Here’s a sneaky way of getting people to reveal their true passion. Have them make a list of two things that they most want to do. Then have them cross off the item that they listed first. I once read that on any list of two things, the item that you place first is the one that you mention because you think that it makes you look good to others — it’s the one that you list for them. The item that you place second is your true passion — the one that you want to do for you. So strongly do our defenses block us from our passions that we have to be tricked into revealing what those passions are.
Over the years, in unguarded moments, I’ve gotten to hear what successful leaders have put on their lists as their number-two items. One leader told me that his dream was to write a multivolume fantasy novel. Someone else said that he wanted to be alone for days on end with an all-black Rothko painting until he could see light shining through it.
And then it was my turn. A group of us were undergoing a kind of psychological open-heart surgery — a sort of bypass to our passions — at an executive-reinvention seminar a few years ago. It was a matter of life and death because each of us was suffocating within our organizations. We carried lofty titles but suffered from underappreciation. We were COOs, respected creative partners, or organizational healers. But we were not lead dogs — even worse, it didn’t look as if we would ever become lead dogs — and we were beginning to think that there was something wrong with us.
The seminar leader asked us what we would do if time, money, and status weren’t governing factors. My mouth was the first one to open, and, in a voice that sounded possessed, I heard myself say things that I had never before consciously thought. I was like Carrie, and my words were like something out of a Stephen King novel. “I want to burn all my panty hose,” I recall saying. “I want to buy a one-way ticket to Florence, and I want to read Dante’s works in their original Italian.” As if all of that wasn’t embarrassing enough in front of a group of about a dozen strangers, I added: “And I want to learn how to make sausage.”
With sausage out there for everyone to consider, other people in the group — which included a retail executive, a Hollywood-studio vice president, and a president of a computer company — were less inhibited about letting fly with their own number twos. One person listed gardening, another person wanted to start a kindergarten, and a third person hoped to become a comedian. What were we doing talking about such dippy passions? And what were those passions doing to us? Were they responsible for subtly pushing us away from top spots in our companies? By voicing them out loud, were we running the risk of letting them carry us off in new and possibly dangerous directions?
To find out the answers to those questions, I traveled to Dallas on a dust-bowl-hot day. I needed some literary psychoanalysis, so I took my Dante passion, which I barely understood (it had been years since I’d read any Dante), to a teacher who could help me to understand it: Dr. Larry Allums, 55, director of the Dallas Institute of the Humanities and Culture. Had I found the answer to the question, What do I want to be when I grow up? And, if I had found it, what was I supposed to do with it?
Allums, a former jet pilot with a face as hollow as Abe Lincoln’s, started talking about why our dreams scare us so much. For one thing, he says, as we get older, we get used to heading in a different direction. “People midway through their lives see that the idea of progress has disappeared,” says Allums. “The best that they can hope for, if they want to move ahead, is to go deeper into their soul’s dark pool, where even footsteps disappear. After a certain point, there is no path to follow.”
Allums talks about the importance of heeding dreams, something Dante himself had done. “From the very beginning, Dante distinguished between the true way and the false way. He set himself twin tasks: He woke up in a dark wood to find that he was lost. The journey was his first task. To write about it — to make something of it for others — was his second task.”
So, in the early 14th century, Dante wrote “The Divine Comedy,” a poem that still resonates. “Dante learns that life’s most important journey is not a straight line upward,” Allums says. “Important journeys follow the soul’s path, such that down becomes up. To descend into your deepest thoughts is the true way. Up here, on the heights, is the light of your joys and successes — but that is not the true way. If you want to get to the light, you have to turn your back on it and go in the other direction. It’s all reversed. That’s a pretty shocking idea.
“Dante, in midlife, answers a divine call to write this poem. If he doesn’t write it, the world is impoverished; he will have failed this world. The same holds true for each one of us. Each one of us is called to a task. If we fail, we somehow fail the world.” We fail the world — not just ourselves.
Beatrice, Dante’s great love, dies as a young woman. In his poem, she appears before Dante on Mount Purgatory and rebukes him. He has a vision of her asking, “Why aren’t you writing the poem about me? What’s wrong with you?” She reminds him that she has descended from paradise and has left her footprint in hell, at the starting point, so that he can follow her path and eventually journey to her in paradise. “That vision focuses him more than any biographical incident does,” Allums explains.
Though Dante knows what he must do, he resists. He says that he’s not going, that he fears his venture may be wild and empty. He’s afraid — afraid to try, afraid to fail, afraid of what may happen in the course of his journey. He acts the role of a coward in the face of his own life’s work. “He may not succeed, and that frightens him,” Allums says. “He is a little bit like Achilles, who refused to take part in the battle against Troy. But in Dante, you’ve got an ordinary person, a mere poet, not a brave warrior. Dante asks himself, ‘Why should I pursue something so strange and so speculative? I’m just going to fail.’ We each have to make a hero’s journey. We postpone it at our peril. Dante shows us that.”
The weather in Dallas, at this moment, is a Dantean hell. Birds are silent, trees are crisp brown. This is a world brought to you, flame-broiled, by Burger King. This is where you end up, not just for 24 hours but forever — if you don’t follow your true passion.
“Hell is the place for people who have lost the good use of their intellect,” Allums says. “It’s not the place for those who have enormous passions, but rather for those whose passions consume them — which happens after they’ve lost the good use of their intellect, which is the divine presence within us. It’s our capacity to make one choice as opposed to another choice.”
Allums is saying that if you know what you really want, and you don’t pursue it, you’ll be consumed by it. You will lose your capacity to make clear commitments as long as there is that one major commitment that you avoid. He says, “It’s better to choose and to choose wrongly than not to choose at all. Fence-sitters of this world have the worst of every fate.”
Hell is the place for people who did not live their lives according to the best that was in them.
Five of the world’s greatest poets — Homer, Horace, Lucan, Ovid, Virgil — live together in a nice air-conditioned area of hell. They live in desire of something, without hope of ever attaining what it is that they desire. That’s their hell. They can see the object of their want, but they are not able to appropriate it. They will always be great poets — and they will always be painfully aware of their shortcomings. “It’s just terrible,” Allums says. “For all of the great conversations that they have there together, they know that they are not in the realm of the blessed. They know that they have missed that realm.
“Just as we think of heaven as the place where we will become perfect, hell is the place where our vices will become perfect. So, if you were a total wheeler-dealer in this life, you’ll be a perfect thief in hell. If you were angry, you will be lodged with those who egg on your anger.
“Look at canto 15. Dante meets up with Brunetto, his former teacher, who is in hell for sodomy. The canto is not a diatribe against homosexuality — it is a diatribe against being one thing and then teaching another thing. There is a great disjunction between the ways that many of us live our lives and what we really believe in. We live during an age in which it is very difficult to have beliefs and to live according to those beliefs. For example, you may believe that your task in life is to go to Italy and study. But you live in New York and work in the media. Italy is a wild dream. A modern, successful person fears that believing in something is a submission to and a giving up of something else. If you submit to something, then that means you’ve given up your control over it. To submit to something means to become one with that thing, to suspend your scornful attitude about the world.”
Pursue your dreams, even to the point of suffering — that’s the message. “Dante tells us that the most basic reality is to suffer,” Allums says. “None of us can expect to go through life without suffering, and yet we all try to escape it. Instead, we should try to avoid it in the right way. Suffering should be accepted as a gift that we are given for a reason.”
I’m beginning to see that the lucky ones aren’t those who get to do what they want to do. The lucky ones are those who get to do what they are meant to do. There is suffering that comes in the service of your destiny: This is the suffering that ennobles. We escape it, avoid it, at our own peril.
“A rainbow, according to the science of optics, is an illusion, whereas Dante says that it’s the promise of God,” Allums says. “Is it an illusion? He who sees a rainbow from one spot can, if he moves 20 feet to the right, no longer see it. It’s a matter of light refraction. The things that really bring us peace or meaning aren’t contained in visible things.”
Suddenly, it’s 7 PM and I have to get back to New York. At the gate next to mine, there is a connecting flight to Rome, but that gate closes in five minutes. I have not yet burned my panty hose, so I board my scheduled flight to La Guardia. Along my path, I have a few stops to make before Italy, but not many — not anymore.
Harriet Rubin (email@example.com) is the author of “The Princessa: Machiavelli for Women” (Doubleday, 1997) and “Soloing: Realizing Your Life’s Ambitions” (HarperCollins, 1999). She is also the director of Working Diva, a Web site on iVillage (www.ivillage.com/workingdiva).