The Answer Is There Isn’t One (Or Is There?)

by Tom Swift

On those mornings you struggle with getting up, keep this thought in mind — I am awakening to the work of a human being. Why then am I annoyed that I am going to do what I’m made for, the very things for which I was put into this world? Or was I made for this, to snuggle under the covers and keep warm? It’s so pleasurable. Were you then made for pleasure? In short, to be coddled or to exert yourself?

-Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 5.1

Good question. Why am I here?

I have had great opportunities in recent months to connect with people who seem to genuinely wrestle with the common concerns that arise as part of the human experience. These women and men present perspectives that are thoughtful, sensitive, and compassionate. This is such a gift, for it is through shared experience that I seem to best reach greater self-awareness — seem, that is, to feel a stronger connection to the disparate parts of myself.

Whereas as a younger adult I sought answers that would solve not just a given problem but also future ones, I seem less inclined at my present age to do this. A related change I have observed in my thinking of late is that I am now regularly encountering evidence there are a great many tools and no answer that always applies. We as humans, it seems to me, easily confuse the two — tools and answers. This is understandable. When something works, you give it credence and think it will work again. Yet the old adage applies: when all you have is a hammer, all the world looks like a nail. The hammer works wonderfully — sometimes. But certainly it’s not the tool you reach for to solve every — or even most — problems.

Let us please keep that apparent clarity in mind when I circle back to attempt to answer the good emperor’s question. It is formed as an either/or proposition and, of course, we know the answer could easily be both: I could quite plausibly argue I am here to both work and play. In fact, we know the likely pitfalls that await the person who only works, never relaxes, and we also know that if you do not soon enough get out of your comfy bed that, eventually, you will be parking the same mattress under a highway overpass somewhere. Yet, for me, there is (remember the above, please, because I’m going to come dangerously close to violating the just stated tenet) still a single answer: purpose. We are here to perform our purpose.

Before I say more on this, first: There is an important distinction that I think should be considered between necessary action and purpose. Let us say we know someone whose purpose in life is to be an astronaut. This is a lock certainty: it is known and does not need to be questioned. Nearly since he came out of his mother’s womb our fellow has been talking about being sent into and exploring the possibilities of outer-space. Further, he has been taking action to fulfill this purpose: obtaining the requisite education and training. He is at NASA now, preparing to launch to Mars next year. He is doing what he is here to do — he is living his purpose.

Now, does this mean between now and then he does only those things that get him closer to the fourth planet from the sun? In order to be living his purpose can he, say, also marry his sweetheart? Sire or adopt children? Take that family to Disney World (and go on rides other than the one at Space Mountain, I mean)? Yes. I think we can say that even the most dedicated astronauts do many non-astronaut things — that you could, in fact, stand behind our fellow the next time you are in line at the DMV.

That we as humans do far more in a day than our purpose — both because we want to and because we need to — means we are going to encounter and create for ourselves all kinds of problems. These problems are going to consume our attention, drain our energy, and take up our time. They will confuse us and seemingly keep us from our purpose. They may, in fact, even call our purpose into question. We may stop performing our purpose altogether — or fail to find it in the first place. As we are grasping for understanding in response to the problems of daily living, trying to solve this money decision or that relationship challenge … if we do not know or attend to our purpose … we are going to find these struggles potentially intolerable. On the other hand, if we have a purpose, those same challenges will feel lesser and may, in fact, fuel us — they may, in fact, be fodder to find or further one’s purpose. Ideally, they may even be seen as part of that purpose. (Work and purpose seem in American culture to be intertwined when they do not need to be and, in fact, aren’t for a good many of us. An example: a mother might work a sales job that she is good at but does not especially enjoy because the salary she earns and the flexibility it allows provides her with what she needs to perform her true purpose: raising children.)

To be actively pursuing one’s purpose is to be the best version of oneself.

To be unable to pursue (or find) one’s purpose is to be something else.

There is simply nothing new about anything I am saying right now. “The person who has a why to live,” is how Nietzsche put it, “can bear almost any how.” Yet I needed to do this mental drill down — for me. (Hopefully, someone else gets something out of it, too.) What is new is the way in which I feel I understand this truth. It feels like I see it with clearer eyes than I have previously.

Like most things in my life, sense is made by looking in the rear-view mirror. Now, creeping to the end of this post, things seem more settled and slick than I thought they would be before I put down my thinking. This makes me a bit nervous — there is no answer that always applies, right? We confuse tools with answers — yes. I must admit: Very possibly I am on some level attempting to put down the answer that always works and that I am confusing a tool for that answer. Not, to be sure, my intention. For I do know firsthand that even when I tend to my purpose there are still those money decisions, relationship challenges, and the like. I will put it this way: I don’t think purpose is the answer to all problems but it is a factor in most. It is, if you will, the Swiss Army knife of tools.

For me, right now, what seems right is this: my purpose is to write my experience of being alive. When I tend to this purpose, the rest of life seems less hard, I feel lighter, I am more curious, less reactive, and I laugh more freely.

When I don’t tend to this purpose, I grasp for externals. I get cranky more quickly. I have less energy, my body is tighter, I am more fearful, and I allow time to pass in less than constructive ways. I am, in short, more likely to snuggle under the covers and keep warm longer than than is good for me.