The Purpose of Life

As most readers of this blog know, I write a daily senryu (a haiku-like verse) and post it on social media. My purpose is to capture what’s on my mind each morning.

Back in March I wrote this one:

is not the purpose of life.
Not civilized yet.

I am not a professional philosopher nor a religious leader, so my pronouncements on the purpose of life are strictly those of a lay person. But I do have opinions.

I have read excellent fiction of late from people who, in addition to writing complex and thought-provoking novels, do fascinating and important work in their day jobs. I’m extremely impressed by the ability of people like Malka Older, Arkady Martine, and Andrea Hairston, just to name three, to do great work in more than one direction.

The New York Times did a piece on Stacey Abrams this week that left me exhausted just reading it. She’s leading the important fight for fair voting, might run for governor of Georgia again, and is turning out novels while finding time to read work by others.

Clearly some people are able to be usefully productive in a lot of different ways at the same time. In the case of the people I mentioned, I hope they continue to do all the things. 

But I’m not going to try to emulate them. When I was younger, I tried to practice law, train seriously in martial arts, and write fiction, but my writing didn’t really take off until I stopped practicing law and became a legal journalist. Writing about law is a great deal less stressful for me than trying to solve people’s legal problems.

I’m not capable of doing a stressful job and doing the kind of writing I want to do. If I’m going to write anything that’s important to me, I need to think about it. A lot.

I’ve always bought into the idea that writers are working when we’re daydreaming or just sitting around or following some interesting thought down an internet rabbit hole. Lately, I need to think even more than I used to.

Also, I don’t think the popular definition of “productive” is doing a complex and useful day job while also creating great fiction or other art. I suspect it’s doing whatever leads to an “excellent” rating on an annual review at work (even if the job isn’t interesting or important) while maintaining a spotless house and dealing appropriately with taxes, retirement planning, and the like.

You know, the stuff we call “adulting” these days. We’re all supposed to be productive in that way.

I have always been reasonably good at doing what it takes to get by with those things, but these days I’m really starting to resent the drag they put not just on my time, but on my daydreaming and speculating. Because I worry about not being sufficiently productive at those tasks, worry that at some point they’re going to come back and bite me in the butt.

And yeah, actually getting them done helps, but the truth is that the tasks of the modern adult are the paperwork versions of doing the dishes. No matter how many dishes you do, there will be more tomorrow. The same is true of paperwork.

In the 20th century, some thought that technological advances would mean we’d all need to do much less work. Instead, we not only have demanding jobs but are also constantly dealing with business-like matters in our personal lives.

I’d like to think that at some point we’ll get rid of a lot of the pointless work and give ourselves a lot more time to sit around and think.

The purpose of life is doing the work you find important. That can be saving the world or writing great stories or teaching kids or baking bread – the possibilities are endless and vary enormously by person.

Some of us can do several things we find important; others of us have to narrow it down to do our work the way we want to do it. Some people will do a lot; some might just polish one stone for the rest of us to admire. All those things are right.

That’s real adulting. That’s being productive in a way that gives meaning to our lives.

3 thoughts on “The Purpose of Life

  1. I am still working through the unspoken ethos of my family: you are what you produce. The pandemic has made me realize how difficult it is for me to just read, or just cook or stare out the window or take a walk–just do one thing at a time, as if I was still trying to justify consuming air on a regular basis by my productivity. (Part of the stress of my parents’ marriage, I think, was the tension of this production mindset, which was strong in my father and which my mother vigorously resisted).

    Paradoxically, my anxiety about being productive has led to a lot of games of computer mah-jong this year. I’m working on getting a handle on both sides of the equation.

    1. I can just read or just take a walk. In fact, reading has always been my go-to activity for seeming to be productive while hiding out. I’ve done a lot of re-reading this past year because hiding in someone else’s reality has been soothing.

      And I love just walking, looking at all the things and talking to people on occasion.

      I can’t just listen to podcasts or radio, though; I have to be doing something while listening. Listening without doing something else feels like wasting time (despite the fact that I waste a lot of time).

      Which is to say, that my relationship with productivity remains somewhat fraught, despite my philosophy.

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