When deciding on how to best spend my time, I often ask myself to isolate what my purpose is, with the intention to then set out tasks that are in line with this. Seemingly such a clear and obvious path, and yet, this often leads me to want to spend more time writing, reading, training in line with copy writing and editing. But then also yoga! Everything to do with sharing yoga. And painting! And artistic expression in general. But, then I think, 'wait, I studied my ass off for years for a PhD in History, so shouldn’t I be working on post-doc fellowships and research proposals …'
As you might gather, I’m confused as to what my purpose actually is. Knowing this is step 1 in the grand process of effective time management and success-making, and I still haven’t ‘passed go’. This is one of The Questions of a human’s life. My undefined purpose looms like a cloud over my head. I know I desperately need to grasp it, to know it, and yet I can’t seem to reach it, so instead its a source of anxiety, fostering feelings of incompleteness. Upon contemplating life and science in her dairy, a pioneering 19th-century female astronomer, Maria Mitchell, once wrote that, “To know what one ought to do is certainly the hardest thing in life. ‘Doing’ is comparatively easy”.
I’ve always been a polymath, able to delve into many different skills and vocations, and yet, I constantly feel like I master none. As time ticks on, I realise that I’ve taken in hand a myriad of things, and have a real difficulty sticking to them, or at least single handedly focusing on one over time. Starting and creating new things is what I do naturally; settling into the steady endurance race of maintaining and slowly building on something is what I seem to reject and fight against. I realise that this fundamental irresolution in my life produces false starts and confused ideas. It nullifies my power.
This is why long writing projects are both the best and worst thing for me. In body and mind, I react against the process of single-mindedly returning to the same document as it changes only in imperceptible ways over months. And yet, when I do return to the writing project, and grow and evolve with the project, I discover the best in myself. I also realise tangibly that this is a natural calling for me - to create stuff. But create what? Everything! Is it good enough to just want to be at the nexus of creative processes, or do you have to choose a craft? This is an important question because creation is not always just about manifestation, and crash-bang-boom-moments, its also about dogged determination and consistency. Its about making a choice in your craft and then refining this relentlessly. In this sense, purpose appears as though it might be defined as something quite unremarkable and repetitive, rather than something of ideals, and lofty dreams.
French mathematician, Émilie du Châtelet, who was a wildly successful woman way ahead of her time (18th century), pondered on the importance of defining purpose in her writings on gender and the nature of genius. She too acknowledged that this was a difficult task. She pointed out that there are any number of conditions and conditionings in a person’s environment that influences and, indeed, confuses their knowing. She argued that not even the fortunate few who do seem to have clear, single-minded focus in their career and pursuits can claim absolute purity of purpose. This is because the things we isolate as what we ought to do are irrevocably contained within the limits of what we think we can do, are good at doing, or are available to us.
This implies that our ‘purpose’ is not just some abstract higher calling, but also something we have played a part in crafting over time, over our choices, mishaps and triumphs and mistakes. We’ve made choices and landed upon chances that have narrowed our options and perceptions of ourselves at times, or broadened them at others. We’ll never know the exact rippling impact this or that choice, or happenstance, has had over our lives, or the exact magnitude of our unbidden graces. But all of these have worked together to mould us and mark us. Our purpose is, in part, determined by this process. French luminary and giant of 20th century European philosophical thought, Simone de Beauvoir, has reflected on this confounding constellation of causes that crafts an identity:
Notwithstanding this curious perplexity of chance, chaos, and choice that influences how we come to be who we are, Beauvoir notes that we actually experience ourselves as fundamentally non-accidental. We experience ‘I’ as having meaningfully come to be alive, to be creatures with progression, growth and, indeed, purpose. This experience of one-ness, of a meaningful and solidified ‘I’, is a conundrum into which hundreds of years of philosophical enquiry have been invested. The questioning goes: Are we really this ‘I’, or is it a coping mechanism for us to navigate the world around us? If we really comprehended the true degree of chaos that defines the nature of reality and laws of cause and effect, we’d probably battle to engage in tasks, build a life, see the meaning in being part of a society, or ‘hope’ in any particular future for ourselves.
Perhaps then, our identities, and the idea of a meaningful pattern of cause and effect that leads ‘I’ to this point in time gives today purpose. At the very least, its another day in the life of ‘me’. I am so-and-so, and therefore I must/should/could/wouldn’t/won’t do ‘xyz’. This ‘I’ is also so very dear to each of us - so special and significant - and so we couldn’t bear to see ‘I’ fail at the grand project of life, to be a loaf and moron. Knowing ‘I’ is a great motivator.
This pragmatic view on the usefulness of identity, and by extension, purpose, may be what Beauvoir acknowledges when she writes that “I am satisfied with my fate and … I should not want it changed in any way at all. So I look upon these factors that helped me to fulfil it as so many fortunate strokes of chance”.
She is perhaps deciding that these past chances and choices are gifts of an essentially imperfect life. And if we make an intention to embrace these gifts in all their perplexity, then perhaps purpose is a useful tool in rationalising, categorising and dealing with the possibilities one has been given, and has crafted for themselves, as well as the possibilities that have gone awry. As much as purpose speaks to what has happened to me, it also clearly outlines what has not. This most certainly is useful. This would imply that purpose helps me to focus on this universe and its possible me, and not be drawn outward, drifting in present-time paralysis to check up on the multiplicity of other possible lives and paths I might have chosen but did not.
Perhaps purpose is a pragmatic workaround in life (to get us up in the morning, to get us through confusing and challenging times). In this way purpose seems a little easier to define than discovering some magical ephemeral ‘higher calling’. It might be something completely unremarkable, yet utterly fundamental, like being - in union and honesty with oneself, with this life.