Passion & ikigai

The word ‘passion’ is overused in many ways. Does anyone remember a few years back, in Masterchef? The contestants would be asked why they want to go through the competition. Not just in interview as they were cooking, but as a key stage (usually at around the same time as the skills test). Almost invariably the phrase ‘I have a real passion for cooking’ would be trotted out. Admission tutors see it too – enough that prospective undergrads are warned not to use the word in their personal statements.  Almost invariably, people are told not to use the word; to show it instead. And yet, a conversation that I’ve been having online in the last 24 hours with a variety of people has shown me that to study at PhD level, perhaps even Master’s degree level, it really is essential to have a passion for the subject at hand.

I’m still working on my MA dissertation which I wrote about a few days ago, transcribing depositions – witness statements, in other words – and one particular one described the night that Foulkes completely lost it. I don’t mean the event in London, where he murdered his newborn child (1679), but earlier, around the end of July 1676. Foulkes had had gone for a drink in what may have been the nearest alehouse. There, the vicar of the neighbouring parish had talked with him, reporting the rumours he had heard about Foulkes and Ann, his lover, and trying, gently, to warn Foulkes of what was being said about him. Foulkes initially seemed to have taken the warning ‘very kindly and quietly’, but later became angry, and returned home somewhat drunk. He sent for two neighbours and their wives and after drinking more, a fight ensued. The neighbours promptly left, and Foulkes turned on his wife. This whole evening was described in the first (secondary) source that I found on Foulkes, Peter Klein’s book The Temptation and Downfall of the Vicar of Stanton Lacy (if anyone has it, and would like to read the relevant section, then see pages 47-50). The particular deposition that I was working on was the statement by William Hopton. While – as I said before, he most certainly had an axe to grind against Foulkes – transcribing the document proved to be difficult.

This was not because the handwriting was bad or it was full of latin or abbreviations – I don’t mean that kind of difficulty. It was emotionally difficult. When I came to the section where Hopton described that the neighbours had left, and ‘the said Robt Foulkes did fall out with his wife againe & beat her soe violently that she did cry out 3 times’, and when the neighbours – who were still outside, along with others who had gathered, drawn by the noise – tried to calm Foulkes, his wife, Isabella, was seen to be lying on a bed, bleeding (it did not say from where), complaining about Foulkes and asking the neighbours to stay with her till morning, ‘to save her life for that she was in danger to be murthered by her husband’. Crying out three times may not seem so much to modern eyes – or ears – but to contextualise this; early modern husbands were allowed, encouraged, even, to discipline their wives (to a certain extent, at least). Just as with those people in modern day abuse situations, a great deal of shame would probably have accompanied these disciplinary occasions, shame that the husband thought it necessary that the wife be punished. The average early modern woman being punished by her husband, even legitimately (the rod no wider than a thumb is a rule oft bandied), would probably have tried to keep any involuntary sounds to a minimum, to keep the neighbours from knowing that she was being disciplined. That Isabella was unable – or unwilling, in fear of her life – to do this indicated to me either how violent Foulkes was being towards her; or how afraid she was. Either way, it was disturbing.

When I had typed the transcription, I sat back in my chair and found tears creeping down my cheek at the plight of Isabella. Now… I’d be the first to admit that I can be a right old soppy sod. I regularly cry at movies, anything to do with the queen or royal family (a republican I am not) or weddings or mushy stuff. Its a family trait – I blame my maternal grandfather, he did the same thing. But really? Crying over something that had happened not quite 340 years earlier, where the participants were long since dead and buried and not so much as dust in the ground? But it really did disturb me. I finished transcribing the page, then went for a turn around the garden and a cup of coffee, and then turned to my colleagues and discussed my disquiet with them. And I was surprised to find that I was by no means alone in finding primary sources emotionally disturbing, to the point of needing a break from the material.

Perhaps I shouldn’t have been. One colleague, working on records that detailed historical instances of racial abuse said that they saw the cup of tea, the break afterwards, as an integral, necessary part of transcription work (and I think they’re right about that; something I will have to mentally account for when calculating transcription time in future). Others described sitting in archives and openly crying over what they were reading, the strong emotions, primarily pain, recorded by people in the past. I don’t think this is something that is readily discussed amongst historians, except perhaps those who routinely work with material that would – by almost anyone – be described as ’emotionally distressing’. It certainly isn’t something that we’re taught how to handle at either BA or MA level: we’re left to find our own methods of dealing with this kind of emotional upheaval.

But something else someone said to me also resonated. They said I cry, because I’m passionate about my research, about history, and also observed that if people don’t have that passion, they don’t get far as historians. And I realised they’re right. In all the people I’ve met, whether already qualified and practising academics in one university or another, or those of us who are still studying to get there (MA and PhD students), the one thing we’ve all shared, regardless of actual subject, is that passion. It’s not enough to find history interesting. That’s like me enjoying cooking enough that I enjoy – when I’m not tired and stressed – creating a meal for family or friends, or a cake for our local history group at Uni. That doesn’t make me a chef, even a trainee one. I think too often people confuse an interest with a passion. It’s perfectly okay to have an interest, to want to practise something, even to want to practice it a lot. I have to eat every day, after all! But its still only an interest, and having a passion, I can see the difference. People envy me sometimes, they say, because I seem to have such a clear idea of where I want to go, what I want to do, but I think sometimes there is too much emphasis laid on the quest to identify one’s passion, right now, right this minute, instead of waiting for it to come to you, quietly and in the fullness of time.

The Japanese have it right, I think. There, the quest for ‘ikigai’ is a deep, extensive search of self, the quest to identify what you love; what you’re good at; what the world needs; and what you can be paid for. Where what you love and what you’re good at overlap, is your passion. Where what you love, and what the world needs overlap, is your mission. Where what the world needs overlaps with what you can be paid for, is your vocation. Where what you’re good at overlaps with what you can be paid for, is your profession. Where all four overlap, is your ikigai. It is your reason for being, your reason for getting up in the morning. The French might refer to it as one’s raison d’être.

I count myself fortunate to have found my ikigai, and if it means occasionally sitting at my desk, weeping as I cry for the fate of a woman who was violently beaten by her philandering husband 340 years ago, then so be it. I don’t think its a cost that I would ever pass up, and I doubt many other historians would disagree.

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