There’s something that drives me forward in life, and I want to understand it. Don’t you?
There’s some quote I’ve heard a dozen times that doesn’t have a single source now if it ever did: “I write to discover why I write.” The same quote comes in different forms: “I dance to find out why I dance,” or even, “I live in order to learn why I’m alive.” It’s all the same idea. To be honest, most of the time when I hear someone say this, I suspect they say it more for style than for truth.
Perhaps I’m unfair. I’ve often claimed that my own purpose in life is to seek the meaning of life. At its heart, this is maybe also the same thing. Because if one doesn’t know the reason behind life, how can one live with any purpose that is not a whim?
There are circles here. “I write to discover why I write.” Let’s break this down: “I write.” First there is action. I do writing. Then a purpose is ascribed to the action: “to discover.” But then the ascribed purpose is to answer the question “why,” the question word used to uncover a purpose. One’s purpose is to find a purpose. But if one seeks a purpose, then one must not know the purpose, and therefore one cannot purposefully be seeking purpose. In order for this statement to be true, it must be false.
If logic is our Virgil, then the latter parts of the statement dissolve one other, and the first remains. “I write.” Nothing more. There is action and the action is true.
Perhaps the popularity of these statements (popular in the realm of artists, at least) is that not the content but the structure reflects the truth of the situation. The painter who utters the line, “I paint in search of why I paint,” does in fact paint. The action is always the starting point. What follows may be false, sure, but then again, something false is still something. There is an action followed by an attempt to make sense of it. The attempt fails, but if we zoom out and interpret the implication of the statement, it translates to something like, “I am and I try.”
I think this is getting at why I’m suspicious of the people who say they bake bread to learn why they bake bread. In particular, I’m suspicious when they say it proudly, whereas, the claim is in fact a humble one. “I’m just a doer of deeds,” it says, “and I understand so little that I spout contradictions, because any further assertion would be a lie.”
But I want to tunnel deeper. I am interested in those who say this with full sincerity. Why can’t we be satisfied with saying, “I write”? And if you agree that the variations of these statements are the same in nature, then the following question is identical: Why can’t we be satisfied with saying, “I live”?
Okay, so that question is too big for today. At this moment, I’m not concerned with the answer anyway. I’m interested in the fact that a person is not satisfied with pure action, for whatever reason they may have. I want to separate these two things: the pure action, the not-enough-ness.
Unless you’ve acquired some enlightened state, I’ll be bold enough to claim that you possess this not-enough-ness, that we all do. I certainly do. And now (cue the strings) the conclusion of this essay is going to be whatever we can draw from beholding our not-enough-ness as I’ve defined and cupped it in our tiny metaphorical hands.
So what is it? I have it right here. I’m looking at it.
It is not my doing; it is not my being. In that case it seems like a sort of potential energy. A leaning. It’s not the motion of dancing but the void that the very fact of dance falls into and the essence of that forward falling.
Why do people hike the Appalachian Trail? Why do people take four-to-six months of brutal effort and spill it haplessly along miles of infertile ground? I’m a bit obsessed with this question! I hiked the whole trail myself to answer it!
Or did I?
I hiked–that much is true. But if my purpose was to find the reason, then, well, my purpose was a contradiction and thereby false. Perhaps then, I didn’t have a purpose. But I wanted so much for there to be one.
Perhaps what I see when I look at my not-enough-ness is the very ache for purpose.
So then if I return to my old motto that my purpose in life is to seek its meaning, I must conclude that this purpose too is false. If I am most honest with myself, I don’t have a purpose: I ache.
But I don’t want this essay to come across as depressing or prescriptive. I just want to follow a line of thought and see honestly, together with you, reader, where it leads. I do believe that “I ache” is a more true statement for me than “I have a purpose.” And I do suspect that anyone who tells you sincerely that they travel to discover why they travel, at heart, feels the same as I do. And yet, even without a purpose, I feel more happy and driven than most. And from that, I must conclude that purpose as commonly defined may be more superfluous than commonly contrived.
I propose that purpose is a fine word for discussing why someone chose a tin roof for the new shed. But it is a poor word for describing why someone does long distance running.
It is not a purpose, it is an ache, and it is a natural, beautiful, and essential thing.