What gives life purpose?

If you discount the existence of a deity or the claim of an authoritarian government or institution, the decision is yours. At the moment, I would say that my life has none. It has its compensations certainly, but mere survival marks the limit of my abilities. My pain is such that I sometimes fight back hysteria. Demerol won’t touch it. Dilaudid is a joke (ha, ha, ha). Percocet and Vicodin are like baby aspirin. I think that, if I were weaker of character, I would lose my mind.

When I ask myself what losing my mind would look like, I picture the drainage canal across the street, and then I picture myself gibbering like Porky Pig while running naked onto the bridge over that canal and throwing myself into the water. The drop is only fifteen feet, and the water is never more than four feet deep, so death would be an unlikely outcome—but that’s the point. Suicide requires judgment, but if I lost my mind, I would lose my judgment, which completely precludes taking the course of a local woman who put on lots of clothes, loaded the pockets with rocks, and drove her car into a lake. Such a woman could not, in any respectable sense, be accused of losing her mind. Losing your mind has to appear profoundly stupid if it’s to count for anything, and the most the woman with the rock overcoat could say was that she was depressed. I laugh at depression (ha, ha, ha)! I left mere depression behind months ago. Depression is for pikers. Depression is okay as a starting point for people whose goal is to lose their minds, but that’s the most that can be said for it.

The more I think about throwing myself into the Amazon (for that’s what the drainage canal is called) the more I doubt the advisability of losing my mind, because it is plain that nothing good would come of it. I might break my legs—or even my back—but in any event I would be locked away in a padded cell and force-fed anti-psychotics. These drugs pose a significant risk of tardive dyskinesia (a permanent condition that causes one to compulsively grimace, stick out his tongue, smack his lips, blink his eyes, and lots of other party deflating activities), and this condition alone is enough to convince me that I really, really don’t want to be locked away in a padded cell.

But then I reflect that, okay, what if no one was around when I threw myself into the Amazon. If that were the case, I wouldn’t have to worry about tardive dyskinesia, but I would have to decide what to do next. I would probably start by sitting in the oil-slicked water until I got cold. Then I would crawl through the blackberries that line the canal’s steep banks until I could peek out and see if anyone was coming. When the coast was clear, I would make a break for my house, take a long, hot shower, and—I suspect—feel relieved that I was all done with losing my mind and could move on to more rewarding activities. In other words, I would be right back where I am now, only bruised, scratched, and with a broken leg or two….

….Since I have no idea what to write next, I paused just now to listen to the clock tick. It’s an electric clock, so I see no reason why it should NEED to tick unless its creator thought he could sell more clocks that way—or had lost his mind. Yes, of course, he lost his mind, and in his psychotic state concluded that ticking noises annoy clock hands, which then run round and round to get away from the racket, and coincidentally tell us what time it is. When the ticking gets tired and takes a nap, the hands stop moving, and then someone has to wake the ticking up again, either by winding the clock or changing the battery.

What I find about being in pain every goddamn moment of every goddamn day is that it takes a lot out of me. I can’t sleep, so I can hardly hold my head up when I’m awake. I’ve taken lots of strong drugs, and they have left me feeling polluted in body and senile in mind. I can’t work at anything requiring two arms, and this means that Peggy has to do her job plus much of my job. I can’t make plans because I have no idea when or even if I will be able to do most of the things I enjoy, plus I’m too despondent to make plans anyway.

This brings me back to the purpose of life. I see life as like a movie that’s weird and not terribly interesting, but that you keep watching just to see how it ends. Only every time I’ve forced myself to sit through some dog of a movie just to see how it ended, I hated how it ended because there was no resolution. It was as if the director ran out of money after 116 minutes and immediately stopped shooting. THAT’S how life is. The different scenes aren’t connected into a coherent whole, and it doesn’t come to a meaningful conclusion; it just stops with a final exhalation of air. It can be a 105-year-old feature length life, or it can be a day old public service announcement length existence, but either way, people try to build a meaningful story out of it (i.e. make sense of it) as an afterthought because we NEED coherency.

I guess most people don’t feel as I do, but I don’t why. Look, I’m down on my own life, okay? I’ll admit it. I look back at my six decades, and damn if I can figure out what the point of my existence has been or why I didn’t do it all better. But I pass the same judgment on other people’s lives, or at least most other people’s lives. Let’s say you’re a teacher, or a plumber, or a road-crew worker; what’s the good in it? Of course you contribute. You make sure kids can read, people can flush their toilets, and the roads are paved; but, really, is that enough to make you feel that all the shit you had to put up to stay alive was worth the bother?

I suppose most people would argue that there’s more to life than work, as if life were a layer cake that gets better as you add to it. So, you’ve got your job; plus you’ve got your family, weekend bowling tournaments, yearly vacations, popcorn at the movies, and so forth. What I would ask then is this: why do these things give you purpose; why do they make your life worthwhile? I can see that they’re fun or that they contribute to the world to some extent, but, on the other hand, you’re going to be dead really soon, and in a few decades no one will even know you lived, and there will be little if any reason to believe that the world is a better place because you were in it. Doesn’t it bother you that, in the big picture, you’re no more important than a spittlebug?

I would guess that most people, if it really came down to the bottom line, would say they lived for their family or for serving God. Take the plumber. He might feel pride in the years he spent gluing pipes together, but I doubt that many people find purpose through such things. Maybe I’m wrong, but if you were on your deathbed, and someone asked you what you did in life that you were the most proud of, would you talk about your job? I would guess that most people would talk about the people they loved. I’m guessing, so feel free correct me. Pretend that I just arrived from Mars, and I’m trying to understand earthlings.

Right now, my life sucks. It really does. I can’t tell you what a drag my life is. I hurt all the time; I’ve lost most of the friends I ever had; I’ve stopped attending all of the groups and activities that were ever important to me (chronic pain is as isolating as a monastery); and I can neither do the work I love nor pursue the hobbies I enjoy. I spend hours a day loathing the present, panicking over the future, and blaming myself for the past. Great. Some life. Yet, it is not without its compensations, and they are partly due to the fact that things are so bad in the macro that I have become skilled at finding pleasure in the micro.

For example, Peggy and I went to Goodwill yesterday. We call such trips our dates. She bought three CDs and a drinking glass with penguins on it; I bought a four-cup coffee maker; and together we bought a book of cat-inspired art and poetry. When we got home, we made supper together and then watched the Olympics. While we watched, Peggy threw the ball to our blind dog, Bonnie, who would alternate between searching for the ball and humping my leg. Except for the Olympics (we usually watch really old TV shows or even older movies), it was a typical evening. In such small things, I find reason to live. I become inordinately happy at times just because I have a roof over my head and food in my pantry. I rejoice on those few days when the rain stops long enough to take the dogs for a walk. I appreciate the fact that neither Peggy nor I have been diagnosed with cancer. I find happiness just by shifting my arm to some position in which it hurts less than it did in the previous position.

And as much as I dread the late hours when I must finally face getting into my chair for another night of suffering, even then I find rewards. Ice packs feel SO good on my shoulders. They make me cold, but that’s okay because the heating pad feels SO good on my chest. Next, I pull the CPAP mask over my face, and I remember that CPAPs were only invented 25 years ago and that without one, I would almost certainly have died a prolonged and miserable death. Some nights, I listen to the rain or the wind, and feel grateful that I don’t have to be out in it. Other times, I feel appreciative that I have insurance to pay my medical bills. When I finally get out of my chair at 11:00 a.m., I rejoice that I don’t have to set an alarm clock and go to a job I hate; or any job for that matter, because I honestly don’t think I could find the strength.

So, do I think—for me, for now—that life contains some BIG purpose? Hell no. My life is worthwhile only because I am well loved by a good woman and two good dogs, and because I still have the capacity to feel joy, pleasure, and gratitude. That’s it. If I die tomorrow, there will be no traffic jams around the funeral home, and people won’t share stories about how much I accomplished or how many people I touched. If they’re honest—and if they know me well enough—they will be at a loss to find much of anything good to say about me, because I have done nothing more noble than to blunder my way through life pretty much as blind Bonnie blunders her way through the house, bouncing off first one wall, chair, or table and then another until she finally stumbles out the exit. Maybe your life has gone better, but I wouldn’t trade. Mine might not be much, but at least it’s paid for.

Going deeper: how I am and how I am not an atheist

“When I consider the brief span of my life, absorbed into the eternity before and after, the small space I occupy and which I see swallowed up in the infinite immensity of spaces of which I know nothing and which know nothing of me, I take fright… The eternal silence of these infinite spaces terrifies me.”
Blaise Pascal (1623-1662)

I’ll start with a bit of a timeline.

At age eleven, I began to lose my faith in God because of the atrocities that he reportedly committed in the Old Testament. Other reasons for disbelief quickly followed, and when I asked my pastor for answers, I was told that: (a) faith is necessary for salvation; (b) faith is impossible in the presence of knowledge; (c) because faith is impossible in the presence of knowledge, my questions would only be answered in heaven.

In the late 1960s, I left my boyhood church—the fundamentalist Church of Christ in which I sometimes preached—when I was unable to liberalize it, a project that I had initially thought would be easy, what with the truth being so obviously on my side.

In the early 1970s I became an Episcopalian, but gave it up a few years later when I finally had to admit that, theologically speaking, I was at most an agnostic. I had suspected as much for years, but growing up a nonbeliever in the Bible Belt is a little like growing up gay in the Bible Belt: you want so desperately for it to not be true that you keep hoping you will grow out of it.

In the late 1970s I moved rather smoothly from agnosticism to atheism and joined American Atheists. John Marthaler was the lovable, elderly, eccentric president and only member of the South Mississippi Chapter, and Paul Tirmenstein the lovable, elderly, eccentric president and only member of the North Mississippi Chapter, so I drove 100 miles to New Orleans for meetings with the South Louisiana Chapter. I was warmly received, and soon began attending national conventions and writing for the national magazine. After a few years, my romance with American Atheists wore thin because I grew tired of the vitriol against theists despite the fact that I had initially been an enthusiastic contributor to it.

I lived in Minneapolis from 1988 to 1990 and joined the First Unitarian Society, which was very large and very atheistic—even the preacher was an atheist.

In the late 1990s, my personal life was not quite in shambles but close, so in desperation I turned—or tried to turn—to God. Not believing in God naturally posed a problem, so I became a Catholic. I hoped that by joining such an ancient and mystical organization, I could magically recapture the religious faith that I had—for all practical purposes—lost at age eleven.

Before an adult can join the Catholic Church, he must attend months of classes and meet regularly with a sponsor. Since I didn’t know any practicing Catholics, the good father appointed my sponsor. He assured me that Bill and I would get along famously because we were both intellectuals. Alas, Bill and I did not get along famously. Bill had the old fashioned idea that I should believe in God before I joined the church rather than hoping that God would mysteriously reveal himself to me after I joined. He didn’t block my acceptance though, so I became an official card-carrying Roman Catholic (they don’t really give out cards) in a moving ceremony one night before Easter.

I was also a Freemason and an Odd Fellow at the time, and the Catholic Church forbids membership in either, but no one asked if I was a member of any outlaw organizations, and I saw no need to bring it up, so maybe that’s what pissed God off. In any event, I woke up the morning after I became a Catholic with no more faith than I had when I was a card-carrying atheist (they do give out cards), so I gave up on Catholicism a few weeks later.

I was feeling pathetic, ridiculous, and flaky by now, having gone from fundamentalist Christianity to liberal Christianity to agnosticism to atheism to Catholicism. Clearly, I didn’t even have it in me to remain faithful to the faithless. I had become as much of a joke to religion as Elizabeth Taylor did to marriage.

Everything else aside, one of my main problems with Christianity was that I never liked the Biblical god—or Jesus for that matter (who I saw as the intolerant, inconsistent, and bad-tempered protagonist of a pathologically bizarre story about a merciless three-faced monster that imagined himself a deity). Liberal churches try to dress God and Jesus up a little (okay, a lot) by either throwing out much of the Bible or interpreting it metaphorically. Maybe I would have gotten better at this if not for my fundamentalist background, but I just considered it a hell of a strain to be forever trying to reinterpret the Bible to say something other than what it appeared to say.

Besides, I asked myself, if this kinder, gentler version of God is real, where was he when I hid under my bed as a child, crying in terror because of some fire-and-brimstone sermon—why didn’t the God who counts the hairs on everyone’s head and watches all the sparrows fall (but never catches them) comfort me? In all my years of seeking him, he never answered one prayer for faith or gave me one smidgen of encouragement. My entire religious experience from age eleven onward consisted of me trying to force belief down my throat as if it were a fiery poker, while those who never seemed to question anything attacked me for my “refusal to trust God.”

Enough history: where am I now? Well, I’m a member of American Humanists, but I don’t plan to renew because there are no local meetings, and the magazine is a waste of time. I’m still a Freemason and an Odd Fellow (mostly non-attending) because, although both require a belief in God, they don’t define what God is. So what do I think God is?

I’m a pantheist, I suppose, but not a door-to-door street-preaching pantheist. I’m more of a slightly embarrassed pantheist who wonders if it even makes sense to call himself a pantheist. Sometimes, I think yes; other times I think no. My problem is that atheists and pantheists both define the universe in completely naturalistic and scientific terms. The difference is that pantheists call the universe God and worship it, whereas atheists just call the universe the universe and don’t worship it.

When I’m in a cynical mood, this just makes pantheism seem like a way for timid atheists to avoid the negative stigma of being called atheists. Other times, I can look at a cloud, or a baby animal, or even a shrub (a Cascade Mountain snowbrush, for example) and quite literally cry in utter and complete awe at the wonder of existence, and at THOSE times my heart longs for a positive term with which to describe my wonder, and atheist just doesn’t cut it. ALL atheism means is that you think the supernatural is make-believe. Well, I DO think the supernatural is make-believe, yet I ALSO experience worship, or at least something that feels like worship. I could just call the feeling awe, but adoration seems more apt. The feeling is actually more akin to what mystics describe. It’s…how can I put it… I feel overcome by wonder; I feel as if I’m a tiny part of an infinitely vast machine in which every movement of every part is an absolute necessity; I feel at ONE with the universe.

Atheists don’t talk that way. At least, I never heard any of them talk that way, and I think they would probably consider me suspect if they heard me talk that way. They would look at me in the same troubled way that my Catholic sponsor looked at me. Like him, they keep their distance and wonder how long it would take me to realize I wasn’t welcome. In regard to religion, no matter where I am, I don’t belong.

I am a pantheist almost by default. It’s as if I’m a ball-bearing rolling down a conveyer belt at the end of which are all these holes. I see all the other ball-bearings moving in a precise and orderly manner down holes that are meant just for them; only I don’t fit any of the holes, so I just keep being tossed around on top of all the other bearings. You might say I’m a special ball-bearing, or you might say I’m a defective ball-bearing, but one thing is for sure: I can’t be other than what I am. Count them: I’ve belonged to FOUR churches (if you count the Minneapolis Unitarian Society as a church) and hung around the periphery of a few more religious organizations. I’ve also been an atheist, an agnostic, a humanist, and a pantheist.

I’ve been all these things because I wanted so badly to find someplace in which I could feel a sense of peace and belonging, someplace where I would be truly and unreservedly welcome. I never have, and I doubt that I ever will, but I’ve grown to accept that. As a person advances through life and reflects that there is more of it behind him than in front of him, wisdom dictates that he stop expecting much of his fellows, not because he is bitter or cynical, but because he recognizes that the limits he finds within himself are also within them. However unqualified he feels to take full responsibility for his life, he is still better qualified than they to be a leader unto himself.