Embracing the Passion
Yesterday we learned of the passing of a great American writer, Harper Lee. Harper Lee was a daughter of the Deep South, that part of the United States of America that was explored a century before the Pilgrims began their epic ocean crossing. Born in Alabama, Harper Lee died in the small town she wrote about in her ground-breaking novel, “To Kill a Mockingbird.”
Another writer’s death was also reported yesterday, that of Umberto Eco. While Ms. Lee sought to show the world its true reflection, Mr. Eco looked for the same in symbols and signs. Umberto Eco was a scholar but sought to see how the world viewed itself through not only words but also music, religious icons, signs, symbols, and graphic artwork such as cartoons.
Several days ago we talked about the image people sometimes set for us – the restrained studied indifference that is seen as being socially correct. Neither of these writers wasted time with any of that. They both embraced their beings and their worlds and sought to make both a little better while keeping their eyes wide open. In short, they both embraced their living with passion, great passion.
Both writers also had legions of critics. Harper Lee’s critics were usually rather silent, that is until her second book was published last year, “Go Set a Watchman”. Her first book gave us a distinct hero and was written as a commentary seen through the eyes of a child. People were comfortable with that because it gave them an excuse for their living. It recognized that we all live each day with the experience for that day the same as a child’s first time as doing anything. In her second novel, however, Lee expected her readers to have grown a bit and gives them an adult story that is complete with raw, unapologetic truth. No one wanted to be held accountable and the book was met with great negativity.
Eco’s biggest critique was that he saw nothing as being too menial and looked for meaning in everything. The writer Salman Rushdie who would later have to live in hiding because of a death contract on his head placed there by Islamic Extremists once described a novel of Eco’s as ““humorless, devoid of character, entirely free of anything resembling a credible spoken word, and mind-numbingly full of gobbledygook of all sorts.”
Umberto Eco spoke at least five languages and never apologized for his passion about what he saw in the world. He once explained his viewpoint to the London newspaper “The Guardian” in 2002: “I’m not a fundamentalist, saying there’s no difference between Homer and Walt Disney… but Mickey Mouse can be perfect in the sense that a Japanese haiku is.”
Harper Lee, though looking very different from the stereotypical Southern damsel yet always reminiscent of the grown-up version of her character “Scout”, explained her lack of hurt feelings this way: “Until I feared I would lose it, I never loved to read. One does not love breathing.” She also explained her title” “Mockingbirds don’t do one thing except make music for us to enjoy….they don’t do one thing except sing their hearts out for us. That’s why it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.”
Both writers sought meaning and encouraged their readers to find the passion in their living. Sadly many people are frightened when confronted with someone doing just that. Do we really fear passion or do we fear what their passion requires of us – a true and honest look at ourselves?
“To Kill a Mockingbird” brought the inequities of racism into focus and gave meaning to the daily struggles of its victims. Umberto Eco’s novels are a bit more involved, his most successful being “The Name of the Rose”. but they do much the same thing. In spite of having once won a literary competition for young Fascists as a lad growing up in Italy and later a member of the Roman Catholic Church, Eco was considered a liberal. As a girl growing up in a small town in Alabama, Lee walked among the tides of racism every day and brought a liberal, humanist approach.
Both of these writers embraced life and humanity in their passion for writing. They saw the need for greater humanity in the world and encouraged people, by their example, to embrace the passion of living. Sometimes the truths about which they wrote were discomforting. Passion is not always wine and roses and warm sweaty embraces. Passions can sometimes hurt.
“People generally see what they look for, and hear what they listen for,” said Harper Lee during a ceremony in 2007 when she was awarded the Congressional Medal of Freedom. She had lived in New York City for decades but returned to her Alabama small town home that same year. “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view… Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.”
I invite you to crawl inside your own skin and walk around in it. Not the skin the world wants you to wear but the skin that makes you feel alive, that gives you a passion for living. Embrace your own passion and then make it your identity.