I could say “nobody tells you this will happen,” but I think I was told often. In fact, that’s one reason I never wanted to grow up. I knew things about adulthood (a few too many things–no, not those kinds of things… well, some of those, but that’s not what I mean). I had a pretty dismal picture of maturity from a young age. Right now, I’m talking about passion. Passion wanes. Not just sexual passion; passion.
Sexual passion is its own thing: it does not appear to decrease too much for men, after its peak in adolescence or young adulthood. For women, however, it apparently drops like a rock as soon as they’re in a committed relationship. Yeah, that explains a lot of jokes and a lot of misery at the same time, but men don’t come out smelling like daisies, either: that same study found that men’s desire for “tenderness” followed a similar pattern. To me, at least, the mating/evolution implications seem obvious and kind of depressing.
My point is broader, though, not limited to sex and tenderness in relationships, though that’s a big part if it: passion wanes. We just don’t feel things strongly, after a certain age. Partly, I guess this is due to many decades of having “socially appropriate” responses beaten into us (hint: socially appropriate responses in North America rarely involve showing emotion unless you are an Ethnic Person); but I am guessing a huge part of it is just genetics. We are our bodies. Our feelings are in our bodies. The neurochemistry of passion is getting to be relatively well mapped out these days, and all the chemicals that drive intense feelings just flow less frequently and less freely with age.
This is troubling, in a culture that both worships and demonizes passion. Our youth obsession lionizes nearly all aspects of passion, even the stupid, poorly-considered decisions it drives us to–as long as we’re young. But that stuff is expected to go away by the time we hit our mid-20s, or perhaps our 30s, and we’re expected to bow out of the deified Youth class. Then passion is supposed to make, at most, a few visits per year, usually in nonsexual domains, and never in mixed company. Sure, we talk about “passion,” but (a) we rarely mean it (I’m passionate about my sales career does not actually mean what it sounds like), and (b) despite what we sometimes say as a culture, expressing too much passion in the wrong contexts (i.e., most of them) brings a lot more censure than praise. We have issues, man. Issues. Be passionate. More. More! OK, now stop.
I think this rambling monologue is actually about the most troubling kinds of dreams I have: passionate ones. By “dreams” I mean actual dreams. By “troubling” I mean, in the sense of a placid river being briefly turned into a churning torrent: the water is troubled. Dreams are where, on a fairly regular basis (i.e., a few times a year?) I have deeply passionate experiences of the kind that were common in adolescence. I feel sheer terror, deep friendship, occasionally hatred, or–most often (well, in a tie with terror)–love. No, not the nice, steady, day-to-day love upon which all great societies are built; the insane, go-swimming-with-all-your-clothes-on, cry-for-no-reason, hold-a-boombox-outside-her-hous kind of love. Passionate love. The kind that is, arguably, responsible for some of my deepest regrets and most powerful memories.
I can remember those moments with my eyes open, but the feelings are only dimly visible, like a light in a frozen river, beneath two feet of clouded ice. When I have those dreams, though, the ice is gone and I’m pulled under, right into the brilliance. It’s blinding. It’s the raw, unprocessed signal that regularly overwhelmed me as an adolescent (or even young adult). I wake up rattled, remembering for a few minutes what it felt like to be so in love I was seriously willing to consider pretty much anything. For a few minutes I remember what it was like during those moments of my earlier life, when self, ego, success, failure, the praise or condemnation of others–none of this mattered next to the possibility of five more minutes alone on a beach, or another hour kissing in a dark room, or the possibility that touching thighs at a crowded video party on Friday night was not really an accident (sadly, however, it was). And the longing comes in those dreams, too. Nothing drives the intensity of passion home like the ravages of withdrawal from the best drug adolescence has to offer. I feel again the heartache, the wistful oh-to-be-in-love sensation, the acute agony of separation, the bitter self-loathing of rejection, the rank melodrama of life for a young person in love.
And I wake up not just remembering what it was like to lose, or to fear, or to be in love; I wake up in the state. I wake up desolate, terrified, or once again in love with someone for whom I have, at most, fond thoughts, once a year or so, during my waking life. Sometimes I wake up feeling so strongly for a friend I haven’t seen in years that I want to call them and tell them how much they mean to me–except I don’t. Like I said, it’s troubling. It goes away, which is good. Perhaps it’s good that passion itself goes away–largely, anyway. Maybe, as smarter people than I have probably said (this seems like something I’ve read somewhere), our personalities are mainly formed of scars and defenses. Life’s roses don’t send us into a euphoric trance with their aroma, perhaps, but its daggers don’t pierce as deeply or as sharply, either. When I found my erstwhile 16-year-old girlfriend making out with some guy named Frank in the haunted house, it was like a quick, vicious knife in my back. When my first wife left me, it was like a long, slow kick in the stomach. Not nice, but I think it was preferable to the knife. It was survivable, and even left room to keep on living a bit, while it was happening. I remember the pain of lost love (or even lost like) in adolescence: even minor incidents could take me down for days, wanting to do nothing but write horrible poetry and listen to Depeche Mode alone in my room.
I don’t know what I’m trying to say, except, “passion wanes,” and I’m not even sure whether that’s good, bad, neither, inevitable, not-so-inevitable, or dependent on individual circumstances. Sometimes I miss the passion, but I rarely miss its worst consequences. For instance, the impulsiveness that is passion’s Siamese twin causes a lot of damage, but in youth there’s both a support system for managing the regular outbreaks of stupidity and a set of community norms to more or less overlook them, or at least contextualize them. Paradoxically, adulthood can be seen as the perfect time to be passionate: some occasional craziness could go unnoticed or at least be tolerated within the confines of a stable job, a committed relationship, and a social life that isn’t anything to write home about. But now you’re an adult. This is not the world of strong feelings. No, not strong feelings–strong feelings. The kind that make you believe that a boombox, a trench coat, and true love are the answer to your relationship problems.
I can’t decide if I miss the passions of my youth, as a whole, or not. I miss some of them, certainly, but I really, really don’t miss others, and I don’t think this is an a la carte type of thing. Adulthood is not nearly as bad as I imagined it to be. Some parts are downright lovely. It’s missing some things I came to crave in my youth, and it’s missing some things that were horrific. Overall, it’s not a bad package. But I still have those dreams, and I still wake up in love with people who no longer exist, or angry with people who never did exist. Troubled.