The Purpose Trap

I'm a person who likes processes. That's the way I get myself out of ruts and cul-de-sacs and the constant pressure to perform. Habit and trusting a process means that progress happens and I can calm down about the pressure to progress. But a focus on ends and goals and making every minute count — all the pablum of modern (particularly American) self-helpery, lays insidious traps. I'm not sure anymore whether I can do any activity without feeling guilt or regret that it isn't more useful, that the purpose is not clear cut. As much as I might want to revel in the process, I feel the inevitable tug to find meaning in the end alone. Why is that so hard to escape?

The commodification of everything we do is by now a familiar phenomenon. For example, I can't simply go for a walk. Rather, that walk has to have benefits, and those benefits in turn and retroactively, become goals for future walks. That walk might be recorded so that I can know how many calories I've burned, measuring whether or not I'm on track with weight to be lost, health benefits to be gained. Even if I say I just want to look at the trees and enjoy the scurryings of small creatures, well that too has cognitive benefits, and the green has been shown to lower blood pressure and soothe anxiety. That walk is time I could have spent working, being productive one might say, and so choosing not to engage in the labors that constitute “work” must yield some dividend that carries over into work. In this case, I am recharging my batteries (as the “smart” watch will so hopefully indicate with its “body battery”). Even aimless leisure is but a means to an industrious end.

Enough of it. Fuck it all. Fuck the trackers and industriousness and obsessions with work. if that is the sum of life then we are nothing but machines and avatars in video games. Which is the goal after all. The metaverse, the virtual worlds, the future of work, all of these are means of control and devaluation, transferring the wealth of your humanity to the currency of a few.

So a crazed dissenter might scream, noiseless against the din of media and content creators and influencers and self-help didacticism.

But I think many people crave a break from all that noise. I always suspect that everyone else is better at the break, better at assuring themselves that they can do things for leisure or for the pure joy of taking up time. Uselessness, I learned early on, was the greatest fault. To be without purpose or without striving was to be an empty stain taking up unnecessary space in the universe. I know that is not a sense held by many. Some see life as a game to be played, lack of purpose as something to be celebrated and sought. Some simply have a clearer knowledge that a little bit of leisure is necessary for any sort of human life. Perhaps many have purpose imposed from without, and everything falls more easily into line.

There is always something not getting done. Conventional self-helpification would tell me that I need to cut things, or organize them, or maybe close the loops, or, zen-style, let go of attachments to those tbds. All sound advice. And yet, all band-aids and balms. The fundamental problem is the collective agreement, the group behavior, that fixes attention on the most primate of human behaviors, the seeking of status. I tell myself I don't care, that I never really cared about such things, but that is obvious self-deception. I didn't care in the way that gentleman-scholars don't care about things like wealth or learning. They have both in abundance and so can claim to be without worry in those areas when it comes to competition. But that carefree pose is itself a status marker. So I told myself I didn't care about status. Now, when the magnitude of my anonymity is foremost in mind, I wonder whether I want some recognition, something to point to that screams “I was here.”

As a (former) scholar studying (among other things) the deepest past, I have no illusions about legacy. We are all nothing. The most famous among humanity now will, by and large, be a footnote in 100 years and completely forgotten in general awareness beyond that time (assuming there is a humanity to remember or forget still around). A small few will remain recognized, a smaller few will be rediscovered, for good or ill and well beyond anyone's control.

We have only the now and our immediate sphere. When people get more than that as their due, when they have influence over hundreds and thousands and millions, that's where it all goes wrong. We were not meant to have so much power over others and, in such circumstances, we wield such things badly. We remain small tribes of primates, whose purpose was and is a certain kind of small-scale collective survival, amidst hardships and allowing room for leisure and pleasures and idleness.

I suppose that's why what makes most sense is the world of immediacy. In the now, and with family and friends, I matter in particular ways. That's all that one really wants. Everything else is just means to that end. Or idleness.