The Elusive “Life Purpose” and What To Do About It.

Annie Dillard wrote the most concise summary of Time Management I’ve seen: “A schedule defends from chaos and whim.” This remarkable, pithy, seven-word sentence constructs a framework for nearly all time management.

The “schedule defends” against two common enemies of the creative life:
(1) “Chaos” is the external noise and outside demands drawing us away from our purpose and responsibilities.  (e.g. some interruptions and low-priority commitments)
(2) “Whim” is when we follow our own impulses and become distracted from our purpose and responsibilities. (e.g. some television or internet surfing)

Of course, in order to apply this scheduling concept you must know your mission or purpose in life. Or do you? 

The Elusive Personal Mission or Life Purpose
Marion Milner, in A Life of One’s Own, says, “By now I had reviewed all my past attempts to find happiness by following the instructions of mental training experts. Gradually a conclusion began to emerge. Instead of, as always before, assuming that they were right and therefore my inability to reach the promised results must be due to my own weakness, I began to ask whether this really was the way to find what I wanted. I had been continually exhorted to define my purpose in life, but I was now beginning to doubt whether life might not be too complex a thing to be kept within the bounds of a single formulated purpose . . . So I began to have an idea of my life, not as the slow shaping of achievement to fit my preconceived purposes, but as the gradual discovery and growth of a purpose which I did not know.”

She follows this with, “At that time I could not understand at all that my real purpose might be to learn to have no purposes.”

This 1934 book suggests some fascinating things. Maybe life is “too complex a thing to be kept within the bounds of a single formulated purpose”. And maybe life is a “gradual discovery and growth of a purpose which I did not know.” What she says makes sense! And, when you think about it, what doesn’t make sense is the assumption that at one point in life we can decide, in detail, what the rest of our life (or even the next few months) should look like. That somehow our past self, at a certain point in time, knows more than our present or future self. We should not guide our lives exclusively by these “preconceived purposes”, but by ongoing growth and discovery of our purposes.

We Know Some Things
This doesn’t mean we wander carelessly or jump from goal to goal. We know enough about life to invest our time effectively. We also know what constitutes time-wasters. We just don’t want to lock ourselves into a particular course of action so that we shut down growth and discovery by ignoring context and accumulated wisdom. So we schedule what we do know to be valuable and discard the mediocre. This prevents “chaos and whim” from overtaking our lives while, at the same time, remaining open to the future.

Beware of This Paradox
Milner, in one of her other books, An Experiment in Leisure, has an interesting discussion about our propensity to self-sacrifice and concludes:

And surely this question was most relevant to my problem of how to spend my leisure. If this desire to sacrifice my own wants was so strong, I was faced with the paradox that perhaps what I wanted most to do was not to do what I most wanted to do. I knew many people of whom this seemed true, as soon as they had a moment to themselves free from obligations, they would rush off to find another obligation, someone else or something else to sacrifice their lives to. Was this morbid? I could not tell, but certainly I noticed that these same people very often had recurrent periods of physical illness when they were forced to attend to themselves, to ‘mind their own business’. (Emphasis Mine)

We say we are too busy. We become frustrated because we believe others sabotage our goals. We don’t use the word “powerless”, but we live as if we are unable, for whatever reason, to pursue a creative life. In fact, Milner says, people actually become ill if they are “forced to attend to themselves” and “mind their own business”. Even if we have an open window of time (an hour, an afternoon, a partial weekend), we fill this time with something else instead of what we really want to do. We “sacrifice” our life unnecessarily because, if we are honest with ourselves, — what we wanted most to do was not to do what we most wanted to do.

What do you most want to do? (Besides not doing what you most want to do.) Scheduling even small blocks of time for your creative life will defend against “chaos and whim” and help you discover your purposes in life — or you’ll at least enjoy your life while you “learn to have no purposes”.

.

The Writing Life. 1989. Annie Dillard. HarperCollins Publishers.

A Life of Ones Own. Marion Milner (Joanna Field). First published 1934. The Estate of Marion Milner. 2011 – Routledge.

An Experiment in Leisure. Marion Milner (Joanna Field). First published 1937. The estate of Marion Milner. 2011 – Routledge.

Jesus Follower, Blogger, Public Speaker. Teresaofavilaturns500.wordpress.com

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4 comments on “The Elusive “Life Purpose” and What To Do About It.
  1. Larry T says:

    Food for thought, counter-intuitive to modern, purpose-driven models; This parallels our most recent directions in training & coaching – that being to focus more on personal core values, making choices based on those values and then observing the direction our lives take. As such “purpose(s)” are observed outcomes, rather than pre-determined determiners.

  2. I really liked your thesis: “Scheduling even small blocks of time for your creative life will defend against“ chaos and whim ”and help you discover your purposes in life – or you’ll at least enjoy your life while you“ learn to have no purposes ”.

  3. Becki Tindall says:

    Good article, Dave. Annie Dillard is one of my favorite authors. A good book on purpose is The On-Purpose Person by Kevin McCarthy. It guides you into writing a purpose statement for your life.

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