‘Travellers at least have a choice. Those who set sail know that things will not be the same as at home. Explorers are prepared. But of us, who travel along the blood vessels, who come to the cities of the interior by chance, there is no preparation. We who were fluent find life is a foreign language. Somewhere between fear and sex. Somewhere between the swamp and the mountains. Somewhere between God and the Devil passion is and the way there is sudden and the way back worse.’ So did Jeanette Winterson, in her written masterpiece, The Passion, describe and define passion and desire. In my youth as a twenty-something, this book was given to me by a good friend, Wendy Sanderson Smith, after she thought it would synchronize with my own temperament and approach to life back then (as I guess most folk in their twenties ‘lived’ and ‘loved’ in their own halcyon early adult days), and indeed it did. I have noticed that a lot of folk post pictures on Facebook (including myself) of their late teenage / early adulthood days, and often these include friends or activities from University or College times. My brother, John, sent me a video clip of some young folk doing extreme sports such as skydiving, bungee jumping and aerial cycling tricks, which led to a fun discussion of whether we still had the passion and desire to do such activities (or are physically capable of doing them) as our fifties fast approach, or as quaintly suggested in the film the Big Lebowski, ‘our revolution is over’. All these got me thinking of passion and desire, and what the teleological reason for their existence is, and whether losing our passions and desires as we get older, or at least refining, sublimating or managing them is a good or bad thing, or at least a necessary ‘evil’ allowing us to maintain the order and structure which is required to us to be successful in most facets of adult life.
Passion is defined as a very strong feeling about a person or a ‘thing’, and desire as a sense of longing for a person, object or outcome. Some research folk classify both passion and desire as emotions, which itself is defined as ‘relatively brief’ conscious experiences characterized by intense mental activity that results in a high degree of either pleasure or displeasure. But, others perceive extreme passion and desire to be part of the spectrum of obsessive disorders, and to have a degree of psychopathology underlying them. Passion and desire have through history been contrasted with reason, which together engage in a constant ‘battle’ to control one. Mostly passion has been given a ‘bad rap’, with Plato suggesting that individual desires must be ‘postponed’ in the name of ‘higher’ rational ideals, Baruch Spinoza suggesting that ‘the natural desires are a form of bondage’, and Dave Hume suggesting that passions and desires are ‘non-cognitive, automatic, bodily responses. To most religious doctrines, passion and desires are very much feelings and sensations to be resisted, unless that desire leads one towards ‘God’, when it can then become a mechanism for good and positive advancement of a ‘higher’ moral functioning and way of life, without the sinful desires of ‘the flesh’.
However, passion and desire have also been suggested to be (unless extreme) an important component of human bonding and the establishment of a sexual relationship with a mate, without which there would be potentially no propagation of the human species. Sexual attraction is based on the capacity of someone to arouse the sexual interest of another, and the requirement of someone else to respond to that capacity. Folk can be sexually attracted to physical qualities in another, or how they move, their voice, smell or what they wear and how they interact (flirting is a mechanism of triggering arousal in another), or their social status, but it is generally always a two way ‘thing’, with both individuals needing to find the prospective partner sexually attractive to each other. There is a strong brain-body ‘loop’ and physical sensations associated with desire and the feeling of ‘passion’ generated by another, including trembling, pallor, flushing, heart palpitations, pupil dilatation and general feelings of ‘weakness’. Folk in the throes of passion also describe ‘feelings’ and symptoms such as awkwardness, stuttering, shyness, confusion, and even insomnia and loss of appetite. Current research is working on trying to understand the mechanisms related to the development of these ‘symptoms’, and it is thought that perhaps acute hormonal (cortisol and pheromones for example) changes or components of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal gland axis are involved in linking psychological ‘desire’ to physical body structures and physiological systems which generate these symptoms. Interestingly, a relationship between sexual attraction / desire and anxiety has been suggested, and when folk are more anxious, or are put in situations where they have heightened anxiety (for example generated by physical danger) they appear to experience increased sensations of desire and passion.
While as described above there are teleological (purposively beneficial) reasons why desire and passion exist, passions and desires can become pathological, particularly when they are uni-directional or unrequited. Limerence (also known as infatuated love) is the state of mind which results from an attraction to someone else in which there are obsessive thoughts and fantasies about that person and strong / overpowering desire to have one’s passion / love reciprocated. Obsessive love is defined as an obsessive desire to ‘possess’ another person towards whom a strong desire is felt, together with an inability to accept rejection of their desire by the person towards whom it is felt. Limerence involves intrusive and often intolerable / painful ‘thoughts’ of the person who is the ‘limerent’ (person towards whom the ‘crush’ is directed), an acute longing for reciprocation and fear of rejection, and periods of fantasizing about ideal circumstances where there is cohabitation with the limerent in an intimate way (sexual fantasy is a usual but not an absolute requirement of the limerence state). Interestingly, in this obsessive state there is always a ‘balance’ between hope and uncertainty, or indeed a requirement for both, and the uncertainty component results in constant analysis by the individual suffering from limerence levels of desire or passion, with every utterance or perceived body language of the limerent being pondered about endlessly, and analysed for meaning. Folk can remain in this limerence state for a prolonged period of time if their desires and passion are not requited, but if the limerent returns their affections, a ‘normal’ relationship can develop. If there is absolute rejection by the limerent, after a period of time the desires eventually become attenuated and the individual ‘moves on’ to another potential limerent and ‘transfers’ their extreme passions and obsessive desires to this next unfortunate soul. It is thought that early childhood trauma or a failure of childhood attachment bonding to their primary carer may be associated with this extreme level of passion or desire in folk with obsessive levels of passion and desire, though this theory is still controversial and not completely accepted by research folk in the field.
As one gets older, several changes occur which attenuate the extreme passions which are associated with youth, and in most folk they are either assuaged by involvement in a healthy / mature relationship with the person one is attracted to (had a crush on), or one’s passions are sublimated into other ‘pursuits’. These can be work related, or a hobby, or sporting endeavours. This ‘sublimation’ can be healthy and lead to a sense of satisfaction and success in a chosen career or hobby or sport if there is genuine enjoyment of whatever is being done that one is passionate about, and in a circular way if one is successful in the field one choses to focus the attenuated drive in, it can potentially bring about an attenuation of the sublimated drive itself. However, if one does not enjoy work, or a hobby, but continue to do it obsessively and as a compulsion, as what happens in the case of attraction limerence, this can lead to workload related stress, burnout and a sense of dissatisfaction / psychological ‘pressure’ that is not assuaged no matter how hard one works. Perhaps therefore, many folk who work extremely hard, or are involved in hobbies or sports in an extreme manner in their middle or old age, may have sublimated drives related to unrequited passions and desires in their young adulthood (though the causation of this is very complex and a number of factors may be involved). Equally, some folk may never adequately sublimate their limerance related desires, passions and obsessions, and engage for most or all of their lives in unrequited, or requited but unfulfilling obsessional relationships in a serial manner. It must be noted that while most folk at some stage of their youth develop a ‘crush’ on someone or at least feel a sense of passion or desire for someone they meet or interact with, not all folk feel extreme desires, passions or limerences for other folk at any stage of their lives, and rather choose a mate and settle into life routines using cognitive / rational decision based processes, without feeling any substantial passion. Whether these folk perhaps have an abstract notion of romantic ‘love’ they ‘feel’ for their chosen partner, or genuinely feel no passion or emotional bond with their partner, and merely co-exist without any overt or covert show or feelings of passion and desire, is still not clear / well determined – though they clearly would need to choose a partner who is satisfied by such a ‘passionless’ but functional arrangement if it has a chance to be a success and a long-lasting relationship.
A ‘crush’ on someone, which occurs usually in early adulthood, has intense feelings, desires and passions associated with it. If the crush is requited it often creates long lasting memories that are usually positive and can be very intense. In one’s young adulthood there are fewer responsibilities and therefore more ‘freedom’ to explore and entertain such crushes, though of course if you are unfortunate enough to be on the receiving end of an unwelcome and unwanted crush or limerence it is surely not a pleasant experience, whether in early adulthood or at a later life stage. Passions and desires when they are not obsessive serve an important purpose from a mating and reproduction perspective. But passions and desires when they are unrequited, or when they are obsessive and / or cyclical, can be problematical, both at the time of their occurrence and long after in middle and late adulthood, and can cause future negative memories which are both intense and can potentially affect future dating strategy and relationship interactions. As most folk get older, and establish a successful relationship and have children, and become creators of life’s boundaries and infrastructure in which the next generation of young folk can ‘play’ and consummate their ‘passions’ as they please, the passions and ardour of youth seem to wane, or at least are more controlled – perhaps with the development of successful adult relationships any ‘rough edges’ remaining from one’s bonding and attachment period of childhood are removed and smoothed. However, it’s not clear if passion is still ‘felt’, in a wistful way, by most folk as they age. The success of films and books (such as Jeannette Winterson’s beautifully written books) dealing with unrequited love and lust, or of obsessive desire turned pathological (most folk of my generation will surely still get a ‘queasy’ feeling when remembering the ‘bunny boiler’ film Fatal Attraction, where the character portrayed by Glenn Close developed an almost fatal limerence / obsessive compulsion for that of Michael Douglas) would indicate that issues related to desires, passions and ‘crushes’, whether they are unrequited or have a ‘happy ending’ as happens in most films and books, are still at play / being processed in the psyche of most folk as they go about their daily routines and business.
My wise cousin, Andy Shave, often reflected in our youth on whether love or lust was more important in and for a successful relationship. The answer probably lies in the taming of the wild horses of passion, and the keeping of lust on a tight rein. But in the deep of the night, most folk still probably ‘dream’ of or at least remember wistfully the passions and high emotions and crushes of their youth, when late at night they sighed and gasped at the thought of their still unrequited love / lust object, and sang along to the Chris Isaak song, ‘what a wicked game to play, to make me feel this way, what a wicked thing to do, to let me dream of you’. But at some point in life, these passions need to become and remain as dreams and memories, and one has to forego the passion and lusts of youth in order for those horses of passion to become one’s servants, rather than one’s chaotic master, even if this is supremely challenging for those who have lived a lot of their lives travelling along the blood vessels of the city of the interior, somewhere between the swamp and the mountains, between fear and sex, between God and the Devil.