The first time I felt that life had no purpose was the summer I was twelve. It was terrifying. I was living in a lackluster apartment with my dad, in a complex behind a Payless, in the small, Northern Californian town of Ukiah, which in summer was a baked-dead wasteland. I was too old for camp, too young to work, and the few friends I had were gone for the summer or had moved away. Unlike previous summers, mostly spent living in Berkeley, I had nothing to do and no one to do it with.
While my dad was at work I ate cereal and watched a series of TV shows until about two in the afternoon, when there was nothing on but soap operas, which even I couldn’t tolerate. Then I would go swimming by myself in the complex’s little pool for a couple of hours. Then I would go back inside and watch TV again. I had no wherewithal to create or sustain my own projects for the span of a whole summer, and no one to help me, and life very quickly lost all flavor and meaning.
I know now that if I had raised hell, demanded that my dad send me to camp, or find me something to do, he likely would have done it, but it didn’t occur to me that that was an option. The next summer was exactly the same. It was dreadful. Now, at forty-six, I’ve have had some bad times in my life, but I have to say those two summers still rank among the worst. Having read something about the adolescent brain, and its intense need for stimulation and new experiences, I have a better understanding of why those summers were such torture, and why they left me forever with a certain fear of summer in general. Of course, it’s not really summer I learned to fear, but the feeling of purposelessness.
At some point later in my adolescence, afflicted off and on with the feeling of purposelessness, I noticed that if I was having a good time I never thought about purpose. If fun wasn’t available, school and work—if not always fulfilling—at least staved off that lurking feeling.
In our culture there is much ado about finding your purpose. Some formulas for this seem hopelessly self-serving, pursuing some “passion” that does nothing to contribute to the betterment of the community. Other formulas focus so heavily on selfless service (in the face of the world’s overwhelming suffering) that they seem like recipes for total burnout. In the camp of non-dual spirituality, of which I’m generally a fan, purpose (Ekhart Tolle-style) is often simply whatever you are doing in the moment. If you are peeling a carrot, at that moment the purpose of your life is to peel that carrot. I like this one in theory, but since I’m not enlightened I don’t get a ton of mileage out of it.
On the other hand, all these formulas have a side of the coin (a three-sided coin?) that seems essential. J.P. Sears, the redhead who makes those funny Ultra Spiritual videos, says that it’s his delusional opinion that perhaps the purpose of our lives is to fully embrace our own special weirdness, because that leads us to our authentic selves, and thus to living the lives we are meant to live. He says his favorite commandment is one that didn’t make it on the tablets: Amuse Thyself. I think this is also a really nice way to look at it, so let’s make that coin have four sides.
All of this musing leads me precisely nowhere. One thing I can say is that (at the time of this writing) tomorrow is Halloween. My child, Asa, who is twelve, and, as far as I can tell, has not yet encountered the feeling of purposelessness, has decided to be “Greek Mythology,” which is a costume composed of many elements. Yesterday, for about twenty minutes of the afternoon, the purpose of my life was to make a trident for the costume, using cardboard, masking tape, and a long stick. A few years before I learned to know the feeling of purposelessness, I learned a more essential life lesson: that you can make just about anything with enough cardboard and tape. This, at least, is wisdom I know I can impart to Asa. For now, I’ll just cling to that.