In the last few months, I’ve read more “life organizing” literature than I ever have before. I read and reread Getting Things Done, a book my wife read years ago and had on-hand. At the time, I probably poked fun at her, but I’ve been surprised to see how typical (and ineffective) my task management is. I’ve always been resistant to having a book or a method tell me how I should organize things. What I typically tell myself is that I really know best how to do everything, from planning my daily activities to knowing what my long-term goals are and what progress I’m making toward them. What I’m consistently finding, however, are that the things I think are important to me are not the things I spend the majority of my time on.
When I was in my late-twenties, I hosted a college-age small group at our house. As a Christian group, we would usually be reading through some text such as The Purpose-Driven Life or Wild at Heart. Of course, we also read frequently from the Bible, trying to discern what life lessons we could learn from the reorganization of the temple under Hezekiah for our contemporary existence.
We held the group for a couple years, and the most recurring theme in our discussions was the question of what we were all going to do—what we should do—with our lives. I was in my late-twenties, working at a good job that I was nonetheless unsatisfied with. We owned our house, we had just had a child, we had a dog, etc. We had followed the American dream formula, and it had seemed to work out well. Yet I, like many others, found myself constantly asking, “Is this it?”
The other group members in their early twenties were at the beginning of that same spectrum. The future was open; they could do anything they wanted. But what should they do? Depending on which paradigm one followed, there were ready-made answers. If the middle-class response was go to college, the evangelical response was “Go on a mission.” Most of us there were to trying to reassure ourselves that it was okay that we didn’t want to abandon everything and move to Africa for six months.
The great conceit of the small group was that if we came together and talked about and to God, we would get that clear vision of our lives’ goals and purposes. Or at least we would get the next step. Yet we kept returning to the same questions. On reflection, the group wasn’t large enough or fervent enough for any of us to convince ourselves that we could get a revelation from God about our lives. Instead, we fumbled around with the questions but supported each other along the way with the more practical aspects of life. When I needed to build a fence around the yard, for example, several of them (who knew more than I ever will about construction) came over and helped out. When someone moved, we all showed up to help. But we never got any bigger answers. We just lived life and moved on.
When faced with the innumerable choices and directions our lives can go, we are overwhelmed. Religious traditions fill a definite need in that respect, providing a simulation of knowing what you do not know. That is not to say faith cannot provide psychological/existential relief for people; it can. It does so, however, only to the extent that you ignore the very tenuous connection it has to the way we actually live our lives. If a divine being is ultimately in control, then I am relieved of the burden of ultimate concern about the environment or the consequences of my consumption.
For my part, I exited one system, thinking myself much more authentic for having gotten rid of it. However, at the same time I was being inculcated into the system of higher education, which provides a rival structure for goals and purpose. For six years, I had the goal of earning a degree. It was only near the finish that I began to experience the openness that accompanies life with no tradition, no trajectory, to tell you what to do and where to go. I can’t yet speak to what comes next.
It is, in these cases, easy to allow yourself to go on auto-pilot, so to speak, and let the roles you are in dictate my day-to-day existence. That seems to be what many of us do. While on the outside it looks like an organized life, it is only a coordinated backdrop that overlays an uncertainty that never really goes away. Why? Because there really is no certainty other than that which we construct.
The key, then, seems to be to construct purpose for life or for the day’s affairs that has as little collateral damage as possible, either for your own life or the lives of others. There will be collateral damage, and it must actively be minimized. Anxiety will remain, and it is managed with the systems you set up arbitrarily for yourself. There is more Nietzsche than Sartre here. We establish roles for ourselves, all the while knowing that it is just a play. And yet we must play.
There were several years where, when I realized that I was merely playing a role, I resisted playing it because it was not “real.” But not all roles are the same, not all require the same depth of self-deception about oneself and the world. I have always relied on the top level to dictate the actions for everything underneath, but this doesn’t create a life. If followed unthinkingly, it extinguishes life. We often know this, but we prefer the familiarity of traditions, with all their contradictions, to uncertainty. Uncertainty, however, is a level playing field. We will make mistakes, but they are conscientious ones, and not the unthinking destruction of traditional institutions. In the end, we must actually get things done.