In 1997 I was in graduate school, and I was coming to that dreaded point where you have to decide on a dissertation topic. I enjoyed linguistics, and there were dozens of topics I could have chosen; but whenever I asked myself, “Is THIS what I want to study the rest of my life?”, I had a sinking feeling that I was a terrible fraud, and that I was in the wrong place entirely. I didn’t know what I should be doing, but graduate school just didn’t seem right anymore. What should I be doing? What was the purpose of my schooling? What was the purpose of my life?
Partly to get away from school for a few days and think about things, I went on a camping trip with some of the other graduate students to the Dolly Sods Wilderness in West Virginia. It was a rainy, wet weekend, and we hiked over miles of muddy mountains, losing ourselves among the mountain laurel, rhododendrons, and the high meadows. It was utterly beautiful. I pushed myself way too hard physically — my friends were in better physical condition than I was — and there was probably something not quite right about the water in our campsite. As we piled into our cars to go home, I was exhausted, sopping wet, and — halfway down the mountain — throwing up.
Regardless of my physical condition, though, I simply could not bear to go back to school without figuring something out. So I told my friends to go on back without me, because I was going to find a nice little state park somewhere and camp another couple of days by myself. They were a little worried about me, but they agreed and left me to my own devices.
I was halfway back to Washington, DC, peering through the windshield at a nasty, spattering rain, shivering with cold in the middle of June. Suddenly I said to myself, “I’m done with this. I’m going somewhere DRY.”
It was a stupid, petty goal, but it was a goal.
It was late evening by this time. I found a hotel in Northern Virginia and stayed the night. The next morning I got out the door around 10 a.m., feeling much better, and headed south down I-81. Somewhere in southern Virginia, in the early afternoon, the clouds burst into pieces and scattered like white sheep to the four winds, and the sky was like a deep crystalline lake hanging above me. It was so beautiful… I knew I was headed the right direction.
In western Tennessee, I hit I-40 and turned west. In Nashville, I found my engine was overheating, and I stopped to find out what was wrong. It turned out my radiator cap had fallen off. I bought a new one and kept on going.
Night fell a couple hours from Memphis. The bridge over the Mississippi was a stunning string of pearls strung across the hot black velvet night. At midnight I came to the first rest stop in Arkansas, and stopped there to sleep.
Dawn woke me up at 6 a.m., and I continued west. Arkansas was amazingly flat after the rolling green hills of Tennessee and Virginia. The vast expanse of open country seemed to pry my heart open, too. The sun was shining, and the air was hazy with the moisture rising off the rice fields. Lovely… but not dry enough.
At Little Rock I turned south. I knew there was desert in Texas, and I was determined to get to it. I had a single cassette tape of bluegrass music, and I played it over and over until I was sick of it, and then sang songs at the top of my voice to keep myself awake. I laughed for twenty miles straight after I shot through the little town called Hope and saw a huge billboard of their native son, Bill Clinton. Father Sun was high overhead and baking the mists out of the ground when I went through Texarkana.
Slowly, slowly, the miles crawled past and the air grew hotter and dryer. I took deep breaths of it — it was fantastic. South of Dallas, I left the interstate and followed the smaller roads into the Texas Hill Country. The hills aren’t technically desert, but they’re dry and rocky and lovely. I felt like I was coming into the sun’s own lands, like Odysseus visiting the island of the sun’s sacred cattle.
Land of the Sun
Somewhere southwest of San Antonio, I stopped by the side of the road. The sun was setting, and I knew I had to turn around if I was going to make it back to class on Tuesday. I pulled over at the crest of a hill, and sat on the hood to watch the sun go down between the hills on the western horizon. Heat rose out of the dusty rocks around me, and the cottonwoods swayed in the hot breeze. The only sound was the quiet tink, tink, tink of my car’s oil as the engine cooled. A tiny lizard darted between the stones. The sky was almost pure blank white.
Everything was so beautiful.
On the drive down, I hadn’t done anything but focus on the road and the countryside going past. Now my mind went back to the great questions: What is my purpose? What is my direction? What am I really trying to achieve in school? What about my life? What do I want to achieve with THAT? What would it mean to have a successful life?
I was brought up in a Zen Buddhist household, in which “success” was defined as “realizing that success and failure are both parts of the illusion of the world”. When I told my Mom I wanted to go to college, she said, “Why? Are you sure that’s a good idea?” I’m not kidding. I answered her well enough at the time, but now I realized I had no good answer to her question.
The oil stopped dripping. The lands around were silent, utterly empty of noise, and it was easy to let my thoughts fall silent as well.
I was struck again by how beautiful it all was.
How about the universe itself? I thought. What is ITS purpose? What is ITS direction? Is it trying to “achieve” something?
No answer came, except the white hot silent loveliness everywhere surrounding me.
At that moment, I was struck with a thought; and as soon as I thought it, I was absolutely certain it was true. There was no doubt in my mind then, and all these years later, there’s still no doubt.
Beauty is the Purpose
The grand purpose of the universe is beauty.
Beauty itself is its purpose. Like a great work of art, it needs no other purpose, no other reason for being. It is far and away enough.
I have no logical arguments or scientific evidence for this. I even know some arguments against it. But I know it’s true, for a certainty, like a pearl in my heart.
And if THAT is the purpose of the universe… then what higher purpose could I set for my own life? What could be better than to live a life dedicated to creating beauty — and living beautifully (if I could figure out what that would be)?
So I drove back, singing along with the hills. I decided I would write the most beautiful dissertation I could — I would make it elegant, surprising, and true. (Footnote: I still haven’t written it, but I finally managed to get its outline down in 2005.) And that fall, my biggest goal (outside of school) was to buy a big fuzzy sweater, go hiking a lot, and enjoy the autumn foliage as I never had before. Maybe I would even take up pipe smoking…
As it turned out, when school started again I met my first wife; and a year later, I was married, and the father of a girl more lovely than anyone or anything I had ever seen.
A Successful Life
Now, I’m not going to try to convince you that I’m right about the purpose of the universe. I don’t think I could do that — certainly not with logical argument, anyway. But imagine for a moment that I’m right. Given that universal purpose, what does it mean to be successful in life?
- Enjoying beauty; but even more:
- Creating beauty, and
- Living beautifully.
In 2006, shortly before starting this blog, I drew up a list of goals for my life — specific ways of achieving those three aspects of success. Here it is, in no particular order, just to give you an idea of what my idea of a beautiful life for myself would be:
- Physical fitness
- Sexual and emotional expression
- Living a simple, uncluttered life
- Making discoveries (in science or other fields) to benefit all
- Helping broaden the conscious creative powers of all
- Seeing my children leading happy lives
- Caring for my parents according to their wishes
- Being in nature every day
- Travelling at least twice a year
- Living courageously
- Living truthfully
- Living peacefully
- Creating a yearly work of great beauty
- Making music
- Making someone laugh daily
These are big lifetime goals, obviously. While some of them probably look pretty vague, I’ve actually got concrete plans attached to each. For example, to “Help Broaden the Conscious Creative Powers of All”, I intend to continue to support and promote Waldorf education.
But what kinds of things can you do daily to promote beauty?
Speaking for myself, I try to work on these every day:
- Being a parent — literally or figuratively.
- Fatherhood. Children are beautiful things, in so many ways. Everything I do for them fosters their beauty, and by doing my duty by them and giving of myself, I am increasing the beauty inherent in my own life — I am living more beautifully. If you are not a parent yourself, then consider your creative projects your children.
- Creative projects. Whenever I set out to create something, I try to consider its form as well as its function. And I try to remember that elegance and efficiency in function is beautiful, but that’s not the only kind of beauty.
- Loving relationships. Any relationship between individuals enriches and adorns both souls.
- Enjoy life. Here, I mean “enjoy” as in creating joy. A life of struggle can be noble and beautiful in its own way, but beauty is something that excites awe and rapture.
- Flexibility. I remember the ancient Taoist saying: Man at his birth is supple and weak; at his death, firm and strong. So it is with all things. Trees and plants, in their early growth, are soft and fragile; at their death, dry and withered. Thus it is that firmness and strength are the followers of death; softness and weakness, the followers of life. Remain as flexible as a blade of grass, and dance with the wind.
WHAT Secrets of Success?
In 2007 I was given a blog tag by two people at once: what are your secrets of success? The idea was that a bunch of bloggers would list their secrets, and they’d all be gathered together in one place when the tag had played itself out. Then anyone who wanted to be EXTREMELY SUCCESSFUL could just bop on over to that site and have so much great advice in one spot that their heads would explode.
I’d previously been tagged with “Why Do You Blog“, and I thought this tag would be a piece of cake compared to that one. But once I got to thinking about it, I started to get worried. Because of my upbringing, I grew up with no “default” idea of what success is. I mean, I certainly set goals, and sometimes I achieved them, and that was “success” for that goal. But what did success MEAN outside the context of a particular goal? I realized, as I started working on this post, that I had some thinking to do. Eventually, after tearing and teasing my hair out for a week, I had to go back to first principles.
By most people’s standards, I’m a reasonably “successful” person. I have a loving family and a good job, not too stressful, with an income well above the national average. But I’m not chasing the dream of material success, societal status, or even “enlightenment” or “union with the eternal”.
I try to see my life, and the lives of others, as a work of art. I am at once the artist and the work itself. In such an endeavor, the word “successful” can barely even be applied.
Suggested Reading. For more on truth, beauty, religion, my personal goals, and how it all fits together, read Why I Blog.