on-going mostly unedited stream of thoughts

on leading a purposeless life

Last week I wrote a post about nothingness. I get well-intentioned responses every time I write a seemingly depressing post like this. That one day I will find meaning in all of this, or I should find a new purpose to give me meaning, that I will emerge from this darkness into bright light, etc. Some variation of those things. 

I appreciate that they even care enough because most people are apathetic, but I guess what may be difficult to grasp is that I am not looking for meaning or purpose, neither is my goal in life to be “happy” or even fulfilled. These are things that everyone seems to seek, but I have found them to be imprisoning. 

It was very difficult for me to drift aimlessly at first. We live in such a narrative-driven world that it is challenging to live without one. We need stories: to believe there is something at the end that we are sacrificing for. Like Viktor Frankl once famously said, “He, who has a why to live for, can bear with almost any how”. 

Having a purpose – whether it is a religious calling or something of one’s own choosing – can be very powerful. We gravitate to stories like Jiro the sushi master: stories of people honing their single craft for 80 years. We give very positive value to words like “dedication”, “tenacity”, “single-mindedness”. Jiro would not make such good sushi if he didn’t single-mindedly make sushi for 80 years. It is a beautiful thing, I will admit. I do admire such people. 

But I am not such a person. After many years of contemplation I realised despite my (probably societal-driven) envy of people like Jiro, I don’t want to be one. If I was like them I would be doing the same thing over and over again for more than 12 hours of my life everyday for tens of years. That doesn’t sound appealing to me at all. 

That’s the beauty and curse of a purpose. It locks us into a story. Every time we think of potentially leaving the story we are convinced to tough it all out because it is our “purpose” and we must be “focused”. It is entirely possible that one day we may not feel attuned to our purpose anymore, that it could be making us really unhappy, but we may resign ourselves to this unending unhappiness because of the stoic belief that this is our one true purpose in life. It is intoxicating to believe that we’re meant to do one thing. It is a sort of freedom, because if we believe we are meant to do one thing we are free from other things. Someone like Jiro will not think about picking up other interests, changing careers, work-life balance, meaning of life, etc. He would be free of a lot of the anxiety people face. His work is his meaning.

I was once somewhat like that. Somehow I convinced myself –because it is a beautiful story – bettering the world through design was my purpose. Only upon hindsight I realised I was miserable being a designer for years and years but I refused to even contemplate that because how could I give up on my purpose? It sounded sacrilegious: as though I was betraying myself. But in reality I was actually betraying myself by not even contemplating a life outside of my so-called purpose. I ignored my feelings, my burnout, my health issues, my relationships, the constant burning pain in my eyes — because I needed to fulfill my purpose. I had no life outside of work. I had no self. My work was my life, my self. It propped me up.

Can people now can see why I shrivel a little when they ask me to find a purpose? 

We could argue that my unhealthy way of living has nothing to do with trying to live out a purpose. I can accept that. But even if I could live a purposeful life in a healthy manner, I no longer desire that for myself. 

It could be a Buddhist/Zen thing I guess. But without these schools of philosophy I would probably arrive at the same line of thinking. When we keep reaching out for something and feel miserable thereafter we would start to pay attention to it, at least I hope. We become miserable when we deviate from something we are strongly driven to desire. We may become less tolerant to faults and failures. Say I pick up bicycle-building and I become really good at it. Yet I feel miserable doing it. I would probably think that it may be viable for me and the reasonable thing to do is to move on. But if I somehow believed bicycle building was my purpose, I would force myself to carry on even if I was miserable doing it. I would spend hours and hours trying to build bicycles and there would not be space for me to discover other interests or other parts of my self. 

illustration of a purposeful life vs a purposeless life

It is this space that I want. The space to move on, to tinker, to discover things I haven’t even thought of before. To be capable of giving up, letting go, quitting. I don’t wish to be fixed to something. It may give me more anxiety, but it gives me the freedom to explore and experiment. 

It is not just the space. Attachment to a story and certain outcomes only brings suffering to me. We’re all invested in our own hero(ine)’s journey, we all want a good ending. We want to see light at the end of the tunnel. But life taught me that sometimes there is just no light. Sometimes there is just pain, grief and sadness. We can’t twist everything into a positive spin: that is just not respecting and giving weight to the situation. It is one thing to dwell in misery and another thing to pretend it didn’t exist or is a blessing in disguise. Not all sacrifices are worthwhile. Sometimes we just have to accept we have been wrong or plain stupid. It is a learning experience, instead of repeatedly jumping into circumstances that makes us suffer because we mistakenly believe suffering has meaning. Not everything has meaning. There are many irrational, senseless things and events in life. 

It is part of reality that undesirable outcomes happen. To only believe in positive outcomes, that all clouds come with silver lining will inevitably bring a storm of repressed grief. We can consciously spin a story to anything we want to believe, but our bodies and psyches are aware of the truth. There is power to bearing witness to what it is, not what we want things to be. The capacity to bear all of this can be deepened, if we acknowledge the untoward in the first place.

I think it is beautiful if people have a purpose. But it should be valid to lead a purposeless life too. We may start seeing potentialities when we’re not fixated or something. Maybe it is okay to not pursue potential and just be okay with being. Why must there be a reason for everything?

It seems inconceivable in such a positivity-is-everything world that one will want to purposefully lead a purposeless life. There is a misconception that this is a response generated by depression.

When I was depressed, I was ruminating negative feelings and scenarios over and over again. There was only a narrow spectrum of reality I saw. But underlying the desire to live purposelessly is an openness to let in everything instead of just one thing. Is this a depressive response?

Related posts

what is there when there is nothing
3 responses

2 thoughts on “on leading a purposeless life”

  1. Cheapskate says:

    I learned many years ago that looking for happiness in life actually brings unhappiness, because it causes one to always feel like he has failed to find it. Seems like you are saying that looking for meaning through purpose may also bring the opposite. One thing I have found is that after a few years I am ready to move on to something new. I don’t know if this is as it should be to prompt me to keep growing as a human being. Psychologists say we are simply programmed to want variety in life.

    Sorry I do not stop by to read your wonderful, thoughtful blog often enough, but I am preoccupied with my own struggle for meaning and purpose.

    1. Winnie says:

      hi! I think it is already great that you remembered to stop by once in a while. 🙂 thank you for taking the time and effort to leave this comment. it is never easy to find the mental space to write a comment, I think.

      I think there is nothing wrong to want to move on, or the opposite: which is to do the same thing forever. Every one is made up differently and should desire different things. The problem comes when we try to impose our own preferences on other people, or when we think something is wrong with our selves because we cannot be “typical”.

      Maybe we intellectualise too much by trying to find “meaning”, I like the zen way I guess: just do what comes.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *