A few weeks ago I had lunch over the weekend with an old friend I hadn’t seen in some time. Since our childhood when we had been very close, his life had been characterized by many challenges, upsets and frustrations. In general, he seemed to be living life adrift in a real sense, by his own acknowledgement, the metaphor manifesting itself physically when he literally went sailing around a nearby island on a borrowed sailboat and found himself caught in a strong wind and a nasty current that pushed him off course and left him adrift for several hours, wondering if and how he would make it back to shore.
It has been sad, as his friend, to watch him have such a tumultuous relationship with life. But during this get together, he did communicate that he had been making some positive changes and was coming to a greater self-awareness through practiced effort, at least in terms of what he didn’t want from life.
I am not an expert on life and how to live it, but I endeavor to be to whatever extent it is possible. I learn something new about the art of living daily and I hope this pattern repeats itself for all of my life, however long it happens to be. I share the following not with the attitude of a facetious advice-giver but rather from the standpoint of “Here’s where I am coming from on this issue.”
Knowing what we don’t want out of life or who we are not, is of incredible value. It can save us a lot of time and frustration and wasted energy pursuing dead-ends, so to speak, if we are able to avoid the cul-de-sacs completely and just stay on the main road. But it is not enough to have a negative direction. Velocity is determined not just by rate of travel but by direction as well.
I encouraged my friend to think about his life in an ideal way. I asked him to imagine for a second that he had accomplished his dreams, he had gotten what he wanted and no one had stood in his way and the few who had he had stepped over with ease. Then I asked him to describe what that looked like, what it felt like.
The point of the exercise is to develop a positive direction for your life, to imagine some goals you can work toward. (Then the real trick is to enjoy the getting there and not obsess about when, how or if ever you arrive.) I tried to create a metaphor to illustrate the chaos that would come up without living a goal-oriented life.
The best I could do was to ask my friend to imagine watching a person play a game of sport who did not know the rules, who did not respect the boundaries of play and who did not care to score any points. What would such a person look like playing this game?
In one moment, they’d be running toward the goal, in another instant they’d be steaming away from it. For hours at a time they might just sit on the ground and do nothing, making no progress in the game whatsoever, twisting blades of grass in between their fingers or staring at the sky. Sometimes they might work with their teammates to make progress toward the goal. At others they’d fanatically attack them and assist the other team. They might carry the ball out of the boundaries of play, ignoring the deafening scream of the ref’s whistle, only to later carry it back into play.
Now and then they’d score a point, the crowd would go wild but they’d have no idea why, and feel no sense of reward. They’d probably be incredibly confused and often frustrated during the whole ordeal.
This is what living life without a goal is like, in my mind. Choosing a goal is akin to giving your life the structure and rule set of a game, to add coherence to your actions. With a goal you can check yourself and see, “Am I getting nearer or farther?” with each step you take. Further, you have opportunities to practice “playing the game well”. For example, if a person considers themselves to be playing basketball, one can examine their relative skill against a set of ideals common to basketball. If one were to examine someone dribbling, throwing a ball through the air, passing, etc., outside the context of a game of basketball, it’d be nearly impossible to say with any meaning whether they were doing such things with skill or with carelessness.
Living life with a goal is a choice. It offers benefits, as well as responsibilities. It’s not strictly necessary to the idea of “merely surviving” (which, by the way, is a goal itself). But it is enough to make life more interesting and, perhaps, more meaningful.