My sister asked me what I think the purpose of life is.
I haven’t answered her. Mainly because I don’t know. If anything, I doubt there is one.
A lot of people think that this question bounces around our sophomore year in college and then disappears. No. It haunts us, drives us, throws most of our plans into orbit around a completely different sun. Nevertheless, there is an entire industry devoted to helping you find your purpose and fulfilling it. There are steps, apparently, you can follow to ‘be on purpose’.
I’ve never been interested. I follow my heart, my values, my unanswered questions, my joy, my moments of exhilarating congruence, my insatiable interest. But not my purpose. Who is important enough to have a purpose?
I think life’s purpose is life. That’s it. Life seems to want to keep going as long as it can, and to leave more life as its legacy. It organises itself and the environment to do that. Any other purpose, I suspect, is something we driven humans make up.
And humans are good at that. We are, as far as I know, the only life form that can make up stuff. We can imagine things and happenings and people that are not real; we can create ideas (even such revered concepts as justice, virtue, holiness, privilege, truth) that are by their very nature not real; and we can put into language all of this made-up world so that other humans begin to take it on, too.
Purpose, it seems to me, is just another of those made-up things. There is probably no objective purpose to our lives. Except to be alive until we aren’t.
But making up a purpose is not a stupid, pointless thing to do. You could even argue that because we have the capacity to conceive of a life purpose in the first place, and that doing so gives us peace and energy and can lead to things we interpret as useful and joyous, we should search for it. And find it.
I’ve known that enjoyment, too. For example, I once concluded logically that the purpose of a person’s life is to be fully who they are, uniquely, to express their talents and personality and qualities as truly and consistently as they can.
So I decided to wonder about myself as a unique person. And it gave me a kind of permission to go for the things I really wanted with my life: 1) to notice what helps people to think for themselves, 2) to teach and speak and write, 3) to love and 4) to create a beautiful home. So I did. And for these 37 years since, I have known great happiness. Some pain, too. But more joy. And, I admit, a kind of coherent sense of who I am.
So if one’s purpose is the lived expression of one’s unique self, good. But I don’t really buy it. I can, and do, live my unique self without for a second thinking it is my purpose. Because I don’t think I have one, except, as I say, to be alive.
I even think that recognising purposelessness in life has some dazzling benefits. The key one is freedom. Once we can let go of needing a purpose, or needing life and our institutions and our relationships to have a purpose; once we can stop trying to figure out the reason for joy and pain, suffering and success, destruction and invention, we can settle back and take in life in the wondrous detail that is out of our reach when we are anxiously pursuing purpose, when we are injecting into every outcome a meaning of some sort; when we are racing towards some ephemeral (because made up) meaning in it all.
No longer needing there to be a purpose for everything also prevents our hurtling into dangerous mystical dead ends, where we either crash or collapse into a kind of insanity of claiming that failure of purpose is purpose itself.
We stop saying, for example, things like: ’It was God’s will that her family would be murdered so that she could learn about the moral depravity of mass murderers and seek to help such people by becoming as a psychiatrist herself?
Really? So this all-powerful, all knowing, non-physical, infinitely good God created unfathomable loss and grief for this young woman so she could discover and live her purpose?
Or different but just as bad: ‘The murders both were and were not part of God’s purpose for her. The nature of God is a mystery. We must just have faith that the mystery makes sense in the world of divine purpose.’
But if we can let go of needing to establish and defend purpose in everything, we free ourselves to do other things with the time and energy it takes to construct and re-construct a defence of the terrible. We can just face it, think about it, get help, solve it, and move on down an unstupifying road.
I know a man who agonises about his life purpose most of every day. He is now 80. He still does not know what it is. He has done good things over these years, really good things, some of them moving, creative, joy-making. He is still influential in others’ lives. But it is not enough. It does not feel to him like purpose.
I often think that he could have such sweet moments, thousands of them, to contemplate the beauties of life around him and through him, to leap a bit from the sheer specialness of being alive and of mattering to people, if he could only see that he will never figure out his purpose. Because there isn’t one.
Except to live and be as fully alive as possible. And that takes presence.
And that takes a big goodbye to purpose.
Or maybe not. Maybe there is a purpose to each human life after all. If the purpose of life is life itself, and the realising of that purpose is the living of life until it is over, maybe the purpose of each human life is to be as alive as possible every minute. And maybe, therefore, the question to drive our days is not, ‘What is my purpose?’ but ‘How can I be fully alive today?’
I’ll think about that.
When I was 22, I found myself among Quakers. I was a new teacher in a new Quaker school in Sandy Spring, Maryland. It was the stimulatingly unstable 60’s. And a hotbed of anti-Vietnam War protests. And general iconoclasm. The boys refused to cut their hair; the girls refused to wear bras; the faculty refused to drive anything but a Volkswagen Bug; and everyone refused to be impressed by Richard Nixon. Except me. I had a pro-Nixon sticker on my ‘unconscionable’ Chevrolet 396 Impala four-door. I thought the War was a good thing. And I thought dressing immaculately was a moral issue. But they hired me anyway. That was the first clue. They liked me. Life as I knew it was over.
The second clue was that the student body and faculty gathered for ‘Meeting for Worship’ every single morning and sat in quiet for 15 whole minutes. I was pretty sure for the first semester that I was going to die of not speaking.
The third clue was the Community Meeting once a month. Anyone could speak and say whatever they thought. This day’s meeting was about the War. Everyone spoke against it. So I stood. I said I thought the war was good. I said that if we pulled out, the communists would invade the US. I said we had to fight communism over there so we wouldn’t have to fight it here. I sat down. No one shushed me; and when the meeting was over, no one shunned me.
The fourth clue was the next day when the Head of the English Department, Peter Kline, said to me, gently, ‘Nancy, I am interested in your stand on the War. You said that you think the communists would invade the US. How exactly would that work?’
‘Well,’ I said, sitting up straight, ‘they will come to the shores of New York City.’
‘I see,’ Peter said, as if he were talking to a sane person. ‘And then what will they do?’
‘Well,’ I said, ‘then they will, they will march to Washington and then all the way to New Mexico and kill us all. They will fly, actually. I smiled.
‘And how exactly might they get that far do you think?’ Peter asked, truly interested.
‘Well,’ I said. ‘Yes. Well, they would, well, I am not completely clear about that detail as a matter of fact.’ I looked at him. ‘I’ll think about it for a few days, and get back to you.’
I got up.
‘That would be great,’ Peter said, again gently.
And that was that. Peter went back to work, and I went back to nowhere. How were the communists going even to get to New York City and not be wiped out by our iconic military (that I defended as if god), never mind get to New Mexico, 2000 miles further on?
Something dropped off bits of itself all around me. I guess it was my carefully constructed, carefully unexamined life. Eventually I was standing there with only my empty mind to prop me up. I had promised Peter I would think about this. In effect I had promised to think for myself. Maybe for the first time in my life.
Hard as I tried I could no longer make the War make sense. I wanted to. My twin brother was fighting over there. I needed for the war to make sense. What if he died? It had to mean something. And for three days I tried. But by Monday I no longer could hammer that War into anything remotely reasonable.
How exactly would that work?
Is that what the Quakers do, I wondered? Ask and listen? And an independent mind is born.
I see the sun on your face. We were, only a few months ago, sitting outside the Italian café on the square in London. You handed me a copy of Learning To Saunter. I held it to my heart. And you said to me, ‘I have discovered that when I write about economics and social change in my essays, I write from rage. But when I write about it in my poems, I write from love.’ We smiled at each other, a silent saying of a life-time of understanding and struggle and release. I marvelled at you.
From the first evening I met you 13 years ago, I marvelled. That night I discovered that you had been in the audience during my talk on women and power, and I was so grateful that I had not known you were there, your reputation as a formidable and important thinker and woman in the world having preceded you -- I was certain I would not have been able to put two words together. Awe has teeth, but it is a silly thing. When we met after the talk, we embraced as if we had known each other forever. Perhaps we had.
In these years of knowing and loving you, I have often stood back, exploring you, your huge rightness in the face of wrong, a sun in itself, exposing lies, endorsing hopes, beckoning the green shoots. I have seen you run into the surging southern sea, warming it I was sure, and skip on its shore. I wanted to be like you. I wanted to be as authentic, as bold, as uncompromising, as clarion a voice for just and real and required-of-right as you were.
In the sun on the square this August, we talked and talked and talked. For those hours I wanted time to stop; as I had for all these years every time we met, I wanted to understand life as you did. I wanted to memorise the way you were a woman, the way you charged and waltzed all at once. I wanted to learn you. You lived liberation.
We ordered lunch. And I knew absolutely that when the server brought the bill, you would disappear to set straight something not right in the system. And you did – you asked the waiter whether he would personally get the tip if you paid with a credit card. He said no, he would get only a portion. You asked to see the manager. You asked the manager how much of the tip on a credit card payment the server would get. 3%, he said. What happens to the rest of it, you asked? It goes into the company. But we pay our servers more than other restaurants, he said. How much more, you asked? Other restaurants pay the minimum wage; we pay 50 pence more, he said. Could you live on that, you asked? And before he could answer, you said, please change your policy so that at least the server gets the full tip. He has done an excellent job. And today I will leave my tip in cash.
It was never straightforward having lunch with you. And I cherished every minute. And grew. And knew love, universal and particular.
It was you who, in 1995, insisted we could find better wording for the Transition Question. That question was a long, labouring ladder of a thing when I taught you and Christina and your group. And it was with you that the question found its present form, still complex but elegant, and to whom hundreds of breakthrough, life-changing moments owe gratitude. I can see you there in that chair, thinking, and then breaking into irrepressibility, again like sun. And how right it is that that question has been described as ‘a sure road out of victimization.’ Such was your life’s work.
From the first days of knowing each other we found we had a common passion for radical economic change in the world. I loved our discussions about it. You were the only person I had ever known who was developing and communicating ideas for systems that would be truly different from anything attempted before, and that would be good for all people and inspiring of initiative and enterprise of all kinds. Again I marvelled at you. And I thought that I would someday soon be able to be with you for long enough truly to learn the things I needed to learn in order to communicate your ideas in my circles, too. I now regret the assumption of our having forever to do this, but I am grateful that you wrote your book and that now I can study it and summon the essence of you to be with me while I learn.
You were unapologetically white, and with every breath insisted on the liberation of Black South Africa. You taught me how white lives can progress Black freedom, all freedom. You said that we are free only when we are all free. I knew that. But until I knew you, I did not know it. You did not wait for perfection; you leapt forward willing to blunder, though you usually soared; you did not hold back, ever; you stood up all of your life.
We went to church together in Gugulethu. It was the month that †he church had opened its service to the sharing of the anguish and the formerly unspeakable detail of AIDS in families, in all of community. The service had already begun. I was nervous about being late. You weren’t. I walked in behind you, studied your ease, your beaming, your knowing we would be welcome, your containment and your wide horizon of love.
Again, I tried to memorise you, to feel what life must be like knowing what you knew and walking hand in hand as you did with everyone, assuming people would be themselves and would want you to be yours, too. So I imagined that I was fine. I learned fine from you. I listened to the beautiful percussives of Xhosa and thanked you in my heart for leading me here, for loving us all so much.
We shared a dream. But it was you who made it come true. You had said you wanted to teach the Thinking Environment in South Africa. I encouraged you, but it seemed so big to me. My focus then was on the tiniest part of ‘part III' and what to do when the thinker thought the assumption was true but I did not, and I did not know why. I did not know even what true was, not cognitively yet. I was stewing. You were reaching. Again, you did not wait for perfection. And again I learned.
Now the way the independent thinking is blossoming in South Africa takes my breath away and is our dream awakened, stretching, becoming itself. You gave the nine of us to each other, with you in the centre, and now in the centre of our collegiate heart forever.
As women passionate for change, we both reached for the world. But you walked right straight into its waves, and swam.
Four years ago, we leaned together over the stone wall at Cape Point, a thin separation of us from the meeting of two seas and from the mesmerising imponderable end of Africa. We had driven that road from Kalk Bay, gathering up the miles and then the inches to that wondrous tip. My first time in Africa and feeling I could reach my fingertips and toes to either end, and somehow feel it, massive and containable all at once. I felt from here. Maybe our ancient chromosomes remember. We are all one. I felt that with you. I still cannot sleep on flights to South Africa. I can only think in awe of it and wonder exactly where we are and how coming home it feels to me. I can see your face when I arrived that first time. Your home. Mine. Welcome.
Margaret, thank you. Thank you for walking the earth as a giant and as a little girl, as a luscious, passionate female, as a vast intellect, as a force and as a twinkle, as a sister. And thank you for how much of you you left behind for us to savour all of our lives, and for us to cherish.
You asked me once where I loved most to be in the world. And I said, ‘Two places: With Christopher and in the middle of a sentence in search of the perfect word.’ You hugged me and said, ‘I know’. Thank you, our dearest M, for finding your perfect words and for leaving them for us to hold and for us to build on.
This world is forever better because you were so very, very you while you were here.