One winter morning I sat in front of a newly kindled fire in the wood-burning stove. As I sat gazing at the dancing yellow/orange flames and felt their warmth take the morning chill out of the cabin, I thought, “Fire is beautiful!” Then, immediately another thought, “When it is contained.” This is no doubt true. When fire is contained it is life-giving or life-preserving. Out of control, fire is life-destroying, devastating as it rages wherever it pleases, spreading wildly with the wind.
Enthusiasm is like fire. If it is constrained or channeled, it is a terrific energizing force to accomplish great things. Enthusiasm ignites creativity, activates compassion, fuels justice, sustains effort under adversity. However, unrestrained enthusiasm becomes dangerous and destructive like fire. Unbridled enthusiasm runs roughshod over anything in its path and becomes overzealousness. Extreme nationalism, ethnic cleansing, intolerance, persecution, and violent revolution are just a few examples of enthusiasm out of control. A few years ago, I read that the Pope was preparing a treatise of apology for the “sins” of the Catholic Church throughout its history. One was the Crusades–overzealous Christians who in their enthusiasm for converts burned and pillaged cities and slaughtered thousands of “infidels” in the name of Jesus. Another sin was the Inquisition–a time when the Church enthusiastically tortured and murdered “heretics.”
The Los Angeles Police Department was again in the news due to rampant corruption and misconduct. Officers were falsifying arrests, tampering with evidence, killing unarmed people, and framing many others, all the consequences of their enthusiastic campaign to rid the city of gangs. In their zeal, these officers became a gang of thugs themselves, running roughshod over the rights of others.
I am still somewhat bothered by a time I let my enthusiasm go unchecked. My last duty station as a Navy psychologist was at the Naval Regional Medical Center in Bremerton, Washington. I had resigned from my commission 6 months earlier to move back to my hometown to start a private practice. A few weeks before I left, my replacement arrived so I could prepare him for his new position. We quickly became friends. After I left the Navy, we kept in touch. About two years later, I returned to Bremerton to visit friends and enjoy the wonders of the Northwest. I went to the Naval facility to see my friend. I was eager to tell him about the joys of going into private practice. I recall nothing of what he said, but I remember launching into a very enthusiastic sales pitch, urging him to get out of the Navy and to go into private practice. We never reconnected after that visit. Much later, reflecting on what happened, I realized that in my unbridled enthusiasm I had not considered he might not want to leave the Navy. Maybe he was planning on making his career there. I never considered his temperament, and that he might not be a big risk-taker. Worst of all, I had never asked him to tell me what he wanted.
Yes, give me a quiet enthusiasm, one constrained by reason and sensitivity to others, and I will rejoice. Give me unbridled enthusiasm blindly unleashed, and I will flee.