reality actually is, arrives.

This is the moment when the Daemonic really attacks the adult, stripping them naked of all their protective, defensive and offensive armour. It clatters to the floor in a heap, and their naked flesh feels the full force of the cold winds of reality that reveal the true vulnerability of the human being, the true fragility of being in the world. There is no ground upholding our existence in the world: beneath everything is an abyss. Having previously shut our eyes to it, suddenly all the tissue of distractions, idols, chimeras, used by the adult to sustain blindness are ripped away. The abyss looms up at us, and we are threatened in some numinous manner right in the core of our being: our heart grows faint, our guts turn to water, our visceral self feels queasy from the ‘sickness unto death’ crawling up from our feet into our legs and arms and hands. Our whole body is shaking imperceptively. This is an encounter: it is a perception, a feeling, a sensation, a realisation. It is what Kierkegaard called Angst. Kierkegaard’s Angst is a mix of numinous apprehension and acute agony; inescapable suffering suffused with dread [in Latin the term ‘angine’ means to be ‘squeezed’ or ‘strangled’].

Kierkegaard’s famous questions express the rawness of Angst: “My life has been brought to an impasse, I loathe existence.. One sticks one’s finger into the soil to tell by the smell in what land one is: I stick my finger into existence—it smells of nothing. Where am I? What is this thing called the world?” What does this world mean? Who is it who has lured me into the thing and now leaves me here? Who am I? How did I come into the world? Why was I not consulted. How did I obtain an interest in it? Is it not a voluntary concern? And if I am compelled to take part in it, where is the director? Whither shall I turn with my complaint?”

Pascal [1623-1662] stated, even earlier, the awe and awfulness of Angst: “When I consider the short duration of my life, swallowed up in the eternity before and after, the little space I fill, and even can see, engulfed in the infinite immensity of space of which I am ignorant, and which knows me not, I am frightened, and am astonished at being here rather than there, why now rather than then.”

Angst severs all the ties to the everyday world that we take for granted, rendering everything in existence uncanny, odd, threatening, like in Munch’s painting ‘The Scream.’ The moment of crisis depicted in this work happens on a bridge over troubled and troubling waters, but the two companions ‘pass over’ without worrying, without concern for it, while the protagonist is unable to proceed. He is separated from them because he is stopped in his tracks, something terrible closes in and he is caught half way, not able to go on or go back yet paralysed in some numinously dreadful ‘between’, and it is more the black below and the red above suddenly screaming at him that evokes his own scream.

When the child has let go of the child’s consolations, and when the adult has let go of the adult’s consolations, then realism begins. The adult’s enclosed ego [impenetrable, tight boundary] is no less an illusion than the child’s expansive self [permeable, loose boundary]. It is simply a different illusion, but letting it go is catastrophic. The fall of the ego in adulthood is a shattering crash. It is Angst that initiates us into the human condition’s deeper pain, and tormented anguish, that the child feels helpless before if it bites too early, but the adult normally feels ‘on top of’, and so when the sword of ‘rational calculation’ and ‘instrumental control’ can no longer slay the dragon of ‘it makes no sense’ and ‘it cannot be solved’, then the dragon swallows the ego into its belly, and acid juices consume all trace of it. From then on the adult has nothing and is nothing, having had to embrace the nothing. At this point, the adult is in a state where, to borrow the fairy tale metaphor, ‘the cupboard is bare.’ This is the advent of the adult who is confronted with existence’s Daemonic Mystery.

This is where passion starts. Though there is the innocent enthusiasm of the child, and the idealism of late childhood and early adulthood, and even the moral passion of the adult, these accommodate and do not challenge the child self or the adult ego. But there is a passion, a stranger and darker passion, yet ultimately a more glowing and fiery passion, that only is in formation out of the death of the self and the death of the ego.

This is where the real adult emerges after the adult caught in illusion has lost all the egoic meanings so treasured, so preserved, so clung on to. This is where the passion that can properly be described as the province of the adult starts. This is the adult not simply beyond what many know to be the error of childhood but also beyond what few know to be the error of adulthood. Real adults are rarer than hen’s teeth, though the future of the world leans on them as it does on no one else. Taking responsibility for the world is their hall-mark. Pseudo adults milk the world for all they can get, to satisfy their own narrow ends, and thus are indifferent to the world’s existential precariousness, and unwilling to risk their existential vulnerability for its sake.

Angst separates us from the world: only by passion can we rejoin it. What the adult passion faces and must delve is the spirituality of passion.

This doesn’t happen very much in the modern world because of two obstacles that stand like enormous and seemingly irremovable mountains. One is the mountain of false spirituality, the other is the mountain of false worldliness. But these are really ‘twin peaks’, because they share the same premise, like heads and tails of a single bad coin: that spirit can cannot win the world, that spirit cannot be embodied in matter, that the limitless cannot dwell in the limited. Though these mountains come at this premise from opposite sides, they share its notion of a separation between the spiritual and the world process. This separation is what the Daemonic Spirit rejects, and will not cease from strife against until it is defeated.

[1] The East is against worldliness, but this contains its own danger of other-worldliness. When monasticism becomes body phobic, and world contemptuous, it has lost its way.

[2] The other influence obscuring passion’s spiritual role in the world is that in the West people have become increasingly prissy, inhibited, without pith and juice, due to being over rationalised; we increasingly rely on thinking, and its abstract systems of formulae, rules, structures, schemes, to ‘get us through.’ Lev Shestov: a rationalist is someone who wants to live in the categories by which he thinks, whereas an existentialist is someone who wants to think in the categories by which he lives. The abstracted state in which the mind is uninvolved with and indifferent to any below the neck passion is the third face of evil called Mephistophles in the legend of Faust. This mind seeks knowledge as the solution to the existential problem. Thus, this is a mind that doesn’t see, feel, or care about anything that really matters, because it deals only in disembodied, non existential, abstractions. Only one below-the-neck reality intrudes on the equanimity of this mind: the all-consuming stomach. Thus mental abstractionism fits perfectly like a hand in a glove with Mammon, the devil who worships money, riches, acquisition, possession, in the place of God. Mephistophles and Mammon run advanced capitalism. We escape in our heads and we fill up our stomachs, and we believe this paltry pair is ‘all there is.’

It is in this light that Kierkegaard asserts what our mediocre, bourgeois society needs is more passion. Thus in The Present Age (1846) he asserts that:

“our age is essentially one of comprehension and reflection, without passion, momentarily bursting into enthusiasm, and shrewdly relapsing into repose… Nowadays not even a suicide kills himself in desperation. Before taking the step he deliberates so long and so carefully that he literally chokes with thought. It is even questionable whether he ought to be called a suicide, since it is really thought which takes his life. He does not die with deliberation but from deliberation.”

It is also in this light that Kierkegaard is always pressing for passion against reason: “If you will understand me aright,” he explains in Either/Or (1843), “I should like to say that in making a choice it is not so much a question of choosing the right as of the energy, the earnestness, the pathos with which one chooses.”

But what is the ‘pathos’ that is the root of choice, as opposed to it being merely the mind and the will?

It is through the Spirit that passion knows something about the unknown that our mind does not know, and indeed cannot know. Passion leaps into the unknown, the dangerous, the unsecured, the pained, the costly– while the mind, and even the will, would reel back.

This is already foreshadowed in the Angst that sparks passion, like flint striking stone to spark flame. For Angst in Kierkegaard is two-sided: it reveals terror at our precarious ‘position’ in existence, which is summed up in our dread towards death, but it also reveals an open space requiring humanity to act, it opens up possibility, and indeed generates a sense of adventure. Angst is double edged: mixed in with crippling paralysis is a liberating excitement.

As passion goes deeper and farther, so its driving force increases in power because its ‘irrational rationale’ becomes more clear to the heart. This cannot be explained to people in terms of any of the accepted language or ideas they normally use to make sense of their conduct to each other.

In passion there is a drive toward ‘discovering what thought cannot think.’ The passion in us pushes us, moves us, drives us, beyond our comfortable, invulnerable, protective, limits, and yet also accepts to dwell and act within limits. Passion is at once limitless, you cannot predict and you cannot control ‘how far it will go’, yet accepts the limitless as it enters limits, it ‘carries the load’ of all the limits within which it operates. The latter part of this equation gives passion its true meaning and stupendous strength: passion is the limitless in the limited.

Passion knows the why. This is why the heart has reasons the reason cannot grasp, as Pascal rightly said.

The only ‘why’ is redemption. The limitless is in the limited to redeem the world, and all persons, creatures, things, in it. This willingness to lose in regard to oneself for the sake of a greater gain for all, is the Nobility Nietzsche could not understand, but betrayed by his pathetic Superman. The limitless serves the limited, this is its Nobility, for the sake of an irrational purpose, an impossible goal, a task beyond all tasks, and this is to redeem everything and everybody, and this can only be a mixture of giving by the limitless to the limited, yet it also involves a faith in the limited, that it can change, and become different. Through the Spirit’s power and promptings, passion incarnates the limitless in the limited, and passion pays for this, paying the cost of it the limited cannot pay. This two-fold action is redemption.

Passion’s urge, passion’s driving force, is to enter the arena of life and death, the arena of heaven and hell, the arena of the abyss as empty forever and the abyss as empty to become full, in order to ‘make a difference’ to how it turns out.

Why does passion do what it does?

It does this for love.

Only love allows the limitless to dwell and act in the limited.

Only love redeems.

Passion has its own love, but in the Spirit a more total love ravishes it, breaks it, remakes it.

A real adult is someone who learns existentially what love ‘really’ is, through the Spirit.