As I write these lines, our nation mourns the loss of civil-rights activist and Congressman John Lewis. He was the living embodiment of the word “passion.”
We talk a lot about our passions these days. I often ask the students in my business-writing class to write letters of application for potential jobs. Their favorite word is “passion.”
However, it seems disingenuous at best to write about a passion for accounting or education or, in fact, anything else we feel strongly about. We need to demonstrate our passions in our actions. As the old writing dictum goes, “Show. Don’t tell.”
For the most part, few of us have experienced true passion. It’s one of those words fraught with deep meaning — and danger. We often use it offhandedly and meaninglessly.
The true meaning of passion is out there someplace. For me, it sits almost straight overhead just after dark right now.
I had just built my first real telescope, a reflector with an 8-inch mirror that I threw together out of scrap plywood and leftover blue house paint. Still smelling of paint, out into the backyard the telescope went.
I immediately spotted the constellation Lyra, the Lyre as a nearly perfect parallelogram of four stars that seem to hang from Vega, the brightest star of summer.
Lyra is the lyre of Apollo, who often rode with the charioteer Helios as he carried the sun across the sky in a golden chariot. The work was hot work, even for a deity, and boring! So, Apollo entertained himself by strumming his lyre, a kind of hand-held harp.
The ancients created the constellations from associations of naked-eye stars grouped in “connect-the-dots” fashion as stick-figure people or animals (or harps).
These days, we use constellations as a kind of road map whose naked-eye stars are points of reference to find those objects you can’t see without optical aid, a process called star hopping.
So, fellow stargazers, I hopped. Let’s take my first telescopic journey together. We’ll start with the old stick-figure constellation.
Lyra is particularly easy to find because it contains Vega, the brightest star in the summer sky. At a mere 25 light-years away, Vega is one of the closer stars to us.
Hanging from Vega is a parallelogram of stars that make up the bulk of the stick-figure part of the constellation. Find the two stars in the parallelogram farthest from Vega, and point a small telescope at medium magnification halfway between them.
You’ll see a tiny smoke ring of light, a cloud of debris from a star that began to die hundreds of thousands of years ago.
The Ring Nebula, as it is called, was once a mighty hydrogen bomb. Deep inside the center of a star, its hydrogen fuel is crushed to form helium. The fusion of hydrogen into helium results in some leftover energy, which bubbles and boils its way through the star’s outer shell of mostly hydrogen and radiates outward into space. We see that energy as the heat and light produced by the star.
A star eventually begins to run out of hydrogen deep in its core. It builds up a layer of helium “ash” that dampens its thermonuclear conflagration. The internal explosion begins to falter.
A lot of people think that a star explodes when it dies. It’s already exploding, earth people. Its explosion keeps it a million miles wide. When it stops exploding, there’s nothing to puff it up, so it collapses.
Thus, a star doesn’t explode when it dies. It implodes — or at least its core, where the hydrogen-bomb reaction was taking place, implodes. The result of this rapid contraction is a tiny, densely-packed star a few thousand miles wide.
The outer shell of the star, where no explosion was taking place, basically just sits there for a cosmic moment.
The shock wave from the core’s collapse then sends energy through the outer shell, pushing it outward into space.
When we look at the Ring Nebula, we see the result of a star’s death as an ever-widening shell of debris, a cosmic smoke ring slowly fading into the inky nothingness of space.
I had seen other, perhaps more spectacular astronomical objects in other people’s telescopes. What drove my passion, which persists decades later, is the sheer weirdness of what I saw that night in a telescope of my own making. What blew my head back in amazement was an unexpected ring of light, a ghostly cosmic Cheerio, floating majestically in the eyepiece.
And there it was, suspended between the strings of a lyre, one of the most ancient of stringed musical instruments. The Egyptians and Sumerians had them thousands of years before the birth of Christ.
The lyre was plucked or sometimes bowed, usually as an accompaniment to the singing of songs and the telling of tales. What we call lyric poetry began as songs that told the stories of great heroes as the teller played upon his lyre.
The ancient Greeks believed that it was truly a gift from the gods. Hermes (Mercury to the Romans) created it from a tortoise shell to which he attached seven strings, the same as the number of stars in the Pleiades star cluster.
Hermes gave the lyre we see in the sky to Apollo, god of wisdom and the arts. He in turn gave it to Orpheus because of his great skill as a musician.
Orpheus’s singing was so powerful that it subdued even the stark forces of nature. As Shakespeare wrote in his play Henry VIII:
“Everything that heard him play,
Even the billows of the sea,
Hung their heads and then lay by.”
His story embodies true passion: heart-rending art, great sacrifice and perfect love.
Orpheus was deeply in love with Eurydice, and she with him. But Eurydice was bitten by a serpent and died. Orpheus’ love was so great that he determined to go to the Underworld and rescue her. Through the glorious power of his art, he was able to sing his way past the horrible three-headed dog, Cerberus, who guarded the gates to the Underworld.
At length, Orpheus played upon his lyre and sang of his love for Eurydice to Hades, the god of the Underworld. It must have been a glorious song because even the stone-cold heart of the god of death was softened. Hades allowed Eurydice to leave the realm of death, but only on the condition that Orpheus should not look back on his beloved until they had both returned from the Underworld to the earth above.
But Orpheus’ passion was too strong. Worried, he looked back at Eurydice just as they were about to reach the surface. Eurydice was dragged back into Hades.
Afterward, Orpheus wandered the earth, singing his plaintive song of love. The local women who heard him were moved to passion themselves. However, Orpheus spurned them, and in a rage, they killed him.
Passion, it seems, has a darker side. In Orpheus, it spurred high art. But uncontrolled by reason, it can destroy the object of its love.
So why do we see the lyre, and not Orpheus, in the sky? The gods so loved Orpheus that they send him to the Underworld to be with his beloved. His lyre, the medium and symbol of his art, they put in the night sky.
They put it there to remind us of the true meaning of passion: that perfect love, deeply felt, can triumph even over death, and that art and music can be the perfect expression of what is best about the human spirit.
Oh, you poets, musicians, and seekers after justice or truth or family or financial and personal security in a distinctly insecure world, I offer you this question. Would you be willing to descend into hell and face the lord of the Underworld in pursuit of your passion?
I know that I would not. I would not, as Orpheus did, give my life for my passion. The best that most of us can do is to give our lives to it. Show. Don’t tell.
The final words of John Lewis tell us most truly how to follow our passion: “… I urge you to answer the highest calling of your heart and stand up for what you truly believe. In my life I have done all I can to demonstrate that the way of peace, the way of love and nonviolence is the more excellent way. Now it is your turn to let freedom ring.
“When historians pick up their pens to write the story of the 21st century, let them say that it was your generation who laid down the heavy burdens of hate at last and that peace finally triumphed over violence, aggression and war. So I say to you, walk with the wind, brothers and sisters, and let the spirit of peace and the power of everlasting love be your guide.”
If you truly find your passion, you will, as Lewis writes, “walk with the wind.” Your joy in living will infect others around you, and you will, by your simple presence on the planet, make the world a better place.
Perhaps, someday, you will find your true passion in the first smile of a child, in the relief of suffering experienced by one of life’s victims, or perhaps in the arts or in the ardent gaze of your beloved. Perhaps you already have.
Or perhaps you will find it, as I did, in a perfect parallelogram laid for us, whether purposefully by our gods or haphazardly by nature, among the stars.
Tom Burns is the former director of the Perkins Observatory in Delaware.