Monday, 28 September 2015

The Dream of a Purpose For A Life

So for complicated reasons that aren’t very interesting, I’ve been thinking about the “find your purpose in life” thing. I had a number of thoughts, but mostly of an analytical nature which aren’t terribly useful to anyone. And then along comes Mike Cernovich with a post about living your dreams and daring to dream big. Being a sad sack, if I’ve heard that once, I’ve heard it a gajillion times.

Here’s my problem with it.

I have no dreams.

Seriously. I’ve never wanted to “be” anything or anybody. I’ve never looked at anything and thought “That. That’s what I want.” I’ve thought the equivalent of “that would be a really cool-to-have” but never “This. Right here. Right now. This is it.” I’ve been mildly blissed out now and again, and certainly been at ease for lengths of time, often by the sea. I like warm dry air, swimming because the feel of water on my skin, strong winds for a similar reason, blue skies, sparkling water, the restless waves of the Atlantic… all sorts of stuff. I can be transported by music and look at pretty girls for ever. But this is all just drugs.

Let me explain that.

My hormone soup is sharp vinegar. My serotonin re-uptake is so efficient that the stuff barely has a chance to work. As for oxytocin and all those other feel-good hormones, give my hypothalamus a prod because it doesn’t produce any. The slightest wound takes forever to heal, and I have never felt bonding to any of the perfectly attractive and pleasant women I’ve known. I spent years as a suffering alcoholic, and a few more before and after as a needy, depressed ACoA. Heck, I can’t even take a week off work without feeling agitated and depressed. Whether I go away or stay at home. It’s not the work and the people I miss, but the distraction that coping with commutes and work provides.

My body, brain and hormones are wired entirely wrong. I cannot feel good - I don’t have the chemicals that you do when you feel “good”. Your idea of feeling “normal” would be my idea of a heavenly rest. It’s not that I feel down, bad or depressed all the time - though I used to when I was drinking - it’s like you’re wearing an emotional silk shirt and I’m wearing emotional coarse wool shirt.

My dream is to get away from my hormone soup. I've stayed away from drugs all my life because I know that if I found one that got me out of it, I would never come back in again. There is nothing in this world that can get me away from my body - it comes with me wherever I go. And every now and then I simply can’t keep up the pretence, and wallow in self-pity for a while. Not long, because I can’t really afford long, but sometimes it’s the only honest feeling I have. No. Make that, sometimes it’s the only feeling I have.

Which sounds a little melodramatic, so I’ll say that I have all the "daily feelings”, you know, the simple stuff that ranges from “Yum tuna sandwich” (did anyone actually say that in real life?) to “Ugh rain and no umbrella”, taking in “yippee a window seat” and “isn’t it great to be alive walking across Waterloo Bridge at 07:30 under a blue sky?”. Those are top notes on the base of slightly brakish tapwater (to strain the metaphor). The difference between you and me is the base, not the top notes.

So what about the whole “purpose” and “dreams” thing? Those of us who needed fixing, and may still secretly want fixing, and those of us with mis-wired hormones, tend not to be enthusiastic about dreams and life-purposes. Even if we realised our dreams, we would still have the same emotional problem.

Over time, I’ve come to consider that self-respect is a better motive than happiness - well, I would, wouldn’t I? I do stuff because it stretches and develops me, and that is a good in its own right. Not a popular one, and not one with a lot of sugar, but I’m fairly sure that Aristotle would get the point. Self-respect keeps me training, walking, watching what I eat, reading difficult books, and other such improving activities. It doesn’t get me on the Promenade des Anglais watching the sunset before supper on a side street in the Old Town, and I do miss that stuff, but I can’t do it on my own anymore. Maintaining my self-respect (aka “overweening vanity”) doesn’t cure Cancer or rid Africa of hunger, but, oh, neither does anything else.

My main motive is and has always been fear. Fear of winding up in a no-hope council estate. Fear of being poor; of being coarse, crude and stupid; of chaos; of being overweight; of irreparable injury; of a slow, lingering death that takes my dignity. I do stuff to avoid those things, and when I have, I pretty much feel like I’m okay. I don’t do stuff because it’s going to make me richer, or more popular, or more satisfied. Fear is a strong motivator, but it doesn’t get me past a fairly basic standard of living. Vanity that does that. (Oh yeah, I’m a total mess.)

Mike Cernovish thinks of dreams in terms of going places and doing things. At his age, and with what he has in the bank, I’d think of it like that as well. When I was much younger, I wanted to be a university lecturer (actually, I wanted to be a philosopher, and lecturing was how you got paid for that), and I thank my Higher Power that didn’t happen. When I started work, I wanted to get into management, and now I’m glad I’m not. I don’t like what management and university teaching have become. As for back-packing round South America or jumping off bridges with a big elastic band round my ankles… nah. I’ll leave that to the kids in Deloitte’s.

A man at any stage of his life should have an ambition, as it gives him direction, but what it is can change as his life changes. There’s no proper pattern, except that it’s generally sensible to match the ambition to the energy you have, which tends to be higher when younger. At the moment, one of my ambitions (Mercury in Gemini, what can I say?) is to find an intuitively-acceptable explanation of why there are as many linearly independent one-forms as holes on a Riemann surface. There are complicated explanations, but no simple ones. When (not if) I find it, you will read about here. I have no connections with the academic world, so it won’t be seen by anyone. I’m not doing it for you, I’m doing it for me.

In the end, this is one thing about all ambitions, plans and dreams: unless we do it for ourselves, it won’t be satisfying. Satisfaction comes from playing the music, not the applause. Other people might benefit, and it’s nice that they do. But they don’t have to for the ambition to be successful.

Your Mileage May Vary on this. You’re not an alcoholic and you’re not my age. If you have ambitions and dreams, please do all you can to realise them. And on that subject Mike’s post has some good advice.


  1. For most people life is just a slog, survival. And that's how it has been for the vast majority of the human race throughout history. Maybe it's better that way? All human activity is an attempt to distract ourselves from our own mortality. That day-to-day struggle is a blessing in disguise. Without it, we'd have the opportunity to reflect on the pointlessness of existence. Look at those few people who do achieve their dreams...many don't seem very happy. As the saying goes, be careful what you wish for.