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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Thursday, June 26, 2008

the goal-directed life

Another morning, another cup of coffee, another blog-post. I've done my morning research-work (keying notes from A History of Technology, volume 2, and reading the online book The Private Life of the Romans); now it's time to get in a quick post. Such is the structured order of my day.

I like purpose. I've thought and said this many times, but only gradually is its full significance beginning to dawn on me. Everything that people do has some kind of purpose, of course, even the most random-seeming drunken rioting. But I'm speaking here of more consciously chosen, goal-directed behavior. I sense that choosing a goal that is in accord with one's nature, and then consistently pursuing it, is what we call the feeling of meaning in our lives.

The feeling of meaning happens on a smaller scale too. A memory that stands out for me was of traveling with my friend Tim in Spain in December 1978. We had arrived at Cadiz at the Strait of Gibraltar, and were driving through the city in our red VW Westfalia, enjoying the sights and the ambience: palmettos and the lovely blue of the sea after weeks of driving inland. As we drove down along the port we saw a large ferry docked there, marked with its destination: the Canary Islands. There must have been a schedule there, telling us that it would be leaving in a couple of hours. We looked at each other: did we want to go?

Yes, we decided. Cool! Neither of us had imagined we would ever be setting out for the Canary Islands. But we had to take care of some things first--I don't exactly recall what, whether just buying fuel and provisions, or getting the tickets from a travel agent, or taking care of some other business. But anyway, we had to hustle a bit in order to be able to make the sailing. We were still driving around Cadiz, but now we were driving around with a sense of purpose, with a time limit. There was a fresh feeling of adventure and urgency--would we make it on board the ferry? Or would we miss the boat? Now the views of palmettos and sea seemed more fleeting and precious, more charged with meaning. They were the backdrop of an adventure, and took a new aspect. There was a feeling of going forward.

We caught the ferry, and wound up spending Christmas and New Year on Gran Canaria--a delightful side-trip. The mini-adventure of catching the ferry had provided a story in our lives: a goal, and the question of whether it would be achieved.

To me the difference in feeling, the appearance of the very same scenery under these different mental and emotional conditions, was striking. It almost suggested the difference between the ennui of immortality vs. the fleeting excitement of finite life. Catching the ferry was a little metaphor of life: it's short; you've got to attend to your tasks and enjoy the view along the way.

So it is with my reading. It's almost all purpose-driven, part of a bigger project. I think of a guy I knew back at Buddhist Seminary in the Rockies in 1994. He was from (I think) Wisconsin--maybe Minnesota. And he read a great deal, almost all fiction. The way he selected his reading, though, was one I could never adopt. He scanned book reviews of publications that he respected, then set out to read all the works that got the best reviews. He wanted to be reading all the best and most important fiction being published in America. Apart from the fact that I don't read much fiction, this approach would be altogether too passive for me. There's no plan except to try to read everything that other presumed experts regard as "good".

No. I want to be going in my own direction, under my own power, as much as possible, as far as possible.


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