Throwback: If life is a circle ...
Is there even a point?
Last week, I wrote about the magic of doing less. I’d landed on the idea that, by giving ourselves permission to do fewer things, we give ourselves the capacity to offer more. It was a solid realization, but one that ultimately felt basic given how often I write about learning not to prioritize work over everything else.
“Don’t I muse about some version of this topic all the time? What else is there to say about being busy and working too much? Why does it still feel like I’m discovering something new?” I asked.
These questions weren’t central to my essay, but several readers latched onto them in the comments. “This resonates so deeply,” said Meaghan. “I feel this way often and it leaves me confused each time. Like, why did this feel so revolutionary and big when it’s just the same thing I’ve been banging my head against for years now?”
“Yes!” responded Avery. “I give myself such a hard time for always coming back to the same things and wondering, ‘Why haven't I figured this out once and for all yet?!’” Then, she shared a beautiful thought:
I suspect that's life though, and more common than we think. It's like in meditation, where you're always drifting off and then coming back to focus on the breath (or some other object of your choosing). It's ok that you've drifted off — that's the practice. It helps to continually reframe and remind yourself of the same important lessons because it's so easy to get lost in the busyness of life and forget.
Not only did I love that readers were connecting with each other and sharing such beautiful insights, but I also greatly appreciated the reminder that coming back to the same big questions is part of life — and part of growth.
This all reminded me (and my trusty editor, Becca, who also joined in the discussion) of a post I wrote back in early 2019. Fresh off the two-year anniversary of my husband’s death, I was wrestling with some big, existential questions ... over and over again. At the time, it felt less like meditation or walking a spiral staircase, and more like banging my head against a hard wall. Now, with time and perspective, I see how much revisiting the same troubling topic helped me to grow.
I hope you enjoy this throwback post. I’ll see paying subscribers next week with a thread question I’m especially curious about.
Editor’s Note: This essay was originally published on February 13, 2019.
What’s the point of life?
That’s a big question, I know. It’s one that countless people have asked throughout history and countless others have tried to answer. It’s also a question that I tend to ponder when I’m at my lowest moments.
I’ve posed this question to my therapist, sobbing, as she gently nudged a box of tissues toward me. I’ve asked this question of my friends, sobbing, as they kindly poured more wine into my glass. I’ve offered this question to my partner, sobbing, as he reached out for another hug.
(Side note to every person who’s faced this question and a deluge of tears: I’m sorry, and thank you.)
Their responses are usually varying and vague, and often wind up directed back at me. That’s only fair. I think there’s an unspoken rule that when we’re looking for an answer to something subjective and unknown, it’s up to us to find it for ourselves.
I find it telling that I don’t question the purpose of life when I’m at my highest moments. Or even when I’m at my perfectly ho-hum middle moments. It’s in the dark moments, when I’m not looking for an answer as much as I’m looking for an escape from pain, that I question my existence. My inquiry is borne of desperation: Please tell me what’s the point, because I need to understand why I’m suffering.
The past few days have been lovely, full of long conversations with friends and plenty of time outdoors. Now that I’ve made it through the second anniversary of Jamie’s death, things feel lighter and more hopeful. Life, as it would seem, is moving forward; even though I’m still figuring out what my new normal looks like, things aren’t as bleak as I often told myself they would be. I’m feeling clear-headed and open-hearted, which seems like a good place to revisit that age-old question.
So, what’s the point of life?
We all have to figure out our own purposes for living and being and doing. And for me, that purpose is love.
My dad had a favorite saying: “If you don’t love everyone, it doesn’t count.” The more I think about it, the more that seems like the answer to the life question. The purpose of our time on this earth is to love ourselves and everyone we encounter. We may not always be able to change the world, but we can change our own lives and the lives of others through love.
I can feel some of you rolling your eyes at this. Trust me: if my therapist, friends, or partner offered this answer to me while I was sobbing, they’d get a snarky response in return. When I’m deeply hurting, love feels like the farthest thing I’d find solace in. My reaction is to take out the pain on myself, some unsuspecting stranger, or the people I care about most. It sucks, but it’s human and it happens.
I won’t always feel as clear-headed and open-hearted as I do right now, and I wouldn’t be surprised if some hurt version of future-me reads this essay and thinks it’s overly saccharine and simplistic. But, I have to admit, even though future-hurting-Katie may not want to hear it, the breakthroughs I have when I’m in a healthy emotional place tend to be pretty solid.
There are manufactured symbols of love everywhere this week, which may cause pain for many of us. For me, it’s a reminder that I have a lot of work to do when it comes to self-love. It’s a cliché, but damned if it’s not true: We’re only as good at loving others as we are at loving ourselves.
I like the idea of viewing life as an endless spiral staircase. As Panache Desai explains, we gain greater and greater perspective with each step we take, even as we’re going in circles. We all have patterns and problems that we encounter again and again. I struggle with negative self-talk, feeling like a failure, and worrying what others think of me, all of which boil down to a near-constant challenge: loving myself.
Desai says although our impulse is to try and break those repetitive cycles, we can learn from them.
“Our patterns are there for a reason,” he wrote. “They’re meant to teach us something important. Eventually, what we really want is to get to a place of appreciating our patterns — because regardless of how we perceive it in the moment, everything that happens in our life is a catalyst for change and growth. When you feel as if you've tripped and fallen on the same exact step over and over again — whether that step is financial turmoil, or heartbreak, or disappointment, or lust — you are, in fact, on a new and different step, on a higher flight of stairs, each and every time.”
We circle through the same problems, questions, and habits, again and again. And while it might be discouraging to find yourself facing a familiar challenge, it’s important to remember that you’re constantly leveling up. You’re exploring those issues from a higher step, with all the wisdom and experience and grit and humor you’ve accumulated along the way.
This won’t be the last time I question the point of life. Maybe I’ll come up with a different answer next time, or maybe I’ll land on the same conclusion. But today, from this level of my spiral staircase, I believe that the meaning of life is to give and receive love — to myself and others.
That’s a basic answer, but that could be a sign of truth. Some of the most important and lasting lessons in life are maddening in their simplicity. If you love yourself and others, you’ll find plenty of reasons to live.