At a dinner party recently a friend introduced me to a woman sitting near me at the table.
"Dave's hobby is motorcycles," he said.
"Well, I wouldn't put it that way," I immediately replied, without thinking.
"Oh, how would you put it?" the woman asked as we shook hands.
This had me stumped for a few seconds. I hadn't really given it any thought. It just didn't feel right to label my relationship with motorcycles as a "hobby."
"It's more like an obsession," I said, holding my hand up beside my head and making a circular motion with my index finger.
She laughed politely and said, "Ah, one of those!"
"Yes, 'fraid so," I mumbled, thinking myself a Hugh Grant sort of character, self-deprecating, slightly muddled, but wonderfully charming.
Apparently the woman didn't share that image. She turned to the person sitting next to her and launched into a totally unrelated conversation. Obviously a philistine.
My friend, however, was a bit more attentive. "Obsession, eh?" he said, looking at me sideways and raising an eyebrow. "Kinky?"
"No, okay," I said, "maybe not quite an obsession. More like an obsessive passion."
"And, like, that's supposed to be better?" he smirked, jabbing an elbow into my ribs.
"Ach, whatever," I said, throwing in the universal conversation diverter.
We went on to talk about other things, topics less likely to focus on yours truly and the health of my psychological make-up.
But that little exchange did get me thinking. What's the difference between a hobby and an obsession, or maybe more accurately, what's the difference between a hobby and a "passion"?
The dictionary defines a hobby as an activity or interest that is pursued outside one's regular occupation and engaged in primarily for pleasure. Synonyms include words like amusement, avocation, distraction, diversion, interest, leisure activity, relaxation, sideline, and whimsy.
Passion, on the other hand, is defined as a powerfully intense, driving or overwhelming emotion. It is described with phrases such as ardent love, boundless enthusiasm, an irrational but irresistible attraction to some activity or object. It's characterized by feelings of fervour, excitement, craving, devotion, eagerness, ecstasy, joy, rapture and zest.
Yup, I was right, I thought to myself after doing this little surf through my trusty Webster's. I am definitely passionate about motorcycles; this ain't no commonplace hobby.
I'm sure there are more than a few motorcycle owners for whom the machine is just a hobby. I know some of them. They enjoy tinkering with the mechanics, adding accessories, making changes to the ergonomics. Or they use the machine as a kind of conversation piece or simply an entry into social activities of a local club. Often it's a passing fancy. Before long they move on to other hobbies - maybe a sports car or mountain biking or backpacking or, shudder, golf.
But I also know a few people for whom their motorcycling and the life surrounding it constitutes a definite, obsessive kind of passion. I'm one of them.
For us, the distinction between a hobby and a passion is an important one. It's probably good for us to be able to really understand the nature and depth of our personal interests. Being able to understand that this thing some of us have for motorcycling amounts to a lot more than just a hobby may not be the most profound realization we'll ever have, but for me it was at least equivalent to a small lightbulb going on over my head. It moves that aspect of my life into a whole other dimension and helps me see it more clearly.
It's also a distinction that can be quite useful in communications with one's spouse - about, for example, priorities in household expenditures - and in the process of making certain almost life-defining decisions.
You're not likely to divert major portions of your annual income to something that is "just a hobby." And you're not likely to shape a good part of your life around something that you refer to as your hobby. But a lifelong and life-defining passion, that would seem to be a different matter. When you start to see motorcycling as something well beyond the status of a hobby, when you start to put it truly in its real perspective within your personal "hierarchy of needs," you're taking a step toward healthier levels of self-knowledge and self-acceptance.