Note: At 32 years old, I’ve come to realize that a lot of my sense of purposelessness was simply a matter of some missing formation in my development as a person. Human life does have purpose, or at least purpose is available to human beings. We can miss out on it, like we can miss out on many good things, if something goes wrong.
And what follows is my original, and very honest, reflections from several years ago. This post has become the most popular post on my blog, suggesting that many people struggle with this same lack of hope and purpose. I hope that this evidence of my struggle over the years can give someone hope that what life looks like at some point can be completely different than what it looks like 10 years later. “God” is not a sufficient answer – it’s a simplistic answer – to the question of “what is the point, what is the purpose of my everyday actions.” I do believe that God – that is, the aggregate and the source of all this is good – is the supreme and final end of human life. In other words, we are meant for goodness and that takes many forms. But that doesn’t answer the immediate question of why I have to wash my dishes! People do need purpose in what they do. Anguish and doubt about the worth of one’s existence is what result from not have purpose.
What I appreciate about the essay that I linked to above is that the author includes both practical everyday purpose, and long-term transcendent purpose as necessary for a full or complete human experience.
Some people are perpetually amused at the world. They see clearly the faults of humanity and find them food for laughter. Other may think they are unkind, but there’s a different sort of kindness in them for doing no more than laugh at us.
Others are simple; they take life as a gift and don’t care to look it in the mouth. My husband is this sort of person; despite his intelligence, his primary motive in life is just to live it.
Then there are people like me, mad with a weighty sense of the pointlessness of life. The book of Ecclesiastes makes all too much sense to us – free will and sanity are both illusions.
I am that kind of person. My brain likes straight lines with beginnings and middles and ends. Yet everything around me appears to be running a circular track, and circles are pointless.
If I wonder why I am suffering, the first kind of person laughs at me for thinking I deserve better; the second kind of person says kindly that I’m alive at least and it’s better to be alive and suffer than not to exist at all. (It’s hard to be sure they’re right.)
And then, along come the people who do not seem to be real folk at all. They are a collection of painted-on attributes, borrowed from the dump of human sentiment and opinion. These will tell me that I suffer so that I can help others who suffer.
And immediately a the circular track pops into my head. If others never suffered, I wouldn’t need to either. Yes, if folks have got to suffer, it may be well and good that someone suffers needlessly in order to help the people who have got to suffer. But what’s the point of the first group’s suffering, then? This answer merely pushes the problem back a stage.
And by suffering, I do not mean anguish only. I mean all the things through which I pass – my passion – which come upon me and happen to me as if I were a blank canvass that exists only to be painted on. But by what madness does it come about that the canvass was made to be aware of the inescapable sludge that is being traced upon it?
Unless someone thought it would be a grand thing to turn the canvass into the artist by these means…I’m speaking madness now. It’s the rain.
When the rain passes, I will perhaps remember that moments of contentment can be found by doing whatever is set before me, with all my might. When you are doing something that must be done (and within the circular track it certainly must, I don’t quarrel with that) you are not thinking about why you are doing it. And so for people with my kind of insanity, the fear of God functions as a sort of temporary “student’s answer” to unanswerable questions.
October 25 2011
I thought that meaning would look like a road with a destination at the end. Our minds are busy, driven to try making sense of everything whether we are tired of the effort or not. Yet our minds in themselves are not capable of comprehending the foundation of being, since our minds flow out of our being and are not its source. So we substitute mental operations for the deep insight we crave – imagination for knowledge, fantasy for insight. Living mentally in this way, we set up the image of the road, or some other image, and furnish it with things we find lying scattered about our life’s landscape, trying to make a story about ourselves. I do not mean the Life that gives us life, but the “life” in which we woodenly pass through time while having experience, something in us screaming that there ought to be more.
This is how I describe our constant attempt to find meaning, and many of us rightly suspect that it is futile and does not reflect the real nature of things. But instead of looking for more, our society tells us to be content with less – to seek what is basic to ourselves instead of what is essential to ourselves.
Eventually we come to coldly tell ourselves that it is the instinct for “more” that is at fault – that we are “only” or “just” or “merely” this or that. In this late day, whole scholarly disciplines exist to prove and explore this assumption, and to put up rather weak theories about why this instinct for “more” persists so steadfastly in human experience if it does not correspond to any real possibility. (And these are only assumptions and theories – they can never be anything more despite their scholarly credentials, just as a blind man’s assertion that sight does not exist can never be more than an assumption and a theory, despite his inability to know with certainty that it does.)
Thus, to ease our pain, we cast away our inborn desires and try to learn to live with less, impressed with our own stoicism even as it destroys us. We come at last to faithlessness. There is no such thing as goodness. Reality is not good. Human nature is not good. Thus without ever embracing anything we would have thought was evil, we abandon all goodness and choose sides against ourselves and anything of virtue in the existential struggle.
But the love of God is not like any of this.
In the weeks to come it is possible that I will perish doing what has been the death of so many women before me – giving birth to my child. My mind tries to tell me that here is irony – just when my child arrives I may be rendered permanently unable to care for her. This would indeed be illogical, leaving my life unfinished and its destination unreached. But with a different kind of knowing I say that like my daughter, I exist because of love and as long as I am loved with the Love of my Creator nothing at all can invalidate, abrogate, undo, or make futile my existence. And even this saying is only my mind’s attempt to clothe in words and logic something that I know in a completely different way, without any doubt.
So I come to say that it doesn’t matter if human existence is pointless, not because we need less than a point in living, but because we need (and have, if only we could believe it) so much more. Our nature demands something far more total than some final justification founded on a circumstantial end-point.
The Love of God is a cradle and a swaddling blanket, a mother’s womb and her waiting arms. It is childhood home and the urgency of growth and the whole landscape of light to which the inner secret of our nature opens like a flower or like a grateful eye in the morning. Here at last is what fills us from the inside out and leaves no room for any fretting, nagging suspicion that there ought to be more.
We are never without God’s Love, even in Hell. But when we live cut off from the knowledge of God’s Love, we become unable to suspect its existence. The experience of being alienated from his love even a little alters our awareness in deadly ways. Our mind floats free, like a restless ghost, in torments. The organ of spiritual knowledge, our heart, is left shivering and dying in place to which the gate has been shut. A cycle begins in which our selfhood, being, and nature inevitably dwindle as we lose, existentially, the “will to live.”
But when it comes God’s Love, this mystery, is the key in the lock and there can be no other because the gate to a truly and fully human existence opens to nothing else. Our lives, it turns out, are not justified either by great deeds, as the pagans believed, or by stringent morality, as recent, twisted forms of Christianity seem to suspect. Our lives are justified by their beauty, and the beauty of a human life is the Love that flourishes in it, not as a parasite but as a freely welcomed and perfectly suitable partner. That Love is the answer is obvious after the fact, though not to be suspected beforehand. The love of God is the true secret of a finished life even for those who die young or tragically. Not history, but the Love of God is the real story of human existence.
And as I face childbirth again, with its blood, pain, sacrifice, and danger, I know that the Love of God has nothing whatever to do with my having things nice, or safe, or working out sensibly. God’s Love for me will flourish when temporal reality closes in on me with terror and pain and horror.
God’s Love cannot be put into a slogan. On the one hand, it “just is.” On the other hand, it is more abundance and fullness than we are even capable of absorbing.
The Love of God is his own being, and it is our being too – unless we are content to fall away into nothingness and to deny our own life.