Polly Whittier never grew up.
Novelist Eleanor Hodgman Porter labored in obscurity until the publication of “Pollyanna” in 1913. It’s the fictional tale of Pollyanna Whittier, an impossibly positive heroine. “Pollyannaish” came to mean a sugary or overly positive take on life. It might describe our contemporary take on passion.
“Pollyanna” was one of many children’s books written by 19th century Victorian reformers. They romanticized the idea of “childhood,” believing children should be protected from all manner of evil. Children’s books promoted sugary takes on reality, including the rewriting of “Sleeping Beauty,” which originally had a sly prince fornicating with a sleeping princess. In the saccharine rewrite, the prince is a much sweeter guy.
The modern take on passion seems to have a similar saccharine taste. Long ago, passion was not particularly positive. “Passion” comes from paseo, “to suffer.” This is why, in the liturgical church calendar, last week was Passion Week. The liturgical church historically viewed passion as the suffering that Christ experienced in his final week on the earth. That would mean passion includes being betrayed, beaten, deceived, deserted, arrested, mocked, kicked, cursed, crucified, stabbed, and murdered. Such experiences are intense, which is why passion is an intense feeling. But it was never Pollyannaish.
Passions were instead understood as good and bad appetites—tendencies or inclinations in human nature that compel us toward attaining good or avoiding evil. The more intensely the object was adored or abhorred, the more vehement was the passion. Passion was not understood as passivity nor was it uniformly positive, as the Apostle Paul points out: “When we were in the flesh, the passions of sin, which were by the law, did work in our members, to bring forth fruit unto death” (Rom.7:15).
This complex understanding of passions is parsed in Catholic theology. There, passions fall into two categories: the rational and the sensitive, or emotive. Rational passions are ruled more by the will. They include joy (or delight), sadness, desire, aversion, love, and hatred. The emotive passions are defined as “irascible,” or unruly and quick-tempered. They come more from the gut and include hope and despair, courage and fear, and anger. Thus, passions need to be trained, not so much unleashed.
This is why the Apostle Paul wrote how “those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires” (Gal.5:24). Crucifixion was suffering. He urged believers to “consider the members of your earthly body as dead to immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed, which amounts to idolatry” (Col.3:5). The point is passion can be problematic, which is why a purely positive take is Pollyannaish.
The same year “Pollyanna” was published, the president of Princeton, John Hibben, urged graduating students “to take your place and fight against all the innumerable forces which are working to destroy the image of God in man and unleash the passions of the beast.” Hibben was warning against an overly optimistic, in this case, Darwinian, take on passion. Animals rightly operate by unleashed passion (“the wild donkey accustomed to the wilderness… sniffs the wind in her passion” – Jer.2:24). Assuming human nature works the same way is an unmitigated disaster, however.
Today’s Pollyannaish take on passion comes straight out of Madison Avenue. Bratz has a “passion for fashion slippers and flip flops.” Novartis says “Diabetes is our Passion.” Several years ago, New York Times columnist David Brooks wondered how magazine editors could keep persevering in their work, publishing endless articles on “lip-gloss trends, armoire placement, or powerboat design” without getting depressed. Brooks mockingly wrote that “these editors have, to use their favorite word, passion.”1
According to Jesuit Priest Bernard Lonergan, “elementary” or Pollyanish takes on passion biases “understanding in practical and personal matters.” Overly positive passion limits peripheral vision. Tunnel vision resists unwelcome insights and excludes “the further questions that would arise from it and the complementary insights that would carry it towards a rounded and balanced viewpoint,” wrote Lonergan.2
An imbalanced or narrow view of passion creates rigidity when questioned or found wanting, according to media expert Marshall McLuhan (he called it “heating up”). Overly positive passion hardens mental models, making it much harder to recognize error and make changes.3 This phenomenon squares with Leon Festinger’s findings, how the more passionate the faith community, the more cognitive dissonance instead becomes cognitive resistance. Pollyannaish passion does not recognize the dark side of passion.
In her last public remarks titled, “The Catholic Novelist in the Protestant South,” Flannery O’Connor warned against the American proclivity to keep everything positive. O’Connor had a reputation for dark and murky stories, such as “A Good Man is Hard to Find.” She wrote about freaks. “Whenever I am asked why Southern writers particularly have this penchant for writing about freaks, I say it is because we are still able to recognize one. To be able to recognize a freak, you have to have some conception of the whole man”—an idea “we conspicuously lack in this age.” This has “consequently impoverished our imagination and our capacity for prophetic insight.” If O’Connor lived today, she might wonder whether the faith community remembers Paul’s prophetic call: “if we suffer with him, we shall reign with him” (Rom.8:17).
Two years after publishing “Pollyanna,” Eleanor Porter produced a sequel, “Pollyanna Grows Up.” The problem was that Polly never grew up. The faith community will grow up when it is “filling up what is lacking in the sufferings of Christ” (Col.1:24). This requires a passion “aligned with reality,” a phrase used by Andy Mills at the 2011 Entrepreneurs Initiative conference hosted by Redeemer Presbyterian Church of New York City. He’s exactly right—which is why faith communities might be wise to rework their mission statement to include “making suffering followers of Christ.”
1 David Brooks, On Paradise Drive: How We Live Now (And Always Have) in the Future Tense (New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 2004), p. 188.
2 Bernard J. F. Lonergan, Mark D. Morelli, Elizabeth A. Morelli, The Lonergan Reader (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1997), p. 116.
3 Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (New York, NY: McGraw Hill, 1964)