The Pursuit of Purpose
There is something deathly about change. Be it Britain’s exit from the EU or simply the changes your mind goes through as you enter another summer. Summers are finite, you know. Each one is to be cherished. Just as everything else is to be cherished. For everything is finite.
Summer always brings with it the scent of youth. The smell of the sea, of cold beers, of breezy nights; they are scents that constantly re-invoke adolescence and its fervour. Summer restarts our body-clock. There are many good, endemic Sisyphean pleasures to be had in summer. Sisyphean because they never get old. Just as the female body forgets the trauma of child-birth so the mother can have another child, so the boredom at the end of summer is forgotten so we can enjoy the next one, ad infinitum.
Drinking with friends on the waterfront and its bikini-studded beach; summer nights talking on roofs, under the stars, on tables; travelling to warm places with narrow streets that permit a clandestine breeze to filter through; or simply having a siesta in a dark, cool room with the fan tickling your sweat glands.
These are renewable pleasures that last a lifetime. But are they enough? Pleasure is an end in itself. And yet pleasure is a many-headed hydra.
The pleasures of summer last a lifetime. At least the appetite for them. But as I said before, our memory is fickle. As soon as summer is over we begin the cycle of forgetting and remembering. These supernova, one-hit-wonder pleasures, are they enough to give our life meaning?
“Life has to be given meaning because of the obvious fact that it has no meaning.” Henry Miller.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot. You have to if you accept there is no god, and that the universe, as vast as it is, is as meaningful as gibberish. And when I’ve thought of it I’ve always had the pen, the keyboard, books and notebooks in my mind’s peripheral vision. Isn’t that the purpose of my life – to write?
At the moment a war is going on in Libya, as in many other places. Libya is a large country that is being torn apart, butchered, by swords tearing it inside out. It’s a large place, Libya, but not big enough for everyone. Half of it is in the hands of the Tobruk-led government and it’s Libyan national army. Almost half of it is under the jurisdiction (posh word for such a brutal war) of the UN-approved government of national accord. 10% of its coastline is under ISIS control, whilst pockets of it are under the hands of freelance militias such as the Tuareg forces and the Mujahedeen councils of Benghazi, Derna and Adjabiya.
In Tripoli, one of Libya’s many capitals, a battle rages on between the Libyan national army and various Islamist groups, some of them spear-headed by Al-Qaeda operators and Muslim Brotherhood figures. Tripoli is a microcosm for the rest of Libya. This is too complex a conflict to refer to it as a civil war. This is Libya hemorrhaging right before our eyes, dying a second death as a failed state.
And as to the meaning of life: imagine living in Tripoli, now. Living with the threat of war, unable to get access to food and water, unable to flee without putting your lives in the hands of gluttonous human-traffickers, not being able to walk freely, think freely, even play a game of football or go for a swim. What kind of purpose could that kind of life have?
I don’t know, I cannot say; I would not wish to impose suggestions upon anyone. That would be too dogmatic – religion has been doing that for far too long. Whether you’re Libyan or Maltese, the meaning of life is an equal fragment of mystery only the individual can unravel. But the war in Libya, and other places, creates a phoenix of a possibility for us.
Think back to those Sisyphean, summer pleasures I mentioned before. And think of a child living his or her summer in Tripoli. For that child those simple, mundane pleasures would be an absolute dream. Think of your dreams, chances are they are as fantastical as a Disney castle; become an actress, travel the world, be rich, be a football star, having your own business. Well done you, bear in mind, I’m not writing to proselytize (I don’t think I’m even writing at all). But ask that child living in battered Tripoli what his or her dreams are, and he or she will probably tell you; to play on the beach, to go for ice-cream, to play football in a park, to enjoy the summer breeze. The landscape of dreams is a terraced fields… at least in perception. What is simple and Sisyphean for you and me is a paramount dream for someone else.
And the world is a hopefully broken place. It’s improved, the world today is probably as good a deal as we can get. Rates of rape and sexual assault on women have seen a steady decline from 1993 to 2013. The number of wars since the 1980’s have plummeted (though 2015 – has seen a small upward trend). From 1960 into the 2000’s rates of countries decriminalising homosexuality has gone through the roof. The amount of battle deaths have gone to almost zero in the 2000’s as opposed to 1945. And so on… http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/ng-interactive/2015/sep/11/graphic-evidence-steven-pinkers-optimism-on-trial
Even so, we are only apes, and there is so much we can do. We are not gods, we cannot defeat the laws of nature, laws that demand cruelty, eugenics, catastrophe and entropy. These universal laws are the one-party parliament that governs every corner of the kingdom of creation. So yes, there is profound philosophical truth in the phrase, ‘shit happens’. Just as they used to say of god; shit has happened since before time, and shall continue to happen eternally until the end days.
The only counter-measure we have in all this shit-happening is pleasure. But could such small Sisyphean, hedonistic incursions possibly defeat the cosmic shitiness? There is merit in learning, art, drinking, friendship, love, sex, philosophy and literature, of course. But is the pleasure we extract from them like cynical vampires enough to quell the grand old orchestra of insignificance?
I used to think it was. A part of me still does. And I think, for a great many people it is and ought to be. But lately, as the summer dawns and a new adolescence I wait, I find myself indifferent, vacuous. Day to day life ought to be filled with these pleasures, naturally. We are creatures of habit so might as well be creatures of pleasure. But in the long-run, hell, it’s not enough.
I find myself seeking out more long-term pleasures. Ones which are committed to memory, committed to the very flesh and bones, explosive and powerful enough to create emotions that pass on down through the generations. I call these Permanent Pleasures as opposed to the Sisyphean ones. And I can’t quite say what they are; you don’t know them until you’ve discovered them. They are post-fact, like a multiple-orgasm; a woman never knowingly seeks it out, but when it happens, she damn well knows it.
I still desire all the good things of youth. I’ll repeat them just as life repeats them; drink, food, friendship, literature, sun, freedom, sea, summer nights, travel, siestas… and yet, they are no longer sufficient in themselves. I repeat and repeat again just so I can repeat the thing. I crave something with more crystalline permanence.
“Those only are happy (I thought) who have their minds fixed on some object other than their own happiness; on the happiness of others, on the improvement of mankind, even on some art or pursuit, followed not as a means, but as itself an ideal end. Aiming thus at something else, they find happiness by the way.” John Stuart Mill.
Mill was an influential Utilitarian thinker, and her argued, much as Epicurus had done centuries before him, that the greatest pleasure human beings can derive is the pleasure of doing good to others and bringing happiness to those who are denied it.
You or I cannot stop war. We can’t stop mankind making war. We can’t even stop the war in Libya. But we can, I can, do something, somehow, to bring happiness, or the freedom to pursue happiness, to those affected by the Libyan war. Or any war. Or any other strife. This is a luxury we in the well-off West cannot do without. You can get as rich as you like, be as talented as you like, have as many friends as you like; but you will never know happiness like the happiness that comes from helping.
And by god I’m not talking about charity. Donations, marathons, telethons, one-off volunteering; these are all insults to goodness. They lack any human sentiment, they happen at a distance, there is no communication, no stories exchanged. Think outside the box. Doing good takes on many forms. But start always from a selfish premise. Yes, I make no qualm about this. To do the most good you have to be necessarily selfish. With one very crucial caveat:
When you do good to others don’t expect money, or fame, or promotion, or reputation in return.
When you do good to others expect only one thing in return: happiness. It’s more than enough.
With that in mind, be as selfish as you like.
It’s a scary thing to feel a shift in your desires. Makes you feel like you’re aging, makes the finite nature of life crawl over your skin like an insect. You feel like you’re getting closer to a stage of life when all you want is to be alive. That’s not enough. Can never be enough. No matter how old you are. But am I only saying this because I’m still young enough to say it? Is there a point when ideals die out, when the pleasures of old are no longer enough, and a deathly indifference begins to settle in and life becomes a long-drawn out complacency?
I suppose it’s like England going out of the Euros. They had no plan, so they failed gloriously. They were happy just kicking a ball around hoping for the best. But hey, luckily for Iceland – shit happens! A life without purpose is as effective as Hodgson’s Rooney. And you may never find the exact nature of that individualized purpose, but maybe life isn’t just about the pursuit of happiness, but more about the pursuit of purpose.