When I talked to retired teacher and local author Charlie Stephens about his book, “Passion Over Pain,” in early May, he said he wanted it to teach kids about the value of finding a passion in life.
For Stephens, that passion — the titular passion of “Passion Over Pain” — was sports, but he said it could be fishing, cooking, reading, theater, volunteering, truly anything at all.
I initially began reading “Passion Over Pain” to prepare myself for that interview — but I found myself continuing to pick up the book and chip away at its contents in the months that followed.
It tells the story of Stephens’ youth, growing up in Moose Pass and Seward. A constant throughout the book is physical activity — it’s full of detailed descriptions of fishing, camping, hiking, track, basketball and soccer. In its later sections, it describes Stephens’ diagnosis with cancer, his treatment and his recovery.
The depiction of a childhood on the Kenai Peninsula made an early impression and kept me turning pages. I was thrilled by descriptions of local touchstones like drives to Anchorage, peninsula winters and fishing. Stephens realizes his early years with a youthful earnestness that left me entirely charmed.
The early section is filled with fun vignettes of childhood, but it’s later — after Stephens was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma — that he drives home his point.
Throughout descriptions of sports seasons in his middle school and early high school years, he’s shown to be a capable and competitive athlete, hungrily pursuing new training techniques and building relationships with his teammates and coaches.
When he returns to school after grueling cancer treatment in the Lower 48, he’s lost his physique, his conditioning and his endurance. This isn’t a story of a miraculous recovery — the kind of story where he comes back to win the championship his senior year of high school. It’s truer than that, he falls short of qualifying for state championships in track and spends the rest of his basketball career as a second string player.
Stephens maintains a connection to his passion, the same interest and desire to learn and get better, but he struggles with a loss of his identity. Before cancer, he was a leading member of multiple sports teams at Seward High School, afterward he’s never able to compete at the same level again. He put everything into those sports and suddenly he has to figure out who he is without them, especially as he moves on to college.
I found a lot to connect with in that particular struggle — calling to mind my own crisis of identity in my early college years as I struggled to grapple with the changes in my life. I didn’t know who I was without my friends, without swimming, and as I temporarily moved away from my other passions in reading and video games. It would be several years before I figured it out.
Stephens ends his tale on a high note that somehow took me entirely by surprise and left me with a smile on my face — though it had certainly been seeded throughout the story. It comes, of course, as he reconnects with and doubles down on his passion, letting go of his doubts and rediscovering himself in sports and in the outdoors.
That passion kept him going through cancer treatments as he would shoot hoops — “swish therapy” — to give him something to pursue as he recovered. That passion would continue to inform his adult life.
Stephens told me that the writing of “Passion Over Pain” began as early as 1984, a Word document he’d plug away at from time to time before he really pursued the work after retiring.
“I’m not a writer,” Stephens told me as he held his book — which spans more than 500 pages. “I’m a PE teacher by trade.”
The message Stephens wanted to impart — the value of loving something and finding fulfillment in it — rings clearly. Though at times I found myself a little lost in the detailed descriptions of a sporting event, a particular lesson at Moose Pass Elementary or his summers spent commercial fishing, it’s hard to view “Passion Over Pain” as anything but a success.
“Passion Over Pain” is available at River City Books or on Amazon. A copy was provided to the Clarion for coverage and review purposes.
Reach reporter Jake Dye at firstname.lastname@example.org.