I was thinking about leaving work for the day, not yet getting ready but in that hour before when you begin to think about what you need to do in order to leave: how many unread emails would you like to respond to, how many of those niggling tasks that you’ve been putting off? But my friend came in, and we sat at the table in my office, the one with the globe and the stack of books — my wife buys me globes because of how I like maps, which she learned on our honeymoon when we drove to Cayucos and I charted our progress on a Rand McNally atlas. So my friend I’ll call Michael and I sat at the table with the globe, and we talked a little about work, and he also talked about combat, since he is ex-military. He told me about parachuting into a combat zone under fire, and how he was trained and prepared for such an event, prepared to see a member of his squadron get hit, prepared to hit the ground and begin moving, working to accomplish the mission.
“I miss that clarity,” Michael confided. “Civilian life is so confusing.”
I’ve thought of this over the past weeks, this moment of connection and grace and insight. We lack clarity to our lives. On one hand, this makes sense: if the stories we live are first shaped by our desires, by the want to have something and the need to reach out and get it, ours is a world where desire proliferates. Simply watch a commercial break on television, and you are inundated with all that could be missing from your life. A new car. The right dishwashing detergent. The phone to help you experience life more deeply. Even your dog isn’t living his or her best life without the right dog food. You hear and see this in 120 seconds.
At work, we’re told our white-collar jobs engage us more fully than adding parts on an assembly line, and yet the meetings and email are endless, each with a different priority, each asking something of you, some engagement, and you shift between tasks constantly for nine hours before you drive home in traffic and watch email from your phone. Shifting from task to task, responsibility to responsibility without true awareness of which is more important, science tells us is the perfect way to diminish productivity. Yet, this is how we’ve set up our modern offices. Such shifts in our focus and such clamor to shape our desires: this is why life is confusing to people like Michael and, often, myself.
If our lives are to have the meaning of a story, I know of no cohesive story where the character wants a new car, and a bigger house, and a wife, and a new phone, and better dishwashing detergent. In fact, stories based on what you can buy — outside of desperate need or sacrifice — are not engaging stories at all. The same is true at work. If I want to move forward on a technical project, and support a branding project, and also spearhead a project with the marketing team, I am quickly in a place of confusion and exhaustion. After all, I also have a day job outside of these projects.
Kierkegaard writes, “Purity of heart is to will one thing.”
If we go too long without one desire shaping our stories, or if we go too long with incoherent stories, shaped by myriad desires, we risk our lives falling into meaninglessness. As Alasdair MacIntyre writes in After Virtue, “When someone complains…that his or her life is meaningless, he or she is often and perhaps characteristically complaining that the narrative of their life has become unintelligible to them, that it lacks any point, any movement toward a climax or a telos.” A telos is an ultimate objective. An aim. An overarching goal.
Combat provides a telos. I think, in some way, so do maps. They offer a chance to chart progress against a goal, to see where we’ve come. Maps, of course, also offer possibility: “If we turn here we can see Mono Lake.” Maps are an opportunity for a journey, and journeys are not necessarily from point A to B, but opportunities to move forward while experiencing the world.
MacIntyre goes on to write, “The unity of a human life is the unity of a narrative quest.”
If our desires shape our stories, Kierkegaard and MacIntyre argue for one great desire. Kierkegaard calls it the good, and MacIntyre writes of recovering the Aristotelian telos. But how are we to do this? Or, how am I to do it with my white-collar job and endless supply of emails? A telos, it seems, is for the weekend when I can focus on one desire of, say, loving my family and see the narrative of life. What am I to do — what are we to do — on Thursday afternoons when the weekend is far away and life is not a narrative quest but a comedy, where my best efforts turn against me? For this is also a uniquely modern problem — not only to identify a telos but to move toward it, and we can often be uniquely situated where meaningful work toward a goal is difficult. But I’m straying into other ideas.
MacIntyre argues for a certain type of narrative, against a life being a comedy where my efforts turn futile. A quest has a certain narrative shape, against a tragedy or comedy or rags to riches story. In its classic form, it’s meant to get something and bring it back for the good of the community, and half of the story is convincing the community they need whatever you have. For Odysseus, since the Odyssey is one of the most famous quests, almost half of the story occurs after his return to Ithaka and now must make it clear that his return is good — though it assuredly won’t be for the suitors.
If the stories we live are about our desires, a quest asserts that one desire must be above those others. If we want our stories to have coherence, to have meaning for us, we cannot pull from a grab bag of desires every morning or every commercial break, or even every workday. We must have some conception of an overarching desire. MacIntyre again: “Without some at least partly determinate conception of the final telos there could not be any beginning to a quest.”
I cannot answer your telos. For myself, however, I have thought about who I was as a child, and who I want to be when I am fully grown. I have thought about what I need to live, and what makes me alive. I have, tentatively and carefully, shared these ideas with others to see if my work has resonance in the world. And I return, inexorably, to the ideas of meaning and awareness. We must become aware of our lives, of turning off cruise control or autopilot or however we go about our days, and we must see our lives anew, and we must do it again and again. Otherwise, our lives fall into routine and rhythm — which can be helpful — but we must always know why we have such routines and rhythms, or they become banal and binding. Such awareness, I believe, invites us toward meaning. And meaning is always infused with significance and hope, for a meaningful act is a hopeful act. I know of no better way to bring awareness and meaning than story, by telling stories and by urging people to see the stories of their lives. This is my quest.
I will lose the thread, likely later this week. And I will need to build up, all over again, what I truly desire, and whether I am pursuing this, and where I can impart meaning and awareness. A quest is not a decision, but a daily journey, an overarching shape to our lives, and while I’ll have detours I also hope to move forward. I suppose it would be similar to tracking my progress on a map.