Friday, August 28, 2009

Life as distraction

For as long as I can remember, I've had a gnawing feeling at the back of my consciousness. I've tried to shake it — believe me, I've tried — but it's always there, floating around the back of my head like storm clouds just over the horizon. Sometimes I can ignore it, but never for very long. Although it has been my lifelong companion, I haven't been able to identify this feeling until recently.

Here it is. I've always felt that I am filling my life with busywork to distract myself from the difficult task of figuring out who I am, what my purpose in life is, and what I need to do about it.

I have felt this way not only when doing actual busywork, but also when doing things that are ostensibly worthwhile. I have felt this way while reading classic literature in high school, serving inner-city kids on a college mission trip, improving my skills at chess and Scrabble, playing volleyball on the Lake Michigan beach, fixing computers, and writing blog posts. I've felt this way while studying history and religion, which is ridiculous because I love those two subjects so much that I have often spent all my spare time learning more about them. Maybe love isn't the right word. Maybe it's more like obsession to the point of distraction, which is sort of the point.

Joining the LDS church quelled the feeling of distraction very well, because church-related activities will suck away all your time if you let them. That was one of the things I liked best about it. There's precious little time to discover your true self, when you're losing yourself in the Lord's work. And when I was reading my scriptures, preparing lessons, and attending ward activities, I felt like I was making the world a better place. In some ways, I was. At the same time, much of it was definitely busywork, and none of it was my true calling. Someone else assigned me a plausible life purpose, and I happily followed it. I feel like I've been indulging that avoidance mechanism for my entire life. Mormonism was perhaps the biggest distraction I've ever provided for myself.

I have filled my time with plenty of other distractions, too. Competitive chess and Scrabble, computer programming, amateur astronomy, foreign languages, skepticism, reading, podcasts, and way too much time on Facebook. These are all worthwhile pursuits, and I believe I am a better person because of them. But they're not who I am, and they're not what I ultimately want to do with my life. Unless they are, but I haven't figured that out yet.

I think it's likely that I'm already doing some of the things I ought to be doing with my life, probably not to the extent I ought to be doing them. Or maybe I should be doing something I haven't discovered yet. Who knows? Because I haven't identified my purpose yet, everything feels like a distraction. Of course, even if I find my true calling in life, it's impossible to break free of all distractions without joining a Zen monastery. Hm, maybe I ought to join a Zen monastery. At least I have given this feeling a name, and I will let it inform my life instead of ominously looming over it.

So what's my point? What's my purpose? I don't know, but I want to find out. I am the only person who can determine the right answer to this question. That's assuming the question has an answer, but I suspect it does. Has anyone else felt like this? If so, and if you have found any answers to this question for yourself, how did you find them?


wry said...

Same issue, no answers. You articulated it well.

Greedy Monkey said...

My own journey has taken many unexpected (yet exciting) twists and turns, from TBM to agnostic to who-knows-what-is-next. If I HAD to attach a label to myself, I would use "Naturalist."

I have also been wrestling with similar questions. But then I can't help but wonder: does there HAVE to be a purpose? Maybe it's enough to just be the best husband and father I can be. To be a mora animal, treating others with kindness and respect.

The best answer I can give is, "I don't know."

C. L. Hanson said...

Personally, I feel like I have a good idea of what I want to be doing with my life, and yet I get trapped in a cycle of busywork/distraction/procrastination....

Saganist said...

Thanks, wry! I figured you would probably understand.

Thanks, Greedy Monkey! I was wondering that myself as I wrote this post. Does there have to be an answer? Do I have to have a purpose in life? I remember writing once that I don't need cosmic significance, just to make the world a better place.

Spending time with my wife and children is probably the most fulfilling thing I do in life, and it holds deep meaning for me. At the same time, for some reason I've never been able to shut off the nagging feeling that I still haven't figured out who I am or what I want to do. Maybe I never will figure it out, or maybe I already have and I just don't have the humility to accept it. I try to be content but I'm still struggling and searching for something.

Thanks, C.L.! I totally understand. Lately I've been cutting out a lot of time-consuming stuff that doesn't provide me much value. It has helped me focus, which may be one reason I'm thinking about the meaning of life so much lately. For me, a quiet mind goes naturally down that path.

John Moeller said...

I'm reminded of one of my favorite quotes; it's by Robert Byrne: "The purpose of life is a life of purpose."

The way that I interpret that is that you don't need a specific purpose in life; you just need to be doing something that matters, whether it's family or service or career, etc. I think that the way that you seem to be going, you could be trying to find your "purpose" for your whole life.

Believe me, sitting back and enjoying life wasn't making me any happier, either. I needed to contribute something, so I switched gears and took a different path in life. But I don't believe that I'm "supposed" to be doing what I'm doing now. I'm doing it because I know that I won't be happy unless I try to make a difference.

I know what you're feeling, but I don't believe in fate or destiny. I view that struggle as trying to make my life count somehow. When I stopped agonizing about it and just decided to do it, I felt much better. I hope that my choice means that the next time I have an opportunity to look back and see if I've done something worthwhile in my life, I'll be at the end of it.

Saganist said...

Thanks, John! You sound like you're in a place I would like to be, and I appreciate your advice on how to get there.

I also don't believe in fate or destiny. I think my post may have implied that I'm searching for something outside myself that determines what I'm "supposed" to be doing with my life, especially since I used words like "ought", which implies an objective way of judging the value of my ideas or actions. In reality, I'm struggling to search within myself to find the statement I want to make with my life, the thing I want to do with my life that I believe is worth doing.

I suspect this desire may even be a symptom of naive idealism on my part. I want to do the best I possibly can. Nothing less will suffice! But is there really a "best" purpose for my life? Not unless I decide there is. I feel like that's a decision I've already made somehow, a long time ago, but maybe that is a decision worth rethinking. It sure would save me a lot of existential angst. :-)

As I've been thinking about this subject for a long time, I've come up with a few ideas about what I would like to do. Even so, I'm trying to remember that those ideas don't need to be the ultimate meaning producers that will last forever. I don't know if any idea will ever live up to that.

I agree with you; I think getting about the business of deciding what to do and then doing it will go a long way toward fulfillment.

TGD said...

Questioning the idea that our life has a purpose...

It seems we have this propensity to ask the question, "Why are we here?" I think that's what draws many people to distraction or, in other words, Religion.

I feel like the question of 'why' is the big red hearing. The big distraction. Religion never answered that for me. It just stirred even more 'why' questions. "Why is there a plan for us?", "Why a redeemer?", "Why is there a Universe?", "Why is there a god?" I could never find purpose in it, just more 'why' questions. The questions I should have asked was, "How does the world work?", "How does the universe work?", "How did we come to be?" Those, to me, are questions that can give someone a purpose. We accept our existence as a state wherein we define our own purpose.

As for trying to answer the question of "Who I am?", I realize the moment I think I know, I'm not really myself anymore. I've put a label on it and it becomes a role I play not who I am. "Child of God", "Carpenter", "Bishop", "Musician", "Leader", "Follower", "Gay"...

But when I'm not trying to figure out who I am, that's when I am who I am. And if I can be content with never really knowing who I am, that's when I know who I am because that's when I am who I am.

Confusing? Yeah, I'm having a hard time explaining what I mean. LOL!

Anonymous said...

I tend not to look for purpose so much. Instead, I tend to ask myself what matters to me and what gets me passionate. Because there are a lot of great things that I could be doing that would make me a better person and improve the world around me in one way or another. But the ones that are somehow extra-important to me on a personal level are the ones I prefer to focus on. They give me the deepest sense of personal satisfaction and accomplishment. And they are the easiest ones to really concentrate on and pour myself into.

Of course, what's important to me may change from time to time -- even from day to day. And that's okay too. The important thing is to recognize and accept when this happens and adjust accordingly.

-- Jarred.

Sabayon said...

While joining a Zen monastery may be a bit excessive, I highly recommend taking a meditation class at a local Buddhist temple (do you have those in Utah?). They're free, although donations are suggested, and I've found meditation to be an enormously useful tool for figuring out just exactly what's going on in you head. I took meditation (and Mandarin) classes with a group of Taiwanese Chan Buddhists and found it to be extremely useful. I do recommend Chan or Zen places if you can find them as they tend to include the least religious stuff and the most pure meditation.

Saganist said...

Thanks, TGD! Confusing or not, I like the way you think. Sometimes I think I need to stop struggling so much and just be. I wonder if I'll ever be able to do that.

Thanks, Jarred! You articulated it very well. I think I'm trying to figure out what those things are for me. I feel like I've been living out other people's ideas of what's important for so long, it's hard to figure out what's really important to me. I feel like I should just know somehow, but I think it will also entail some introspection and exploration.

Thanks, Sabayon! I'll look around and see if I can find such a place. When I spent some time studying in Japan, our group of students went on a field trip to a Rinzai convent, where they gave us a basic introduction to meditation and allowed us to meditate for about an hour. It seems like it was much longer than that, but I'm sure it wasn't. Anyway, I still remember it because it was a life transforming experience for me. I had never quieted my mind like that before. I tried to continue on my own afterwards, but that didn't last very long. I absolutely want to do that again.

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