Improvising a Milestone

Nikhita Singhal/Unsplash

“Making things up is an act of improvisation while achieving life purpose is an act of following a script. I prefer making things up.”

Today is my 70th birthday. Among the many birthday emails I received, one stood out from the rest. The emailer asked, “Have you achieved your life purpose?” My answer was simple: “No.”

I haven’t achieved my purpose in life because there is no purpose in life; there is only living.

To surmise that my life has a purpose is to imagine that whatever that purpose is, it isn’t the same as living my life. If it were the same as living my life, then asking me if I have achieved it would be meaningless. And if my life has value only if it achieves some purpose outside itself, then achieving that purpose would render my continued living irrelevant. Or, if after all these years, I have failed to achieve that purpose, there is no reason to imagine me achieving it in the few years I have left. This is depressing.

To avoid being depressed on my birthday, I have decided to jettison the idea of purpose itself. I have found this decision quite liberating.

Last Shabbat (Saturday) I spent the early morning sitting with my dog on our front porch and reading Alan Watts’ autobiography In My Own Way. It was pouring rain, and I shifted back and forth between reading a couple of paragraphs and just listening to the rain strike the roof of my porch and the leaves of the trees. There was no purpose to my listening. I was listening simply because the sound of rain brings me joy. And there was no purpose to my reading other than to enjoy the chatter of Watts’ mind.

When I was in college, I was all about purpose (and Alan Watts). When asked by my Buddhist Studies professor, Taitetsu Unno, what my primary purpose was, I told him I wanted to be the Jewish Alan Watts. He was not pleased. Professor Unno was a scholar, and I knew that scholarship wasn’t for me. Maybe that’s why I became a rabbi. While some rabbis are also scholars, being a rabbi doesn’t require you to be a scholar. That’s because rabbis can conjure up whatever insights and wisdom they want from the Jewish texts they interpret, while scholars have to be far more prudent and concern themselves with what the authors of those texts had in mind. I prefer making things up to being prudent.

Making things up isn’t compatible with achieving a life purpose. That’s because making things up is an act of improvisation while achieving life purpose is an act of following a script.

So, what do I know on this 70th anniversary of my birth? Just this: I’m looking forward to improvising my 71st year.

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