The Virtue of Being Lost
"When you are dancing, you are not intent on getting somewhere. The meaning and purpose of dancing is the dance."—Alan Watts
It’s actually pretty rare for someone to ask just what it is that I have been doing with my time while on the road. Which is good. Because my answer is boring.
I walk through cities, small towns, forest trails (my favorite), shopping malls and museums. By the time I was barefoot on the beaches in Southern California I was walking an average of 7 miles a day. Now it seems closer to twenty. My record is a 30 mile day of steep San Francisco hills.
Because I have no sense of direction, I get lost.
While I concede the point that one can’t truly be lost if they have no destination in mind, There are times (more often than not) when I have no idea where it is that I am.
After spending an entire day (6:30am-10:30pm) walking around Philadelphia a few days ago, my family-of-the-week asked what I did and what I saw. It was like 3 things.
The day was mostly spent thinking things like “oh, that’s only 2.3 miles away. I’ll just walk it.” and then half an hour later thinking things like “I’ve been walking the wrong way.” The trails get washed out by rain. You miss your exit. The thing you ended up walking four miles for is closed.
And you’re lost. And you have no idea what to do.
“Is life just a pursuit of meaning?”
This question was posed to me while I was in Seattle on my last day on the west coast. This question stood out to me because 1. It’s a good question. 2. It was literally the third or fourth time someone had expressed something akin to that question to me that very day.
The question has been a stone in my shoe ever since. It has been with me every day while I have stared blankly at this screen trying to think of a thing to write. It rode with me through the farms of North Dakota, big shouldered Chicago, it made me feel desolate and nearly despondent walking through Flint and the ruins of Detroit.
I am lost. And I have no idea what to do.
What’s it all about? Why does it matter?
It is not a new question for me. It’s the reason I’ve had 5 years of therapy and know what the food tastes like in the psych ward. It’s a very old question. In a sense, it’s the only question I have ever asked.
Certain types of Christians love to point out that this is an Atheist problem. After all, once you stop believing in the source of all life and the giver of purpose then, naturally, life will begin to seem void of meaning and without purpose (and it’s usually here that they point out that Atheists therefore have no morality and just go around inventing evolution and killing everyone all the time).
But at least in my experience, belief in a “big G” God did not solve the problem, but only cushioned it by a step or two.
As comforting as it is to believe that God has some ultimate purpose and you have some specific super custom plan for your life, you soon run into the problem of trying to figure out just what that plan is.
And shit, what if you missed it? What if you have been walking the wrong direction all this time? And what do you do when the thing that you thought was the plan blows up? Or is taking so long to come to fruition that you begin to suspect that it was foolish to believe it ever would?
It kind of leads one to wonder if there even is a purpose to life at all, or if there is one if we can ever know it. This can especially be true in weeks when our collective conscience is turned towards another mass shooting or celebrity suicide or we are individually drowning in sorrows all our own.
It’s not an Atheist problem. It is a human problem.
Somewhere along my nine day drive across the country (Ohio, I think), I realized that the reason the question of meaning and purpose was hitting me so hard was because I had stopped pondering it without realizing it. I must have left it behind with my record collection and dress shoes. And I note this here because it seems that’s also the box where I left the worst parts of my depression.
Or in other words, I have been so busy enjoying life that I have stopped wondering what life's all about.
Well, “enjoying” is probably not the right word.
The only way to be a nomad on as little money as I make is to do it uncomfortably. That plus my chronic pain and health issues and my newfound obsession with walking in all kinds of weather conditions in the wrong shoes means that on any given day I am some combination of hot, cold, dehydrated, sore, sunburned and blistered. And the rest of my time (outside of fun family-of-the-week activities) is spent reading books on philosophy and church history.
It’s not exactly how people define “fun.” But I still find immense pleasure in it. It feels meaningful. Or at the very least it requires so much of my attention that I do not have room to wonder if it is what I should be doing with my time.
For the last week or so I have wondered if that’s it. That the purpose and meaning of life is to maximize pleasure while minimizing pain or displeasure. But clearly not in the way in which we normally think of hedonism. Not champagne and stripclubs (necessarily), but the relishing of deeply satisfying experiences.
Americans tend to equate pleasure seeking behavior with selfish narcissistic behavior. To be a hedonist is to be a Trump or worse, an Instagram celebrity. Our Puritan Calvinist roots have taught us to value work over pleasure. At best, our corporate overlords encourage us to find some “work/life balance” between the two. But you can’t have your dessert until you’ve finished your vegetables.
But this is to ignore or only begrudgingly admit that work—honest, good, fulfilling work—feels good.
As pleasurable as chocolate cake is, I will feel better for longer if I eat my vegetables. It is not a sacrifice, it is an investment. I am trading in the immediate and short-term for what is delayed and longer lasting. But, and this is important, it must be acknowledged that I am still seeking pleasure.
Things like self-discipline, exercise, charity, compassion, community involvement, and spiritual devotion feel really good. Doing nothing in the face of injustice and cruelty, simply being passive when you can make the world better, those things feel really bad.
Why are the happiest people you know the ones that are the most selfless and giving? It’s because they know that the party is more fun when everyone gets an equal slice of cake. They have felt pain and injustice and want to prevent others from feeling the same. It’s because they know the more you give of yourself the more everything is returned back to you. Whoever loses their life will find it.
This is hedonism as I understand it. To seek the most rewarding and longest lasting pleasure as possible while minimizing pain for yourself and others.
Of course, this only raises the question as to what things produce the most intense and sustainable pleasures. This is also not a new question.
What makes for a good life?
It’s one of the oldest questions in philosophy. It’s how we get Epicureanism, Stoicism, Utilitarianism, Taoism, Buddhism, the theological concept of human flourishing, and really probably all of the world’s religions when you get down to it. Which is to say that we have options. So many that we could choose to go almost any direction we wish.
And much to my dismay, the idea of maximizing pleasure, at least as far as I can tell, doesn’t do much for questions about whether there is an ultimate purpose and reason for our existence.
Sure, one could speculate that some sort of god type thing designed the world in just such a way that kindness and putting others in front of one’s self is more rewarding than selfish cruelty. And if the god type thing did so, it's logical she did so for a reason. But that doesn’t tell us much about whatever that reason is. And from my perspective, the balance of pleasure and pain that one receives in life seems more accidental than divinely orchestrated. But I admit that my vantage point is limited.
So what then? Are we still lost? Do we have no idea what to do?
Yes. We are totally lost. I am, at any rate.
But at least now I know what to do with myself in the meantime.
Whether given by god or nature, there is, at minimum, lowercase purpose and meaning in delighting in the world around you.
The taste of coffee, the smell of honeysuckle, the sun on your shoulders, a kiss on the lips.
There seems to be a capital (but maybe not all caps) Purpose and Meaning in taking care of the people and places around you.
Striving for justice and enrichment and access to joy and life for everyone.
As for an all caps PURPOSE and MEANING, I do not know. I don’t know if such a thing can be found.
I am, however, reminded of the day on this trip when I stopped by the Grand Canyon. As I stood at the railing, taking in everything in silent awe, I heard some kid behind me complain that he was bored. There was nothing to do.
What a waste, I thought. All of this and you still need something to do.
Look around, son. Take it in. Enjoy where you are. Look how far you came to get here.
We are lost. We do not know what to do. But really, is that such a bad thing? Look around. Take it in. At the very least find something that makes you smile and carve out time just for that. Dance merely for the sake of dancing.
After all, the true beauty and joy of being lost is the opportunity to discover something new.