2013-01-10

More than the summit

Much of our psychology and sociology is dedicated to studying and preserving existence. Throughout history, it appears as if humanity is determined to derive some purpose for life. I, personally, have spent a great deal of time and much thought trying to seek purpose in my life. However, the singular search for purpose seems so futile and the results, if any, are flimsy and fleeting.

Before I elaborate, let's start by addressing "purpose". The basic principle in the purpose of existence is as simple as Shakespeare: to be or not to be. Our purpose is to sustain ourselves, sustain our species, and to sustain the existence of all life. Everything else we construct, both mentally and as a society, is external to that basic premise.

Some philosophers have argued that the constructs beyond those "basic needs" are meaningless, pointless, and unnecessary. There was a time when I thought that way as well. Now, it seems, I had the wrong idea and I needed to alter my perspective a bit to see things differently.

The change in my view came as part of a larger shift in my thought and attitude. In hindsight, I can see the first public indications of that shift in my article "A midsummer's hike":
I love finding new and exciting experiences throughout the world, but I sometimes find myself pushing physically so hard toward some goal that I ignore what I'm feeling about the experience of getting there. I certainly enjoy the external aspects of the experience (e.g. beautiful views, incredible company, wondrous wildlife). I hope that this new approach to my pace will help me to be mindful of the internal experience as well.
The hike that day was spectacular. Not only did that small change in approach impact my overall enjoyment, the subtle shift caused some of the ripples which would slowly change my attitude and approach to life from then on.


So, what is it that we're really searching for in life? What is this internal drive that we all seem to feel at some point in our lives? Let's circle back to the idea that anything outside "purpose" is "meaningless". I would like to now argue in opposition. While those things necessary for sustaining existence are certainly essential, they are not substantial. And it is that substance that truly is "meaningful".

Reflecting on the shift I experienced during that hike and how it applies to the concepts of purpose and meaning, the relentless pursuit to achieve some goal (purpose) deadens the nuance (meaning) of the experience. It's foolish and dangerous to hike in ignorance of your environment, so too is it foolish to go through life without finding meaning in the experience.

As with the weather on a hike, it was an external influence that started the necessary change in my internal process and shifted my mindset. Had I not accepted that external influence, I may never have come to understand that while the basic essence of life defines what challenges we face in life, it is the substance in our lives that enriches how we approach those challenges. Sometimes things don't go as desired and you get rained on, but it would certainly be a less enjoyable experience if you wear your rain gear all the time.

The wonder of existence comes in finding the balance between preparing ourselves for the challenges while keeping our perspective open to the beauty. Do we push hard toward only one goal (e.g. the summit, the essence, to be or not to be), trampling both thorn and flower as we march? Or do we change our pace and shift our perspective, to better feel the substance (both painful and wonderful) of our existence?
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