During my first year in Korea one thing that I complained about was that I lacked a sense of purpose. I didn’t have a clear next step to achieving big, longterm goals in my life. I wasn’t worried that those goals weren’t neatly circumscribed: it wasn’t my having dropped the goal of becoming a professional philosopher that was troubling me. Despite dropping this goal, I still knew that I wanted a life that bore similarities to the life of a professional philosopher, and that also bore similarities to a bunch of other archetypes. The issue was not having a shorter term concrete goal that would push me in the directions of some medley of the archetypes I look up to.

When I was an undergraduate, getting a degree with a good classification was my short term goal that led in the general direction of a life involving those parts of the professional philosopher archetype that I wanted. Since I came to Korea I no longer had such a goal. And despite the fact that I’ll be a philosophy graduate student in less than three months from now, I still don’t have such a goal since I don’t know how much of grad school I’ll end up doing, philosophy graduate programme attrition rates being what they are.

My mind has gone through plenty of fantasies and mental gymnastics trying to find this sense of purpose in something or other over the past year and a half. I’ve thought through various possible careers and I’ve thought through various things I might commit myself to being, outside of a societally-defined career. I’ve always had in the back of my mind the Buddhist idea that I’m chasing a solution to the human condition that won’t be found in pursuing any career or any kind of big-scale hobby. But I’ve always found myself unconvinced, as I said just a few days ago, of the idea that the present moment can be enough, that it’s possible to be satisfied with it, that dissatisfaction with it is just something like the ultimate and most deeply-ingrained bad habit. My experience and thinking has me believe that there’s more to life than the life of a Buddhist monk. And I find it hard to learn anything at all from Buddhism without first arguing and concluding that its most extreme form, the monastic life, is eudaimonic.

This evening I think I have found a different way of looking at it, after re-reading this article about a blogger who left the Internet for a year but didn’t really solve his problems. I watched the video in that article for the first time tonight, and I found myself identifying with the predicament of the author. The idea I took away is that my real, tangible problem is that I am not at peace with one of the most basic facts of my existence, which is that I’m going to keep on living and most of it will seem mundane, and at some point that apparent mundanity will end and that end will perhaps manage, by the same standards of mundanity, to be even more mundane. I know the truth of this basic fact thanks to having lived life so far. But I’m not at all at peace with it.[1] My desperation for a short term concrete goal and a sense of purpose, and my bad habits involving web surfing and eating sweets, are all ways to hide from this truth hitting me in the face every moment, as it does if one just sits still and breathes. I want to hide from it because I’m not at peace with it. I fear it.[2]

This is much more tractable than the challenging idea that the present moment is something that it’s possible to be satisfied with that I discussed above, and so writing this blog post tonight gives me a lot of hope. How can I hope to do anything from a place of wisdom without being at peace with this very basic truth? If I’m not at peace with it, then I can reasonably expect that my desire to feel purposeful and busy will influence my conduct in doing things that I consider valuable for myself and the world. My desire to feel fulfilled might corrupt other more noble desires. I don’t mean to say that one has got to achieve Buddhist enlightenment before one is in a position to achieve anything else. By working with others one can avoid selfish desires from interfering with achieving non-selfish objectives.

What I think I’ve got here is a kind of stepping stone or bridge between Buddhist ideas which say I’ve to be goalless and able to sit content watching paint dry, and my older Judeo-christian values which say I’ve to strive to make this world a bit more okay. That second perspective can recognise the potential corruption from an ego that is not at peace with the human condition. The logic of the relationship between these old and new values is interesting and I’m not sure quite how it falls out yet. That’s good: perhaps I’m on to something new—in my own life! I don’t claim any philosophical originality—that will provide an opportunity for real growth.


[1] One of the key philosophical tenets of the historical Socrates was the view that virtue is just knowledge: if we really know that smoking is bad for us, we just wouldn’t do it. This is totally unconvincing without lots of stories regarding what it is to really know something, as there are certainly everyday senses of ‘know’ that quite obviously don’t support the equation with virtue. Then: perhaps Socratically knowing that something is a part of virtue requires being at peace it.

[2] A lot of people say that young people are afraid to turn off their computers and mobile phones because they can’t handle being disconnected from their friends and their online acquaintances. In my case, I can’t handle being disconnected from my todo list. I don’t mind too much making myself temporarily unreachable with no Internet or a phone if I’ve got some task to do that I’ll later go and tick off my list. My carefully configured GNU/Linux desktop computing environment and the task management system I’ve built inside GNU Emacs are what I can’t handle being in solitude from, not my friends and family.