“Getting Things Done”

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.


What’s The Point?: Part Two

I wanted to get back to the question I asked a couple days ago. Do we even need “purpose” anyway? The whole notion is awkward to me. As is often the case when people ask questions that force you to interpret your experience in their framework, it feels like trying on clothes that don’t quite fit, no matter how you put them on. The question of purpose doesn’t “fit” me any longer, although it was imperative for much of my life. Knowing my purpose meant knowing everyone’s purpose: to serve God. Everything else was just details. This is a handy evangelization tool because you already know the point of everyone else’s life too; you don’t even need to know their circumstances.

The question of purpose is often connected to the notion of servitude. The unspoken dichotomy for many within the monotheistic traditions, particularly Christianity, is that you are either living for God, or living for yourself. One commenter on this blog referenced a Bob Dylan quote that epitomizes this idea perfectly. It runs: “You’re gonna have to serve somebody / It may be the devil or it may be the Lord / But you’re gonna have to serve somebody.” Sadly, for much of Christianity, the devil and the self are essentially the same thing, so if you are serving yourself, you are serving the devil. This goes some way to explain why “sins” involving bodily ingestion or sexual practices are so stigmatized and why the Christians I grew up around were often so obsequious when it came to a sense of self. Down with self means down with the devil. If you give someone a compliment, like a star at an award acceptance speech, she looks up to the ceiling, points a finger and says, “It’s not about me.” Hmmm…

A decade or so ago my church read through the Purpose-Driven Life by rockstar Christian pastor and author Rick Warren. The book is a forty-day devotional reading plan packed with Scripture verses and uplifting quotes designed to help you find your life’s purpose. There is much that could be discussed in the text, but the gist is simple. To the first question he rhetorically poses, “What am I here for?”, he responds that it’s not about you in the first place. Don’t be so selfish! Warren notes Bertrand Russell’s quote, which suggests the question of life’s purpose is meaningless without presuming the existence of God, as proof that God gives life meaning. Therefore, the reason for everything, as he titles the seventh chapter, is God. Everything is by God and for God. Simple, right?

I titled these posts “What’s the Point?” because “What’s my Purpose?” doesn’t mean much to me now. That in and of itself is surprising to me, and to many others who believe that their purpose defines each and every thing that they do. Tell most religious folks that you don’t need a purpose, and you are likely to get an incredulous look. It’s not comprehensible as a Christian that you can live without one focused and primary goal. You think life would immediately cease to have meaning. Of course, “what’s the point?” is an oversimplification as well. We seem to want principles or ideas that are as singular and simple as we can make them, but life rarely if ever complies.

My argument is that this singularity of purpose that looks so organized from the outside can serve as a façade for inauthentic living, living that is dominated by conforming to social (or spiritual) norms in order to look the part. Lemme finish. If we take the example of life’s purpose as commitment to God, that purpose must be reinforced among a group of people united around it. This group of people creates a set of practices or routines that are signifiers of that purpose. This is necessary, of course, because dedication to God as a purpose is singular but not specific enough to show how to live. Given that purpose, one can refer to texts and traditions, but the most immediate source of its enactment is the practices of others who share it. As I’ve mentioned, this is why community is important, to reinforce the importance of this purpose. So there are a set of arbitrary practices that gain meaning inside a particular context and give the sense of purpose fulfillment. Participation in the Eucharist, singing songs, and standing and kneeling together are all rituals that express to the participants that “we are living according to our purpose.”

For many Christians, however, the enactment of purpose does not extend beyond the gathering of the community. It is as if putting on an elaborate play in which everyone is cast, but also in which the goal is for the participants to fool themselves into thinking that they are the role that they play. There is a positive element here. If I want to be a good basketball player, for example, there is practice and repetition involved, and there is also an element of seeing myself as a good player, or as being able to become one. However, this scenario is operative within a limited context. A life purpose, if it is to be authentic, should extend to all areas of life.

Particularly in the American Church, however, one’s purpose is much like the purpose of everyone else: raising kids, making money, looking good in front of your friends, and so on. There is nothing wrong with engaging in these activities, but if you engage in them by telling yourself it is not your “true” purpose, you do so hypocritically. If I do the things I do because “that’s how it is,” and on top of that tell myself that my “real” purpose is serving God rather than myself, I engage in an elaborate self-deception about who I really am and what I really do. The man who goes and gets drunk on Friday night intentionally because he wants to forget himself after a hard week is more authentic than the man who does the same while denying that he is a “drunk.” The former owns his actions and their identity-forming capacity while the latter separates his behavior from an ideal, nonexistent self.

It might be possible to fully live out the purpose of “living for God” if one did so in a comprehensive way. The consequences of such a commitment, however, are greater than most want to deal with. Because this is the case for me as well, I’ve found it easier to admit that my purpose is not living for God, nor is it a singular purpose at all. It is rather purposes, goals that are dynamic and shift as I change. And although the number of choices can be overwhelming, I can fully embody my choices instead of dissociating them from my identity.


What’s the Point?

I’ve had several conversations around religion and a sense of “purpose.” I talked about this last week, but it was mostly in terms of the obligations that come with Christian affiliation; namely, the obligation to evangelize. Affiliation with an all-encompassing institution, as most religions are, provides a complete system, within which one is given explicit or implicit purpose for living. But what does purpose mean in this context? And, perhaps more importantly, do we really “need” purpose anyway?

What do people mean when they talk about purpose? In terms of religion giving purpose to the individual, purpose entails a task or set of duties, usually ones protracted over the person’s lifetime. These could include evangelization, sanctification (becoming more godlike), striving to eliminate self, charity, and many others. But when we say we need purpose, we don’t really mean we need something to do to keep us occupied for a lifetime. What we are usually talking about is not the purpose itself, but the feeling that comes from it, the “sense” of purpose that comes with certainty.

Not having a sense of purpose might be like playing a game of basketball without knowing the rules. You are told to put the basket through the hoop, but aren’t given any parameters for doing so. That might be fine, but you keep getting the whistle blown on you and the ball taken away without knowing why. Over time you figure out some of the basic mistakes and avoid them, but you always question whether you’re doing it right, and if something doesn’t work, you wonder if it’s your fault or someone else’s, or both. If you expand this to the game of life, it gets much more complicated. You usually aren’t sure if you made a mistake, or if someone else is breaking the rules. Unless you can put together a system that a group can agree on. You impose your own rules to define the game.

So what does this give you? Satisfaction, or happiness, at least in theory. The conflict comes when it doesn’t. Let’s say you have a group of people who decide on a set of rules to interact with each other, and it works very well, and as a result the people in the group are happy. Then a few years or decades past and outsiders join the group and younger generations are added to the mix. Some of these are not happy with the group’s interaction, or the way the game is set up, or they’re just not satisfied in general. Since the system worked in the past, however, fault is laid not on the rules themselves, or even usually on the game, but on those who are unsatisfied with it for somehow doing it wrong. “You have no reason to be unhappy,” these people are told. “You must not be doing it correctly.” Some will accept this blame, taking it on themselves and trying to follow the rules; others will blame the rules and set up a group of their own or switch groups. The cycle, over time, repeats itself.

There’s a gray area between the benefits of the system and a sense of purpose or meaning they purport to provide. They work very well…until they don’t. I think that many, or maybe most, people are unsatisfied with the systems they participate in, be they spiritual, political, or social, but they (mostly) keep quiet. However, there are also many that are, for all intents and purposes, happy with their institutional relationships. So how does one go from being satisfied to unsatisfied, or vice versa? We like to express it in terms of truth: “That turned out not to be true,” etc. But in this case truth is measured only by alliance to your current values looming large in your mind, and not any set standard.

Those who have excelled, those who seem to have had great purpose, have clashed, rather than harmonized, with institutional norms. These are the ones we celebrate. Be they thinkers, artists, scientists, politicians, they stand out for their distinction from the norm, not their adherence to it. Interestingly enough, if and when we try to standardize their successes, they fail to live up to the original. We rightly blame ourselves and not the original for the failure, but is our failure because of insufficient adherence to the system, or is it that we sought greatness in imitation or reproduction? In other words, was their purpose a formula we can plug in and get the same result?

I am not saying that the correct answer is endless rebellion against systems for its own sake; we all imitate before we can create, and our creations are always in some way reliant on what has come before. However, if we seek purpose in molding ourselves completely to the institution, we gain a “sense” of purpose only by deadening our senses until they are imperceptible.

This all leads up to the question that goes something like this: “Without God, what’s the point?” The amplified version is as follows: “God is the reason I have meaning, purpose, and happiness in my life. If you don’t believe in God, how can your life be meaningful?” This can be a sincere question, but it can also be a defense mechanism. I wonder what I would have said if someone had asked me the opposite version when I was a Christian:

“You believe in God? You’re a Christian? Then what’s the point of living? All you do is follow other peoples’ rules so that you can die and live forever sitting on a cloud listening to angels play harps and stuff?”

“Uh, it’s not about harps. It’s gonna be awesome. We’ll be hanging out with Jesus all the time.”

“All the time? Won’t that get kind of boring?

“No. Besides, we’re also going to be walking on streets of gold and living in our own mansions.”

“Okay. But if that’s what its all about, why aren’t you enjoying yourself right now? What’s the point if you have to give up your life to get it?”

“I am enjoying myself. I just don’t like things that don’t last. I want things that last forever, things you can’t get here on earth.”

“So you don’t want money, or a good job, or happiness, or love, or a fun time, or any of that?

“Oh no, I want that stuff too, I just know that it’s not important compared to the real stuff I get later.”

“Well, good luck with that…I’ll enjoy myself now. See ya!”

“Yeah, bye.”

“That guy doesn’t get it. Hopefully he gets his priorities in line, or else…”

Maybe it wouldn’t have gone quite like that, but the point is that the logic of systems is coherent from the inside, not necessarily the outside. Members of religious traditions often can’t understand how people could live any other way and so construct scenarios in which people aren’t really living with purpose.

It’s easy to get wrapped up in your sense of purpose and want to share it with other people, especially if you enjoy it or think it will help someone. But when your motivation is dependent on someone else’s belief in it, it becomes problematic because you will go to great lengths to convince or demonize those who don’t agree. If the Christian system is true, it is true regardless of the number of adherents it has, right? The fact that it has a great number of adherents, and that those adherents tend to group together, is beneficial, but can also produce a collective refusal to acknowledge the innumerable ways of living beyond their worldview.


There is also the possibility that we don’t “need” any purpose at all…I’ll get back to that.


You Gotta Pay Your Dues

The logics of institutions are closed systems in which all your life questions are answered. The more you subscribe to one particular identity, the less tension, in theory, there is over these questions. If for example, you could and did subscribe fully to the system of consumerism that supports capitalism, your purpose would be to earn wealth in order to accumulate goods that would bring pleasure and define you. For the American identity (excerpting for a moment the capitalism bound up in it), your purpose would be to achieve the American dream, being an entrepreneurial spirit, owning your own business and house and two cars and a picket fence and 1.9 children. Few, I imagine, explicitly subscribe to these ideals, both because we like to think of our relative independence from the dictates of various institutions, but also because we increasingly live in a world of institutions fiercely competing for our loyalty, and try to manage multiple associations at the same time.

This idea goes some way to explaining why, when individuals are involved with a social group that dominates as much of the individual identity as possible, those outside that group take offense at the seemingly simplistic (and dangerous) logic within. When we label cult groups, we are indicating the internal coherence of a system that seems, to the outside, contradictory or nonsensical. Yet for many of those inside, the sense of belonging, identity, and purpose that comes with group participation compensates for what we outsiders would perceive as loss of freedom.

In theory, the various institutions we participate in have the power to do the same thing. Yet, once these reach a certain size or become a majority, benefits accrue to the participants with a minimal amount of effort, and the perceived alliance to the group can decrease with little cost. For example, I really don’t have to be that American in order to receive the benefits of being (middle-class) American: a comparatively robust infrastructure, a broad range of freedoms of speech and pursuits, etc. These benefits certainly do not accrue to all Americans, but having been born here allowed for the possibility of these benefits. Yet I’m not required to participate in many activities, as long as I pay my taxes, and I could even get away with not doing that for several years.

The downside of the relative freedoms and benefits of dominant institutions (aside from the very important fact that institutions are created and thrive with great cost to those who are not their members) is that with the decreased “cost” of membership, there is a decreased value in the ready-made answers to important life questions. Having the freedom to purchase my own home and live a peaceful life, or even the ability to make that a goal, certainly meant something different to a generation returning from World War Two than it does to me. The proliferation of “Freedom Isn’t Free” bumper stickers isn’t quite enough to fill the gap of insufficiency I feel when trying to relate to what I perceive are the identity markers of being an American. (The correlation between freedom and conflict is one established to benefit the institution, and only secondarily myself, if at all. I provide that example simply because it is a popular one).

The identity that came with being a Christian was never completely satisfying to me, but I perceived the fault to be with myself and not with Christianity. The costs and benefits of participation in the evangelical Christianity of my upbringing were relatively simple in theory. The initial costs were recognizing ones own insufficiency, sinful nature, and absolute reliance on God for salvation from that nature that would otherwise damn me to eternity in hell (which was not red devils and flames but eternal separation from God, in my understanding). The explicit benefits were eternal life with God and the comfort of knowing your sins were forgiven. The implied (and sometimes explicit) benefits were that you would be much happier and fulfilled than those non-Christians. You, unlike they, would have a sense of purpose. There were ongoing costs as well. Membership dues, you could say, and not just financial. These costs, in my experience, were that you should participate fully in the perpetuation of the Christian narrative, and most importantly, that you bring others into the fold. After all, if you were happy and unfulfilled, and your friends and acquaintances are not, wouldn’t you want to share your happiness with them?

My particular problem is that, having grown up in a Christian environment, nearly all my friends and family were already at least nominally Christian (or didn’t want to rock the boat by telling people they weren’t). Thus, for me to pay my dues, I had to go beyond my own social circles to bring in more members. In doing so, I was not only contributing to my local membership in a Christian community, I was participating in the fulfillment of history, for only when the entire world had heard the Gospel would the end of history come, after which the saved would spend eternity with God. I didn’t usually think about it on such a historical scope. All I thought about was how I was supposed to go make more Christians and the guilt I would often feel for not doing a good job. I was concerned that my membership card would be revoked, not that someone in the church would call me out, but that God might. In short, the first understanding I had about my relationship to the Christian institution was not one in which I thought it was insufficient for me, but that I was insufficient for it. From the institution’s perspective, that was a perfect place for me to be.