Thoughts on Exuberance

(This is a cross post of something I wrote recently on my personal blog. Someone asked me to share it here as well.)

Last week for our Mormon woman book group, we read Exuberance by Kay Jamison, a book about the role exuberance plays in both the natural/animal world and also in the lives of certain extraordinarily passionate people.

I enjoyed reading about people who devoted their lives so passionately to certain causes or interests, but was left feeling slightly lame since I don’t think I have that sort of exuberance. I think when I was younger I was more passionate about life, partially because the future was so exciting. I could do anything! Be anything! Go anywhere! Fall in love with anyone! It was intoxicating to think of all the possibilities in the future.

But now….. well, I can see my life stretching out in a pretty straight road in front of me. I’m 28 and I’m almost positive I’ll spend the rest of my life in my current house, my current community. I know who I’ll be married to (forever). I know I’m limited in some interests (grad programs) I’d like to pursue because of geographical limitations. I know I’ll never make the big splash in the world that I once thought I would. Though my life is very comfortable and full of satisfaction in some ways, I’m just not as passionate about it as I once was.

Which is why I appreciated the quote Jana just emailed our group this morning. I may not have the ecstatic experiences some people do, but I think I can still find this kind of passion in my life:

From Simple Abundance by Sarah Ban Breathnach:
“Passion is the muse of authenticity. It’s the primordial, pulsating energy that infuses all of life, the numinous presence made known with every beat of our hearts. Passion does not reveal herself only in clandestine, romantic, bodice-ripping cliches. Passion’s nature is also cloaked in the deep, subtle, quiet, and committed: nursing a baby, planting a rose garden, preparing a special meal, caring for a loved one who is ill, remembering a friends birthday, perservering in a dream. Every day offers us another opportunity to live passionate lives rather than passive ones, if we will bear witness to passion’s immutable presence in the prosaic…”

Caroline has a PhD in religion and studies Mormon women.


  1. I agree that there is something not quite right in always equating passion with excitement. Things that are ordinary and commonplace may not be the most exciting, but it may be among them that the deepest passions are expressed. I love how the quote by Ban Breathnach points this out. It reminded me of another passage I read a while back:

    “I heard a story about a man who went about the countryside asking people how they would spend their last day on earth. He came upon a woman who was out hoeing her garden, surrounded by her children and neighbor women. He decided he might as well ask her, too, though he didn’t expect much of an answer. ‘Woman,’ he asked, ‘if this were your last day on earth, if tomorrow it was certain you would die, what would you do today?’ ‘Oh,’ she said, ‘I would go on hoeing my garden and taking care of my children and talking to my neighbors’ The woman knew that there is nothing more important than being fully where we are, in the plain, ordinary events, day in and day out. When what we have learned and lived during our journey flows into these places – into our garden hoeing and our child rearing and our relationships with our neighbors – then we begin to affect the world around us in the most intimate, natural, and profound ways.” (Sue Monk Kidd, Dance of the Dissident Daughter, p. 222).

    While I think there’s a lot of truth in all of this, it can be hard to keep it in mind during the daily routines of life. Thanks for the nice reminder, Caroline.

  2. Much of Jamison’s book is devoted to the steadfast, unrelenting dedication that scientists apply to solving problems or studying one specific aspect of the natural world. This, too, is exuberance, and I see the same trait, Caroline, in your singleminded devotion to the causes of women (and your love for animals as well).

  3. Caroline: Thank you for the cross-post — I was so taken by that quote and found myself clicking back to your page to reread it. I wonder if there is a link between exuberance and reverance — with their implications of awe and wonder.

    This month, with the anxiety of moving and other life transitions, I have been consumed with the worries of pragmatics. Time has seemed an enemy. In the midst, I really appreciated the poem Lynette posted in her comments to “Bubble Fatigue”:

    “I come into the peace of wild things who do not tax their lives with forethought.” (Wendell Barry)

    Taoism describes the notion of “doing without doing” — of being so invested in the moment, that we cease to live lives of such _effort_ and relax our struggle with time. When I am deeply engaged in work I care about — teaching a class, a conversation with an old friend, writing — sometimes it feels as if I am _out_ of the realm of time, that I’ve entered the flow of something else entirely. If I could tap into some mix of exuberance and reverence in the minutae — well, that’s a wonderful hope.

  4. Tam,
    That’s a great quote as well. I love Sue Monk Kidd! Her Secret Life of Bees is one of my all time favorite novels.

    Thanks 🙂 I hope I can retain that passion for women’s issues. I’m afraid I feel it slipping away slightly, at least in regards to Mormon women’s issues, as I think I have begun to emotionally distance myself a bit from the institution. I guess it’s not possible (or healthy?) to live in a perpetual state of angst….

    Glad the quote struck you so. I too am trying to enjoy and experience the present to the fullest. I unfortuantely always tend to be one who thinks that “life will be better when…”

    I like the idea of a quiet, daily exuberance mixed with awe and wonder.

  5. I really liked that quote from Sarah Ban Breathnach, as well as the one from Sue Monk Kidd. The idea of exuberance and passion, it seems to me, might be easily overglamorized. Most of our lives are filled with the mundance tasks of living. The idea of deep passion being tied to the words subtle and quiet gives me new ways to see the concept.

    Unlike Caroline, I still have no idea where I will be in a couple of years. I don’t expect to live where I do now, and I’m not sure where my career path will lead. My husband is still in law school and we have no idea what lies ahead after that. I have no clue when or if I will want children. It’s all up in the air. While it is unsettling at times, I appreciate the reminder to be excited about all the possibilities.

  6. I’m curious as to how this idea of passion could relate to origin of the word passion, as in the Passion of the Christ.

    As an aside the picture you posted is on the cover of my copy of the Further Adventures of Nils, a book which is rather close to my heart.

  7. Amyb, I think it’s exciting that you still have so much to decide and look forward to. Ironically, the one area in my life that is still somewhat up in the air (my career -still don’t know whether I should stick with teaching, become a librarian, enter a new grad program etc.) is an area that you have all figured out. Being a music therapist sounds fantastic.

    I am a Latin teacher, so let me pontificate. The word passion comes from the Latin word patior which means to suffer or endure. So Christ’s passion is his suffering. This aspect of the word falls along the more stereotypical associations of angst and pain, rather than the quiet, more positive spin that authors like Breathnach employ.

    I’ve never read The Adventures of Nils books. I should look into them. This Maxfield Parrish painting called “Ecstasy” is one of my favorite paintings.

  8. I’ve read this post and the comments with interest because I have always struggled with wild, excessive emotions–exuberance, rage, grief–that leave me feeling burnt up, consumed. It’s so hard and so necessary for me to learn the discipline of stillness, to learn to discipline my heart to the more subtle passions of the mundane. It’s something I’ve been thinking about lately, so I appreciate all of the thoughts here.

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