I signed myself up for some events, a 25k trail run, a 30 mile day, and a 50k race later in the year. That’s a lot more commitments than I normally make, but I know that if I want to do big things, I have to put myself on the hook. I have to be purposeful.
But, behaving purposefully and having a purpose are two different things.
On New Year’s Eve, a good friend asked, “What is the larger purpose of your life?” We have this tradition, gathered around dinner in a cabin in Vermont. We talk about weighty things. It’s a reflective time, the end of the year, and while sometimes these sessions can feel forced, they also help refine all the shit we’ve been churning through in our heads and in the little bubbles we keep ourselves in.
Here’s the spoiler: I think very few people live singularly purposeful lives or even broadly coherent lives. I think most folks do the best they can with what’s in front of them at any given time, and that’s about it.
Humans are not good long-term thinkers or planners. See, for example, college savings, climate change, fitness regimes, etc.. What we tend to do, when talking about a “life’s purpose” is worry that we don’t have one, and then late on, look back and see the loose threads that connect all the various and sundry stuff we done, and decide, “oh, that was it.” Of course, purposes are purposeful, which means they can’t be assigned in retrospect.
Isn’t it just like logic and linguistics to remind us we’re not clever?
In the sprawl of the living room after dinner, with the fire crackling and the dogs asleep against their humans, I said that I didn’t think my life had a purpose, which prompted some argument, but really, if you can’t say what your purpose is, brainstorming some rationale for how you live, doesn’t give you one magically.
Then I started thinking about where human purposefulness falls apart, because obviously we have goals, things we’re trying to accomplish, and achieving them requires breaking them down into manageable, measurable tasks. The goal gives us long term purpose, by requiring day-to-day purposefulness.
Are we then only as purposeful as our next goal?
The more aggressive among us are chasing multiple goals at the same time (overachievers), and maybe their lives are more orderly as a result, or more chaotic. The thing is, as I said before, we’re just not as clever as we think. We’re emotional. We’re interconnected. And most of the time we’re over-planned and under-resourced.
We fail a lot and judge ourselves harshly. We aren’t as adaptable as we need to be to sustain long term purpose.
And all that’s ok. What I went away from that conversation with was a sense of acceptance that my life might not make a concise and coherent story, that I might not achieve much of note, but simultaneously that aggressively pursuing it all is/was worthwhile, because it brings your focus to the present, which is, anyway, the only place you can accomplish anything.