On purpose

There was a time when I felt other than myself. I no longer felt the need to push ahead and make something, primarily because something as nuanced as editing felt increasingly meaningless in a world that was rapidly losing all sense of nuance. In addition, the planet was about to be destroyed, the third world war was coming, AI was going to destroy all our jobs, and in the grand scheme of things, what does a misplaced comma matter really? During a conversation with a friend, when I was telling her about how pessimistic I was feeling, she pointed out (somewhat tangentially) that as long as I measure my work through numbers – hours, billing, etc. – I will never be happy. It is all about the quality, she said. I, my head still full of the data my various productivity trackers were tracking, completely misunderstood her and thought she was referring to the amount of work done in an hour and started to complain about how distracted I have been. Let’s just say the point went over my head by a few feet.

A few days later, I was editing an article on stone pelting in Kashmir. The article was essentially a collection of short interviews with “stone pelters” and captures their day-to-day lives. It was an article with a strong voice, but the pitfall it was headed toward was very apparent. Without any data, it appeared to be mere anecdotes and opinion. As I worked my way through the article, painfully smoothening it out word by word, the gears at the back of my head kept clicking: how do I make this more credible? How do I provide a context for these conversations? How do I keep this article from being so easily dismissed? I wanted the article to not just read well, but for it to be read and understood the way it was intended to be read and understood and not be dismissed as mere opinion. I do not know what form the article will finally take after the many drafts I foresee, but I do know this: I will be proud of the work I’ve done on this one when it does come out. But here in the tricky part. If my friend hadn’t spoken to me about quality, if that conversation hadn’t been rattling around at the back of my head, would I still feel this pride? Or would it be overwhelmed by a feeling of guilt – of having spent so long on something which should have taken half as long? “We really cannot afford to work this way,” a business part of my brain would have kicked in, drowning any sense of accomplishment the artisan in me felt.

Over the last few months, I have been feeling a distinct lack of meaning and purpose. “This is so pointless,” a small voice within me would whine, “who is going to read this tripe anyway? Who cares if this sentence is slightly more elegant, or if that reference list is in perfect alphabetical order?” I would usually shelve the feeling away, telling myself that purpose was not for everyone. I have other nice things, like a TV, a recliner, and friends who actually do have purpose, and I should be happy with that. But here was my moment: a bucket of purpose had been tipped over my head. I could either complain about how it was more underwhelming that I had imagined it to be, or I could bask in it. I have always envied friends who I thought were producing good work (however I defined the term), though I theoretically knew that it was the result of a butt load of hard work and some difficult choices. But it was only now (a little late to the party, I know) that I realised that living a life of purpose is not one gigantic decision you make one morning – it is simply how you choose to live your life, moment from moment. It is quite simple, really: recognise something worthy when it comes your way, commit to it, and then work hard on it. And if you enjoy the feeling of having contributed something, of having made something, experienced or learned something, helped someone, conquered ground, made progress, or however you define purpose, then keep doing it again, and again, and again, until you’re full up on purpose (if that’s something you’re into).

As you can guess, this was a rather underwhelming realisation. Through my twenty-seven years of existence, I had somehow missed the most fundamental aspect of purpose: it is subjective. For some reason I had expected it to bestow an ethereal glow on the person who had it, a divine light shining from above, instantly recognisable from ten feet away. As though it was something to be sought outside of oneself, but really it is something that you confer on the things around you when you recognise their importance. It is not so much what you do, as much as clarifying to yourself why you do it.

But why do anything at all? What makes anything meaningful? I don’t know. For me, it has always been about making voices heard that may not otherwise have been, about easing the way of something from the shadows into daylight, about drawing attention to something that is hidden. Why does this in particular push my buttons the way nothing else does? I don’t know. I just know that doing this sort of work makes me feel I have contributed something – made a difference if you will. But that just happens to be my personal understanding of meaning. Meaning too, I am learning, is something we craft for ourselves. It is individual, personal, and non-transferable. Perhaps that is why there are so many different theories about it  – serve others! serve society! improve your family’s/clan’s status! worship god! preach this political ideology! save the environment!   – some reason their way to it, and others stumble onto it in a rush of emotion. The only defining feature is that it lights that dim fire of pleasure within us when we consciously pursue it.