“I’m passionate about baking, singing, cooking, dancing, sewing, potting.” Insert whatever activity you like according to whatever cook-off or dance-off or bake-off is airing these days, and you can be sure that you’ll hear every contestant tell us they are ‘passionate’. Which is as it should be; after all, no sane person would put themselves under the spotlight of scrutiny if they were merely ‘lukewarm’ about their chosen pursuit, would they? Or, are they all really as passionate as they’re making out? Everyone must have days were they feel a bit lukewarm towards their ‘passion’. A life long interest is not always born out of the fire of passion. I think that we often warm up slowly to something (or someone), and that when we heat up gradually it might well be sustained for longer, maintained more fruitfully than a cacophony of booming cracks that spark and explode in one short-lived firework display of glorious passion.
I learned to light the fire at home when I was young. There wasn’t a great draw on our hearth and it was hard to get going. There were a few tricks to helping it catch, but if there was too much paper and too many flames early on, well, that wasn’t a good sign. Less paper, more sticks, then, crouch down and blow, coax it to life gently. I sought a glow before the flames began to lick, an ember of warmth before the full assault of blazing coals. A fire builds from a small spark before it reaches an intense heat and then dies back down into embers. Years ago, many home fires were never extinguished, the embers brought back to life again as the fire surged up and down in cycles. Just like that hearth fire, we can’t be passionate all of the time, or we’ll burn out.
Where would we be without being able to nurture so many things in the tepid heat of lukewarm? From the proving drawer to the potting shed, that middling warmth, that is neither one thing nor the other, has life-giving properties to activate the yeast and to germinate the seeds. The low setting of a slow cooker gradually breaks down the sinew of a lamb shank that a quick hot flame could never achieve. Goldilocks knew all about the comfort to be had in a serving that is neither too hot nor too cold (although I wouldn’t choose porridge). Opera singers sup lukewarm water, keeping their vocal chords flexible and loose so the climb to the high notes doesn’t resemble the strangulated shrieks of an Agatha Christie heiress being bumped off. Babies are bathed in water that is lukewarm, around 40 degrees Celsius, so as not to shock their system.
My conclusion is that lukewarm – that insipid description – is preferable for most of us. We aren’t stifled by it, as we would be by too much heat, or rendered inert by feeling frozen. But it is also a telling metaphor: lukewarm feeling and attitudes give us space to move and grow and expand. It teaches us patience while we wait for the heat to rise. I propose that Shakespeare thought the same. “Love moderately. Long love doth so. Too swift arrives as tardy as too slow.” So he wrote, in Romeo and Juliet, where boiling passion ended in the worst possible way. Love each other in moderation if you want it to have staying power, he’s telling us. Maybe a dose of lukewarm love might just last a bit longer than either burning passion or cold indifference.
Some things aren’t ever good lukewarm, like the latte I sent back last week, yet, whilst I would send it back again, I’m a convert to lukewarm in other instances. There are worse things than slowly building a fire without much enthusiasm, then waiting patiently for the flames to come.
I Can Wait, by Ruth Donald*
Beyond the double glaze skylight birds cheep faintly.
Walls with no windows do not keep winter out.
The room is lukewarm, just the way I like it.
I myself am lukewarm and keep going, day to day,
peacefully, but without much enthusiasm.
It is the season of cold, quiet, inward. Trees
are bare, skies are pale, the sun is low, the moon
is large, birds search for berries, people stay indoors.
Underneath the loamy earth life continues.
Spring will come. I can wait.
* Ruth Donald is my dear friend who lives in Belfast. I thank her for her permission to share this poem.