In Japanese class the other day I had an example essay to read and answer questions about with the topic of “what is your purpose in life.” This is either very timely – as it’s something I’ve been thinking a lot about lately – or not timely at all – as it’s something I’ve been thinking a lot about for most of my life. And when I think about something a lot I mean it in the “sometimes I forget to sleep and eat” sense of the phrase.
Okay, let’s start with basics. Everyone has a life (and not in the slang sense of the word) – I assume that you do if you’re reading this. And there are, of course, billions of other people who also have lives, and who have had lives in the past, and will have lives in the future. That is a given.
But whether these lives have purpose is an entirely different question. Do you think your life should have a specific, definable purpose? Or is it enough for you that you are alive, and there doesn’t need to be any reason to it than that? Being an expat, now, I think of it in those terms: Do I live in America simply because I was born there? Or do I go searching for a country that suits me better? Or, now that I have my first full-time job, do I settle for it? Or do I keep applying to ones that seem like they might be more “fulfilling”?
Are we alive simply because we don’t consider there to be a viable alternative? Or do we actually want to be alive?
Now, I imagine there are people who would say, “I am alive, and that is enough. I don’t need there to be any greater reason than that.” And I’m happy for them, that they are content with that, and perhaps I even feel a little envy – but perhaps I feel some disdain as well.
Because for me, it’s not enough. Now, I could have lived in America the rest of my life - I didn’t mind it much as a country. It’s not cruel to me, I’ve never faced prejudice or deprivation. But if it had been unpleasant, if every day had been a form of torture – wouldn’t it have been purely idiotic to stay there? To have loyalty to a place for no other reason than having been born there, which is little more than coincidence.
I am in Japan because it’s my chosen country – I have a dozen carefully thought out reasons to be here, and I have hundreds more that I can’t explain verbally but that I feel very strongly. It has meaning because it has weight – and that’s what I feel about life itself, that it has value not in merely existing, but when we have thought carefully about why it exists. I’m not satisfied with life for the sake of life. (I also get pretty bored with art for art’s sake – sorry, Oscar - but that’s a different post.)
So next, let’s branch out from this premise, that it is more desirable to have a purpose for life than not. Now it remains to decide what that purpose will be. It would seem that the usual answers would be a religion, an ambition, a career, a pleasure, an art, a person. But it’s hard for me to imagine something important that it solely is a reason enough for living. That if you lost everything else, that one thing would keep you going.
I’ve tried focusing on various things at various times, underlining it in my head with “this is it, this is your purpose, keep this and that’s all that matters.” And while I’m good at “talking myself into” things, when it comes to something this vast it either doesn’t stick, or I’m forced to give it up for other reasons.
What I’m operating on at the moment – and for the past few years – is the Hole Principle. Say you’ve dug a hole in the middle of a pathway in a forest. Why you did it isn’t the question – this is. Sooner or later someone is going to walk along the path and fall into your hole (assume it’s dark or something). Now – do you leave it like that? Or do you fill it in? If we’re on remotely the same moral wavelength, your answer is “duh, fill it in. That’s just in the nature of holes – you can’t leave them empty. Someone could break a leg in there.” So here I am with this hole, see, and every day maybe I drop a few shovels of dirt in it. That’s my purpose right now – trying to make up for everything I’ve done wrong.
The problem is – every day I also dig a few more shovels of dirt out of it. I don’t want to, I just can’t stop myself. Maybe one day it’s one in, two out, maybe another it’s equal, maybe tomorrow I’ll actually dig fill in more than I dig out. But the longer I live the more I keep digging, and no matter how long I live I will never be able to fill in this hole, no more than I can drink in the whole ocean or breathe in the whole sky. And at what point will the Hole Principle and reciting it carefully to myself when I need to believe I have a purpose – at what point will it not be a sufficient motivator? At what point will I have to give up and walk away, just leaving that hole there and hoping no one falls in?
I know it’s a strange thing to be thinking about and strange to be thinking so much about and strange to be thinking about thinking about – but it’s something high up on my curiosity list. I honestly want to ask people the second I meet them, “What do you consider your purpose in life? How do you make that enough for you? Or do you not have a specific purpose, and are just living? How do you make that enough for you?” And I want to ask them every time I meet them again, “Right now, can you stand being alive? Are you enjoying it enough that you want it to continue? How do you do that?”
It’s like watching a magician do sleight of hand tricks. I don’t understand how it works, and maybe I’m skeptical that it’s even real, but it’s fascinating to watch.