How would you qualify a lifelong interest? Something that lasts ten years? Twenty?
In my entire life I would say the longest-running interest I’ve had is in dinosaurs. That interest ran probably from as early as I can remember till I was about 15. That’s 13 years of dinosaur mania.
On the other hand I only started getting interested in Roman history (and ancient history in general) when I was about 16, and that interest is still running. So that’s just shy of 10 years of interest in Roman history.
But I get the feeling that my passion for Roman history will last a long time, if not for the rest of my life. My interest in dinosaurs on the other hand has pretty much run dry. So despite its longer run in my life till now, dinosaur mania still lost out.
I think it was a matter of detail. When I was a kid there was something romantic and a bit scary about dinosaurs. They were basically monsters, except they were real. They were huge and ferocious, they could crush or eat you with little effort.
But I remember things changing. Firstly as I grew up and engaged with the Christian faith, all the emphasis on evolution in palaeontology made me a bit uneasy. Back then I couldn’t easily reconcile evolution with biblical teaching (and even now it’s not easy), so for me palaeontology and dinosaurs lost out a bit.
Secondly I remember starting from the 2000s this drive, I don’t know how conscious it was, to naturalise dinosaurs. It probably did palaeontology a lot of good, but for a lot of dinosaur lovers it changed things. Dinosaurs were no longer these big, near-mythical monsters, they were animals. And it took away from the charm and the romance. And in conjunction with the whole emphasis on evolution, artists started putting feathers on all the dinosaurs. I’m no palaeontologist so I can’t argue, but let’s just say a feathered, giant-chicken T-Rex is really just not very cool compared to the old-school Godzilla-esque T-Rexes of the mid- to late-90s. So that new level of detail, and me being forced to engage with something I didn’t really like, or understand, or want to understand, made me pull away from it.
Thirdly I remember being disillusioned with palaeontology because of the way new dinosaurs were being found. The last ‘new’ dinosaur whose name I memorised was Deinocheirus, this supposedly huge, towering monstrosity with wickedly clawed hands. The thing was that back then (I haven’t checked since) the only indication of Deinocheirus’ existence was a pair of arms! Which is kind of cool but admittedly a cop-out. How do you present a whole new species of dinosaur to the world based on a pair of arms?
So I guess that’s why I slowly stopped liking dinosaurs.
My interest in Roman history on the other hand took a different trajectory. Like my interest in dinosaurs it started off a bit sentimental. Lots of poring over pictures of Roman legionaries and centurions, lots of watching Gladiator, lots of thinking about the glory of Rome and all that.
I studied that stuff in university a few years later. I was forced to engage with it seriously and intellectually, but instead of not liking what I saw I really took to it. It was the subtleties that I enjoyed, the discovery of new things, new ways of thinking about the past. I enjoyed having my old sentimental preconceptions first challenged, then shattered.
It wasn’t just about legionaries and gladii, cataphracts and primi pili anymore, but about what made ancient Romans and ancient people tick. Why did they do what they did? Could we do the same? Should we do the same? What makes them so different from us? What would you have done if you were in this or that person’s shoes? How has this or that way of thinking or this or that event shaped the way we act and think? It was so much more rewarding to think about what the Roman army actually achieved, what it stood for, why it eroded and what it turned into, rather than nit-picking over bits of armour and gear and formations and helmet crests and whatnot. This interest was met with the same intellectual challenge but instead of shrinking away it blossomed and turned into something that could enrich the way I live and act and think.
And I think that’s the way it is with many lifelong things. Lifelong interests, passions, hobbies, faith, friendships, relationships, marriages, all of these shouldn’t be measured by how long they’ve lasted so far, but by their ability to meet challenges – be they new worldviews, new circumstances, new people. The most worthwhile of these lifelong things should stand up to and thrive under these challenges, and evolve afterward into renewed sources of richness and curiosity and fun.