Storyteller in a Turkish coffee house
We human beings are endlessly concerned with finding our “purpose” in life. It’s a question that faces a child from the first time he or she is asked “What do you want to be when you grow up?” Answering “I just want to be” is not considered sufficient, although it’s the answer that every other life form, every bacterium, plant, and animal on this planet has for the question.
Biologists define life with a number of different characteristics. First is cellular organization—any organism, even a one-celled prokaryote, has an arrangement of pieces and parts, systems and subsystems, that enable it to function. Second is reproduction—it survives for a time and then divides into or buds off daughter cells, or joins with a complementary partner to form a new organism sharing the traits of each. Third is metabolism—it ingests nutrients such as proteins and carbohydrates, or in the case of plants, minerals and sunlight, and excretes waste products. Fourth is homeostasis—it tends to maintain a stable internal environment and seeks to maintain a stable external environment. Fifth is heredity—it can trace an ancestry based on changes through mutation from its parent cell or organism. Sixth is response to stimuli—it senses and reacts to its environment, moving toward light or nutrients or prey, avoiding predators or unfavorable conditions. Seventh is growth and development—the result of that heredity and metabolism is successful accumulation of resources and changes in structure. Eighth is adaptation through evolution—while the individual may not always change in response to its environment, the hereditary line changes through natural mutations that enable some future individuals, but not necessarily all of them, to survive.
These characteristics are not immutable like the laws of physics. Bacteria don’t react to their environment as readily as a gazelle being chased by a leopard. And not every individual successfully reproduces. Some of the characteristics listed above, also, are concatenated on other biologists’ lists, such as heredity being an element of evolution. But the principle is the same: life reacts to its environment in a way that, say, a stone weathering on a mountainside does not.
For every other species on Earth, this is enough. My dog does not question her life. She does not attempt to be something other than a part of the situation in which she finds herself. This is a shame, really, because in an earlier age of the world she would have been hunting small mammals, finding and mating with a male dog, digging a den and giving birth to litters of puppies, and only occasionally getting to lie in the sun in contentment. It would have been an active life full of interesting activities with occasional moments of terror. As it is, she is an adjunct to my household and has the primary function of nuzzling my hand when she wants something and having her coat stroked and hearing soothing words when I choose to give her attention—or feeling the tugs of the brush and the terror of the toenail cutter when I groom her. She won’t mate or reproduce because that potential was surgically removed at the shelter where I found her. So her life is reduced to eating the food that I put down for her, exercising her excretory functions only when I take her for a walk, and otherwise lying in the sun or on a cushion under my desk, waiting for something to happen. But it’s a life.
Human beings would go mad in this situation. We cannot be kept as pets—or not most of us, and not the best of us. And therein lies one of the basic problems of our modern world.
For a million years or more, our hominid ancestors lived as hunter-gatherers. Life was a struggle. We lived from one animal kill to the next, from one berry bush to the next. And when the seasons changed and the streams dried up, we suffered. We mated according to our hormones and our opportunities. We carried our feeble young along on the trail by instinct alone, not dreaming of a different or better life for them. We had an existence prescribed for us by circumstance, full of interesting if repetitive activities with occasional moments of terror. No one among this primitive species—or almost no one, surely—looked up into the sky at night and wondered about the Moon and the stars and what they might be or mean. Almost no one asked if there might be any other purpose to life. Everyone was just too busy surviving to ask such stupid questions.1
All of that started to change when human beings settled down in the fertile river valleys, planted crops and tended domesticated animals, invented city life with its artificial hierarchies and its wonder at the Moon and stars and what supernatural beings might lurk behind them. We suddenly had more food—most of the time—than one person could hunt or gather and eat by him- or herself. We had an unfamiliar condition called abundance. And we could indulge the pastimes of people who did not directly produce food, shelter, or clothing and yet still wanted to eat, sleep indoors, and cover their own nakedness. We had room for priests, shamans, storytellers, tax collectors, and other government officials. We began having a civilization and all of its questions.
Things have only gotten better—or worse, depending on your point of view—with the advent of science, technology, and modern methods of agriculture, production, and distribution. Where the labor of one person on the soil might once, in that fertile river valley, have supported two or three more people in the nearby town, now the labor of one or two people plus a cohort of robotic machines and systems support a hundred more. Working to stay alive and wondering where your next meal is coming from are no longer the primary concerns of most people in the Western and developed countries.
Physical needs have been replaced in our modern society by existential needs. A person who eats, lives in, and wears the products of other people’s labor has to question his or her own existence, no matter how the value of those goods and services in terms of dollars, credits, or other forms of exchange was acquired. More importantly, without the requirement of spending every waking moment concerned with the fulfillment of those physical needs, what is the person going to do just to keep busy? The question “What are you going to be when you grow up?” becomes “What are you doing here in the first place?”
Some people have a specific answer to that question. They are usually the humans lucky enough to be born into a family with a tradition of productivity: the family farm, the family business, or a profession followed by parents and grandparents such as medicine, law, or engineering. These family situations set a child’s mind in a pattern of work, responsibility, and obligation.
Many people transfer the question of personal purpose to a higher authority. They know they are valuable and worth the food they eat, the shelter they inhabit, and the clothes they wear because their deity sets apart all human life as having such value. What they do in their day-to-day occupation or their role as homemaker and caregiver is secondary to this important and holy purpose.2
My own role, which I think came about from my maternal grandfather’s love of books and my own father’s lifelong interest in reading, is that of perpetual student, then as an interpreter and explainer of life and the world, and finally as a storyteller. The family thought that, with my facility for languages, I would become a lawyer, like that same grandfather, but I lacked the aggressive instinct for courtroom battle. Instead, I became fascinated with stories themselves, with fictions that make more sense of the world than the daily lives we all encounter, with their power to sum up and explain the human condition. I spent my high school and college years learning the literature of my culture as an English major. This was not just the language but its use in the business of transmitting personal and cultural experience. I worked my entire professional life as a communicator. First, I was a book editor and technical editor, helping authors and engineers tell their stories in a coherent and pleasing manner. Then I was a technical writer, a speechwriter, and an internal communicator, telling about and explaining the business—whatever business I found myself in: engineering company, public utility, pharmaceutical company, or maker of genetic analysis equipment—to its operators and its other employees.
And all the while I knew that I was peripheral to that corporation and to society as a whole. The publishing business, in which I was a direct contributor to the end product, is a nice-to-have in a civilized society but not need-to-have in the way that farmers, carpenters and masons, weavers and tailors, and the truck drivers that move their products to market are necessary to life. As a technical writer and internal communicator, I was not even central to the business function but a convenience to the employees who do the actual work and the managers who want to see it continue. As a novelist, I might directly bring my readers moments of interest and even joy—or at least a release from tedium while waiting for a bus—but I am not central to their lives.
I don’t regret any of this, and performing these peripheral functions has paid me well over the years. I’m one of the living examples that an English major does not necessarily have to teach or ask “Do you want fries with that?” But I also know that my function in society has not been critical to its operation. If I had disappeared years ago, no one would have starved, been made homeless, or gone naked to the elements. And when the end finally does come, I will know that my life has been an elaborate and complicated form of keeping busy.
But that’s more than some people have. And it may be better than chasing rabbits with a sharpened stick or pulling berries off a bush for a living. At least I never had to run from a leopard, either.
1. So you can imagine that the subjunctive mood was not a part of their speech patterns. There’s not a lot of need for expressing potential or counterfactual conditions—shoulds, woulds, coulds, oughts—when you’re chasing a rabbit with a sharpened stick or tasting a new and unfamiliar kind of berry for the first time. You do or you die.
2. Not having a personal god—nor even an abstract idea of any god—I cannot rely on this definition of personal value. Unless the thoughts of my brain are made real by writing them down and preserving them in my function as a student, explainer, interpreter, and ultimately a storyteller, I have no more personal dignity or right to life than a bacterium or a dung beetle.