When purpose is a pipe dream ...

Dear Jo,

In this crazy age of overwhelming stress and busyness, and at the time of life I’m at, with young kids and a busy career - which makes me necessarily more money-driven than purpose-driven, and puts huge demands on my time (and sleep) -  how can I stay busy with a purpose? Is this a pipe dream?

- Busy just staying afloat

Dear Staying Afloat,

You may know that the pipe in pipe dream is the one you smoke opium with. This drug, a precursor to heroin, is said to cause wild dreams and visions; thus the pipe dream as a crazy fantasy that is highly unlikely to materialize but very fun to think about. I would love to experience space travel, for example, and I enjoy imagining what it would actually be like. But that will never ever happen. It’s a pipe dream.

Now, if living with purpose feels like an unattainable fantasy, then you’ve been smoking something really dangerous. But since we’re all smoking it, it’s really not your fault. Some of us may have lost the plot more than others, but generally speaking the consumerism that has increasingly taken over most if not all parts of the known world has made absolutely sure that we all lose the plot to a large degree. We are living a big collective consumerist alternate reality where having something valuable to live for looks like unattainable fantasy, but having your vacation on the moon might actually be quite doable if you have the finances. An upside-down world where lotteries can sell us worthless pieces of paper by showing us that if we won a huge sum of money, we might actually get to spend some quiet and meaningful moments, in nature and with our children.

Do you know that a reasonable estimate of how much a person should work for optimal health and productivity is historically somewhere between three and five hours a day? Actually it’s 3, but I know nobody will believe that so I’m stretching it. Having young children is no doubt hard work no matter how you do it, or in what century, and it’s reasonable to want more financial security at this time - but it just can’t be right that a person is expected to work the kinds of hours we do, and spend all that time away from our kids (or with them and stressed out), in order just to make enough to sustain it all, and keep doing more of the same. Furthermore, raising small children is pretty much the only time in our lives when we have any significant influence on forming other humans, so shouldn’t this matter now more than ever?

Let’s take a step back and think about what it even means to live with purpose, and then think about what we might do to get it given the realities of the world we live in. Purpose, at its most basic level, is simply why we do what we do. Aristotle suggested that our human purpose is simply “eudaimonia”. Some translate that as ‘happiness’, but perhaps a fuller rendering can be found in the word “flourishing” (literally it means the well-being of the spirit). He demonstrates that whenever we value something, we do so because it gets us some other thing we value, which is what we call an instrumental good – for example, work gets us money and money buys us a house, and a house makes us feel secure, etc. But at some point in this chain you will arrive at some value that is not for the sake of anything else, and that is what we call an intrinsic good. And for humans, Aristotle believed this intrinsic good to be eudaimonia.

This is where the distinction between happiness and flourishing is instructive. We have come to think of happiness in rather limited ways, and the advertising industry sells it to us in the form of material goods and success that represent something more like being entertained, comfortable and free from pain, and feeling like you’ve gotten somewhere, as an individual, that other people can’t easily get to. Flourishing, by contrast, might be more like exploring and developing your best qualities or powers, connecting meaningfully with nature or with others, or having a vision and working towards its materialization (and, if we follow the ancients, doing so in ways that accord with virtue, which is a nuance our individualist age seems to have forgotten).

To lose sight of purpose is to lose sight of whatever it is that makes life feel like more than simply getting through the day alive. You could certainly argue that just feeling good is the highest goal, but it’s usually the case that people don’t tend to truly feel good until they are flourishing, and while drugs and junk food might make you feel good in the moment, what we’re looking for is something more objectively good and nourishing to the spirit. And I am pretty sure that wanting to feel more entertained and comfortable is not what you’re writing in about. For my money, flourishing in a distinctly human way means to take what you are and make it into something more: “what else should our lives be but a continual series of beginnings, of painful settings out into the unknown, pushing off from the edges of consciousness into the mystery of what we have not yet sighted in our waking hours…?”, as David Malouf’s protagonist says so eloquently in the wonderful novel An Imaginary Life. It does not look at all like comfortably surviving, rather it is thriving; which likely includes suffering and hardship as well as love and community, creativity, self-expression and meaning-making.

Do we really want to raise kids with the goal of making sure they get the best toys in life and have the biggest of the corner offices, or do we want them to use and extend the gifts nature has given them, in order to feel fully alive and engaged in the world, connected and challenged? If this version of a healthy and meaningful life is what we really want for our children, then we’d better start providing for them better models of what it looks like.

So what can you do when the options available to you don’t seem to allow you the time or space to cultivate this being-human? The first thing you can do, of course, is just to know this. Know how ass-backwards the world is that you can even ask the question you asked, that you reach out in desperation to wonder how you might somehow schedule in the only thing that really makes life worthwhile between dropping the kids at piano and going to the gym (I know, as if you have time to go to the gym). It’s not negligible to really know this, and you may even have to continually remind yourself of it, because the world we live in conspires at every turn to make those who pop their heads up and ask why look like the nutty ones.

And then it might be helpful to ask yourself exactly what you are sacrificing in order to have nice things for your kids or vacations to get away from your life? As the authors of the classic personal finance guide Your Money or Your Life ask, what would you be doing if you weren’t working so hard to make money? What do you long to do? What are you good at? What do you daydream about? What makes you unique? In other words, what have you been giving up? And then ask yourself if there is anything in the way of material advantage and status that you can give back in exchange for what you genuinely value. Even if it isn’t much at first, it could be a small step of resistance, taking you one step closer to your own flourishing. I would add that if you do go this route, you will find yourself joining a chorus that is getting louder and less nutty-sounding by the day (read some works by Juliet Schor, Naomi Klein, Mary Oliver or Jennifer Nedelsky, for starters).

Another thing that is widely reported to contribute to a life that feels meaningful is being part of something bigger. Traditionally this has meant religion, but for some it just means a healthy sense of community, and that is something else that our current economic and social realities, steeped as they are in individualism, would like to rob us of. But the urgent global crises that face us now require an all-hands-on-deck response and the resistance movements that are springing up are creating new communities of care and engagement. If you spend some time thinking about how you want to leave this world for your children and everyone else’s, you will find no shortage of opportunities to put your energies towards something that is meaningful for you and your family as well as the world at large. Read the systems theorist and deep ecologist Joanna Macy on the environmental crisis and how this moment in history stands as an enormous opportunity to rethink our relationships with one another and with the earth, for example, and it may become difficult for you to avoid living with a purpose.

Of course the challenge is to even find the time and mental space to ask these sorts of questions while you’re keeping pace on the hamster wheel, but I want to urge you to steal that time back for yourself in any way you can and make this your priority above all else. Because anything that you do to inject purpose into your life that doesn’t attempt to change or resist the world that has normalized living without meaning or purpose, is just going to be another distraction. Daily life with small kids is never going to be without its stresses and challenges, but one way or another now is the time to live a life that you can be proud of, one that will help pave the way for a world in which our children won’t see purpose as an outlandish and possibly drug-induced fantasy.