We received enough positive response last week to the voice recording of our post to try it again this week. Moved the mic back a bit so there wouldn’t be quite so much noise and such, so hopefully, it’s a better experience. Still, if you like this feature and want us to continue, we’re going to need some help. Things like better sound and editing equipment, and more storage space on SoundCloud or somewhere. If you’d like to help, there’s a form at the bottom of the page. Think of it as passing the hat at church. Thank you for listening and even more thanks if you share.
One of the things almost all of us hold in common over the past ten months is that we’re taking in a lot more media, especially movies and serialized programming through our televisions. Viewership and subscription rates have skyrocketed and, along with that, so has our weight. With all the warnings about staying home, avoiding crowds, obesity rates that had already tripled in the past four decades threaten to become a pandemic in their own right. Part of what’s keeping our ever-expanding backsides stuck on the couch devouring pizza and ice cream is that there have been some really fun and entertaining things to watch! As movie theaters around the world were forced to close, movie companies made quick deals with streaming companies, and suddenly one of the most common reasons we’ve had for leaving home disappeared. All of the pleasure with none of the hassle of actually being around other people.
That is if one actually likes sitting in front of a television. I’ve reached a point in my life where watching tv no longer holds the value for me that it once did. I’d rather spend my time reading, or writing, or trying to figure out how to get my blood sugar to stay below 100 without damaging a kidney. I don’t binge series. If a movie is much more than 90 minutes long, I’m not likely to watch. Even then, I’m checking reviews and if the general consensus doesn’t seem to be up to my standards, I don’t bother.
One of the movies that did grab my attention recently is Disney/Pixar’s latest, Soul. There’s a lot to unpack in the movie and I don’t want to give away any critical spoilers but at its existential core, the movie asks one of the most fundamental questions of humankind: What is my purpose?
Flashback, for old fogies like me, to the 1992 Vice Presidential debate. Vice Admiral James Stockdale’s first words were, “Who am I? Why am I here?” Granted, he was poking fun at his lack of political exposure, and soon enough he slipped right back into a level of obscurity so great few outside his family noticed when he died in 2005. Still, the question is one that has been plaguing us since the earliest moments of existence. Why are we here? What is our purpose?
Not surprisingly, how we answer that question depends on our belief system, even if we don’t think we have a belief system. The topic comes up as this Sunday, in the Xian tradition, is when we get to talk about purpose, looking at the question from the perspective of what are we called to do? This is the vocabulary of my early childhood, underscored by the story of a young pre-prophet named Samuel. The Xian version of the Old Testament tells it like this:
Samuel was sleeping in the temple of the LORD
where the ark of God was.
The LORD called to Samuel, who answered, “Here I am.”
Samuel ran to Eli and said, “Here I am. You called me.”
“I did not call you, “ Eli said. “Go back to sleep.”
So he went back to sleep.
Again the LORD called Samuel, who rose and went to Eli.
“Here I am, “ he said. “You called me.”
But Eli answered, “I did not call you, my son. Go back to sleep.”
At that time Samuel was not familiar with the LORD,
because the LORD had not revealed anything to him as yet.
The LORD called Samuel again, for the third time.
Getting up and going to Eli, he said, “Here I am. You called me.”
Then Eli understood that the LORD was calling the youth.
So he said to Samuel, “Go to sleep, and if you are called, reply,
Speak, LORD, for your servant is listening.”
When Samuel went to sleep in his place,
the LORD came and revealed his presence,
calling out as before, “Samuel, Samuel!”
Samuel answered, “Speak, for your servant is listening.”
Samuel grew up, and the LORD was with him,
not permitting any word of his to be without effect. (1 Samuel 3:3b-10, 19)
I cannot begin to describe the impact this story had on me as a child. I would lie in my bed at night, waiting for some audible voice that would tell me, specifically, in tremendous detail, exactly what I was supposed to do with my life. When that didn’t happen, I did what comes naturally: I co-opted what I wanted to do and made the giant leap that this was my purpose, my calling. Don’t challenge me.
This is how life was framed for me: we don’t get a choice in what we do. Deity calls us, we do it. The only challenge is being still and quiet enough to hear Deity and not be distracted by those whose opinions are irrelevant. It is an interesting premise, to be sure. The problem is that it separates us from responsibility for our own lives and actions. You can’t challenge what I’m doing if my response is that my deity called me to do this. If my deity called me to push a cart, then I’d best push a cart. If my deity called me to be a snake-oil salesman, then who’s to question the brand of snake oil I’m selling? If my deity called me to be a homophobic, misogynistic, race-baiting, insurrectionist, then what choice do I have but to storm the US Capitol? See the problem?
For those coming out of Jewish and Islamic faiths, the philosophy isn’t much different. Each centers on our worship of a deity and doing what the deity demands. Life is fulfilled only to the extent we have followed and obeyed. Short of that, we are failures.
By contrast, Buddhists believe that life is merely part of a long journey on our path to eventual enlightenment. What we do here matters only to the extent that it gets us further down the road toward Nirvana. Therefore, we need meditation and focus on doing what benefits that journey rather than ourselves.
Hindu traditions may have one of the most complicated answers to life’s purpose. They divide it up into four areas: artha (wealth), kama (desire), dharma (righteousness), and moksha (liberation). Depending on the sect of Hinduism one follows, these can get quite rigorous and extremely limiting, with parents or grandparents dictating what happens in the lives of multiple generations. Nowhere in this belief system is there any genuine room for exploring how one best fits into the world.
On the far other ends of the spectrum, and equally as flawed, is the pagan concept that as long as we love each other, you know, like the Beatles’ song, that everything will turn out okay. A lot of people gave this concept an earnest shot in the 1960s and we can see where that got us.
There are many more philosophical notions about what one’s purpose is in life and discovering what is best for an individual. One preacher even wrote a best-selling but incredibly misguided book on living a purpose-driven life. We’re all constantly trying to figure out what it is we’re supposed to do, because if we don’t know then how are we supposed to be successful? We all want to be successful, but to frame that success we have to understand our purpose.
One of the scenes in Pixar’s movie that made me gulp hard is one in which Joe, the titular character, walks into the Hall of You and sees clips of his own life. In that critical moment, he realizes that his life has been largely insignificant and the regret and disappointment hit deep. On one level, I feel the same way as a musician and suspect that there are millions of musicians at any given moment who feel exactly the same. Fame doesn’t come to most of us. Financial profit is elusive for 99% of us. So when we look back on our lives, what do we have to show that says, “Hey, you did well?”
There’s also a moment where the nebulous character voiced by Tina Fey asks the question, “Is all this living worth dying?”
Uhm, well, uh, is it?
These are the questions we ultimately want to have answered at the end of our lives: Did we do well? Did we make a difference? Was all that living worth dying?” Too many times, I fear the answer to all three questions is no.
How do we fix that problem? How do we objectively analyze our lives and make the necessary adjustments to put us on a path to a different and more satisfying outcome? The world’s religions claim to have the answers but how many religious people do you know who die happy to have lived? There are plenty who are happy to die, to escape this life. In fact, there are a frightening number of hymns written about longing to not be alive. How many people, though, are happy to have sixty, seventy, eighty, or increasingly a hundred years on this planet? Betty White? Keith Richards? And who else?
Here’s what is standing in our way: we want someone else to tell us what to do. We want to have that “Speak, Lord, for I’m too lazy to figure things out for myself,” moment. We want a deity to tell us what our job is. If not a deity, a parent, or a teacher. If not that, then some social construct should be able to look at a test and tell us where we best fit.
Samuel was an exception, not the rule. We don’t find our purpose in life by going back to bed. We’d like for that to happen. We like bed. Just write my purpose on a note and leave it on the nightstand, please. I’ll pick it up in the morning. But being lazy is what makes life unsatisfying in the first place. Letting someone else make these critical decisions for us only leads to disappointment and a feeling of unfulfillment.
If we were to be shown clips of our own lives at this moment, how would you feel? Would you be happy with what you see? Would you think, “Yeah, I’m cool with the whole thing?” Or would you, perhaps, be like Joe, disappointed, sad, and regretful?
Unlike the movie, we can’t rely on dying and having an out-of-body experience to show us what we should be doing with our lives. We have to take charge, ask the tough questions, and then start moving forward.
If you were to fall down a manhole today and die, would you be satisfied with your life? If so, cool. If not, then there are some questions we need to start asking, starting with, why not? What’s missing? What are we not doing?
Samuel Butler wrote that “Life is like playing a violin solo in public and learning the instrument as one goes on.”
He makes an interesting premise that is at least partly true. We don’t know what we’re doing until we know what we’re doing and learning is an eternal process. What he doesn’t address are the larger questions. Who gave him the violin? Who’s listening to the solo? And what happens if half-way through the solo he decides he’d rather play trumpet; does that make learning the violin a waste of time?
Once we start asking these questions, we’re in danger of doing ourselves significant harm. My undergraduate degree is in a field I don’t use. Does that make those years of practice and development worthless? Was I wasting my time and my parents’ money? What I do now isn’t making anywhere near the money I made when I was doing something slightly different; does that make me less successful? Depending on how I’m feeling on any given day, those answers can result in one hell of a depressive funk.
Evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould wrote, “The vaunted progress of life is really random motion away from simple beginnings, not directed impetus towards inherently advantageous complexity.” There is no singular path that leads one to fulfill their destiny or purpose. Our lives are significantly more random than we were led to expect and that makes this whole prospect of achieving and knowing one’s purpose an exercise in perpetual frustration and endless questioning.
Allen Ginsberg, in a letter to the Wall Street Journal in 1966, wrote,
“Every American wants MORE MORE of the world and why not, you only live once. But the mistake made in America is persons accumulate more more dead matter, machinery, possessions and rugs and fact information at the expense of what really counts for more: feeling, good feeling, sex feeling, tenderness feeling, mutual feeling.”
If we jump back up and look at how this morning’s Old Testament reading ends, we find a clue that is too easily dropped. Verse 19 reads:
Samuel grew up, and the LORD was with him,
not permitting any word of his to be without effect.
We want to dismiss that verse as the “happily ever after” at the end of a story. There’s a lot lost in translation from ancient texts, but perhaps a more accurate way of reading it might be that nothing Samuel did was wasted. Everything, every word, fulfilled a purpose. Pay attention to grammar because articles matter. Not “the” purpose, singular, but “a” purpose, multiple.
Here’s what I think we too often miss: Life is like a well-written novel. On one layer, there is the overarching plot containing a primary conflict ending in resolution. Beneath that, though, there are sub-plots that are necessary to keep the story moving and if the book is constructed well, we are likely to not realize the primary resolution until all the sub-plots have been adequately resolved. The main character is moving toward their ultimate purpose through the entire book, but neither the character nor the reader may see that purpose until they reach the last chapter.
So, maybe it’s less about fulfilling a singular purpose or call than it is about completing that purpose in front of you right now, today, because it is in the culmination of each small piece of life, putting together the day-to-day puzzle, that we achieve our overarching purpose, something we may not see until this level of existence reaches its conclusion.
And here’s where I have an issue with the movie Soul; it makes the assumption that not only is our destiny, our purpose determined before we’re born, but that we’re supposed to inherently know what that purpose is and spend our lives achieving it. I find that concept a bit dangerous.
If we are supposed to know our purpose from the beginning, then we risk being so singularly focused on achieving that one goal that we miss all the other opportunities around us. Think of life in terms of a video game. Sure, one can go straight through and play the main storyline and beat the game in a matter of hours. The fun of the game, though, what makes it worth that $65 price tag, is the number of side-quests or supplemental storylines available to pursue. And while they lengthen the time necessary to complete the game, they make the whole experience more enjoyable.
We have been programmed by stories such as those of Samuel and Mozart and Marie Curie and Pablo Picasso and Stevie Wonder to believe that a purpose for our life is set at the beginning and is unwavering. We beat ourselves up for failing to answer “the call” or not fulfilling our purpose if, by age 25 or so, we’re not already well-established and driven toward a specific end. Yet, we fail to realize that not everyone’s story arch peaks at age 15. There is a lot made about the “27 Club,” young people of great talent, such as Janis Joplin and Kurt Cobain, who died at the age of 27 and their stories are unquestionably tragic, but there are many thousands more who fail to see any measure of success until they are well past 60 years of age. Grandma Moses didn’t start painting until she was 76. James Parkinson was 62 when he identified the disease that bears his name. Harlan Sanders didn’t start frying chicken until he was in his 60s. Laura Ingles Wilder was 65 when “Little House in the Big Woods” was published. Peter Roget, that guy who created the thesaurus writers love using, was 69 before he started pulling together all that information and was 73 when it finally published. I could fill countless pages with similar examples.
Our purpose is not set in stone when we’re born. Our purpose is not finalized when we graduate high school, college, or on any specific birthday. Just as our lives and all of humanity never stops evolving, our purpose never stops morphing, taking in our experiences and pushing us toward a resolution that we may never see. The list of people who died destitutely, never seeing any appreciation for what they did is filled with the names of people one assumes were always successful. Vincent Van Gogh. Emily Dickenson. Edgar Allen Poe. Grego Medel. El Greco. Oscar Wilde. Steig Larrson. None of them had any clue at their death of how fantastically wonderful their lives’ work was. We see them as successful now, but El Greco, especially, died knowing his art was absolutely hated by all his peers. They would question having achieved their purpose, but from a contemporary perspective, there hardly seems to be any doubt!
After all this trouble and examination, after pouring through countless philosophies and volumes of books by people who had access to more words than they could occupy, it turns out that the purpose of life is amazingly simple: to live. Our purpose is not to achieve a purpose but to take each moment of life as it comes, to pursue what we enjoy, to do the things that bring us pleasure, to engage in ways that make us feel good, to grieve our losses, to nurse our wounds, to mourn our failures, and then continue to the next moment and whatever it may hold.
In the act of living, our purpose achieves itself. In the movie Soul, that is seen in a young girl learning to play the trombone. Was she Joe’s primary purpose? No, but at the same time, his purpose was achieved through his interaction with her life.
At the end of The Big Lebowski, Walter and The Dude are on a cliff overlooking a beach with every intention of scattering Donnie’s ashes over the ocean. When Walter takes the lid off the coffee can, though, the wind blows the ashes back, away from the ocean, covering The Dude. The Dude gets upset. He didn’t want to be covered in his friend’s remains. There is such a strong metaphor here. The fulfillment of our purpose is found in those places where the ashes of our memory remain, the people we’ve touched, the lives we’ve influenced in some small way, the beauty we’ve brought to the planet, the evidence we leave behind to be discovered a hundred years from now.
We fulfill our purpose not by achieving fantastic goals set by society or religion or parents or educators. We fulfill our purpose, we answer the call, by living—each day, every day, as it comes at us. Maybe we have a plan. Maybe we don’t. Neither makes us a success or failure. Our purpose lies in life itself and as we live, we fulfill.
Let us end with this Benediction:
So that love is not unknown in our time,
May we live,
Going and sharing who and what we are;
So that peace is not unknown in our time,
May we live,
Offering hope, compassion, and understanding;
So that justice is not unknown in our time,
May we live,
Speaking truth, giving comfort, and walking honestly with our neighbors,
For now, and until the end of our days.
Peace be with you.
Quick note: A large number of previous entries are about to disappear. There are many reasons for this. Some stink. Some didn’t age well. Others need significant revision. If you find something missing that you desperately need to see, let us know. Thank you for reading!