In my Freshman year at Gilmour Academy Brother Adolphus (not his real name), an exemplary teacher in the very fullness of the word, tasked his English class with a writing assignment, the title of this blog piece. I will not pretend to remember the words I wrote, but I do remember the tone those words conveyed. To say “adrift” would be to imply movement, perhaps even direction. To say “lonely” would be to imply a wish to connect with others. Neither was there, for neither was true. My man stood beneath a streetlight. My man had no sense of connection to others, nor even the desire for such. My man was awarded an A+, marking me, at least in the minds of others, as having a purpose: writing, or some form of communication with others. 10 to 12 students per class, of the record setting 75 Freshmen at most 33 would graduate. Perhaps they discovered their purpose elsewhere. Many would go on to CEO positions or high ranking military or government positions, despite Gilmour. Some families tend to identify the purpose for a child.
Moving on through life was largely a process of repeatedly coming awake, like an alcoholic coming out of blackout, and wondering what had brought me to this point, what was I doing. I knew only that my fundamental value was personal freedom, irrespective of the circumstances in which I found myself. Except for only a very few classes, school was boring to the point of near fatal depression. It was the crushing of soul I would read of in Hermann Hesse’s book Beneath the Wheel; from primary school through today I average one book per week. Scoring an I.Q. in the high 150s at age 11 was okay, having it known was not. It became the club used for mental beatings, the evidence that I was flawed because my schoolwork did not match my “potential” whatever that was. I knew only that one day, potentially, I would be free. Reading fiction, all of Hesse and several others was good so long as I learned something. Mainly I read non-fiction.
In the military I rented Uncle Sam my body, and kept my mind for myself. I was 25 at my first marriage. The woman’s family, fanatic Scandinavian Lutherans, insisted on a church wedding. The minister insisted on a period of “pre-marital” counseling. Soon into the first session he asked me if I was certain this was the woman I would want for the rest of my life. I laughed as I told him it was absurd to ask such a question of a 25 year old and he would be foolish to believe the answer. Immediately spared from further sessions, we learned he refused to perform the ceremony. I secured a second session with him, long enough for him to weigh my sincerity in the roll of bills placed in his palm. Clerics have such a way of divining purpose in life.
I occasionally received updates and reunion invitations from schools I attended. I was amazed at the number of my classmates listed “In Memory”. They lived, they struggled, they may even have sensed a purpose. They died. Several died in the abattoir of Viet Nam. Somehow, I doubt many of them would agree with the “purpose” intoned solemnly over their caskets.
Recent decades have seen the proliferation of books, DVDs, other media, and workshops purporting to help us answer the question, “What the hell am I doing here?” The authors and presenters seem to have a clear purpose: separate you from your money. Of course, it seems many people don’t ask anyway. They eat, they shit, they die, with occasional reproduction and distracting entertainment along the way. For them, the bottom line is: Okay, you were born; now make the best of it.
But few people seem to examine the nature of the drive to ask the fundamentally existential question, the Why am I here question. It has been said the human mind is hard wired to look for causation; there must be a reason this effect, being here, is in place. It also seems this question is not commonly asked by people enjoying the moment. Yet, when things are dark and painful Nietzsche is not an uplifting person to call, nor is Albert Camus. Camus’ L’Etranger was one of the most devastating books I’ve read, along with Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon. Even the Dalai Lama, and several rinpoches, offer the masses largely a matter-of-fact approach to life, something which doesn’t usually climb the charts.
No, we want Mr. Happy. Rick Warren and Joel Osteen currently lead the charts, with numerous others fielding books, DVDs, and other spin-offs. “But, wait! There’s more!” The mere fact that there are so many of these books on the market should suggest they do not carry the answer.
Perhaps the most despicable of the purveyors of purpose are those who take the existential question and loop it back into a proposed state which, hoped for in the future, is granted a past; the state of non-corporeal existence “before you were born.” I have explained my position on non-corporeal existence exhaustively in other posts on this blog, making it clear that I deem it a certainty but without the illogical trap of a god or super spirit. Having said that, I re-clarify that such existence is of a nature other than the “time” we experience when observing the ever changing coalescence of what we call the physical. Thus, existence in this dimension is such that we, as physical entities, can reckon a “before” the particular coalescence we call ourselves, a “during”, and an “after”. But timelessness has no end points, in any direction. It does not even have an identifiable, fixed point. Our orientation to the physical presents us with fixed points and end points which we wrongly project onto this other dimension of existence when in fact these concepts are irrelevant.
Digging themselves deeper, the purveyors of purpose devise a “before” period for us during which we confer with various non-corporeal authority figures and chart out a physical life to come in order to experience and learn from that which we are so far lacking or to make amends for something we did in a previous lap around the block. This convenient little paradigm allows us to do several things:
- Displace the responsibility for one’s current miserable state (content people rarely ask why they are content) onto some pre-ordained plan which is larger, and therefore more authoritative than the self. KEYWORD – shirk.
- Compensate for a sense of personal inadequacy (It’s in the Plan).
- Develop and inflate self importance (I was sent here on a mission and the people and events in my life are to serve my purpose)
- Develop and reinforce the hope, generated out of self-love, that even should we fail we will get to repeat the process as the same person we love so much.
Can there be anything more simple minded than this? Yes. Buying the books that purport to tell you how to discover your life’s purpose. Going to the workshops to hear the speakers milk the audience, like vampires draining the life blood of approval from their victims so they can live on to the next workshop.
I’ve said before, in so many words, that as far as it is logical to me, there is only one time when you can know what your life has been all about: In the moments it is ending. I’m appalled when I hear so many people say they want to sleep through their death. ESD. Eat. Shit. Die. That must be the sum of those lives.
Years ago I happened to be in the area of Gilmour Academy on a separate matter. I stopped by Gilmour to see who might still be around. Brother Adrian (actual name) taught me a Sophomore biology class which was almost identical to that which I took in college years later. I wanted to tell him that. He was not there. But, my guide through the re-modeled campus (now co-ed) was an upper classman who had become a priest and served at the campus. As we toured the new underground tunnels connecting the various buildings I enquired about Brother Adolphus. The priest continued through the tunnels, explaining that, built for winter, they were hardly ever used during summer breaks. He stopped at a particular bend and turned to me. “This is where Brother Adolphus was found. He had shot himself to death during a summer break.”
Knowing Brother Adolphus even for the short time I did, I was quite certain that, as he stared into the barrel of that revolver he took his time to sum up what he thought had been his purpose. My mind flashed to that writing assignment and I wondered just how long Brother Adolphus had been pondering purpose.