Kurt and Iqbal Weigh In

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“In the beginning, God created the earth, and he looked upon it in His cosmic loneliness.


And God said, “Let Us make living creatures out of mud, so the mud can see what We have done.” And God created every living creature that now moveth, and one was man. Mud as man alone could speak. God leaned close to mud as man sat up, looked around, and spoke. Man blinked. “What is the purpose of all this?” he asked politely.

“Everything must have a purpose?” asked God.

“Certainly,” said man.

“Then I leave it to you to think of one for all this,” said God.

And He went away.”
― 
Kurt VonnegutCat’s Cradle 

So my pursuit of Purpose through a career led me to a dead end. And not just any career, mind you, but a noble and humanitarian one. A purposeful and ‘meaningful’ career, goddamit!

When I at last realized this irony I accepted it with some bemusement. But I wonder how many other aid workers (‘helpers’ of any variety, really) are grimly pursuing that fundamental yet slippery soul-gem through their work?

Purpose is a highfalutin concept that can stop even the toughest of us dead on a dime. Like ‘mud man’ I have spent my days demanding a purpose at every stage of life, never satisfied, always a bit too restless for everyone else’s liking, always striving but not sure at all if I was being sucked into the mire or walking on the highest of high wires.

I don’t know what God or the Universe thinks of this very human conceit, that there must be a reason for me (you) to be ‘here’. Probably Kurt got it right. A shrug of the cosmic shoulders and “it’s up to you to figure out. I’m outta here.” Mohammad Iqbal, the poet-philosopher of modern Islam and conceptualizer of the idea of a place called Pakistan, said something similar, if with more eloquence.

Khudi ko kar buland itna/ ke har taqdeer se pehle
Khuda bande se khud puche/ bata, teri raza kya hai?
[Elevate your SELF, to such a place/ that before each creation
The Almighty Himself asks You/ ‘Tell me, what is your wish?’]

Without a ‘good job’ in a ‘sexy’ sector in which pension funds grew at a nice rate and respect was uncritically fanned in my direction, just where the hell was I to find my purpose? I sort of hoped the Almighty would ask me what I wished for but honestly, I knew it was all impossible. I had not the vaguest idea whether such a thing as God existed any longer.   And even more, weak was my conviction that I could survive let alone thrive with the aid/career umbilical cord severed.

As the two streams of awareness flowed ever closer to me, one, that I really despised my job and two, that I was completely unprepared to abandon it, the pressure became too much. My heroic efforts to not make a decision, to ignore the discomfort and soldier on, while not wanting to go anywhere the rest of the army was headed, finally failed. I had to make a choice. I had to jump off the track or accept being squashed by the locomotive.

***

I’ve mentioned threads and pieces of string that weave through life. They pop through the tapestry every once in a while. Our (or, at least, my) immediate inclination is to snip them off. You don’t want the garment to look untidy with frayed pieces of thread demanding to break free. It doesn’t look good. Makes us feel unkempt and not in control.

In my life, as you know by now, writing has been the most persistent of those wayward threads. Putting words together has always been my idea of fun. Writing, whether stories, letters home from boarding school, overly dramatic journal entries, office memos or bloody lonely blogs about South Asian music is the thing that keeps my blood flowing. For most of my 50+ years, I managed to keep that thread visible but always tightly woven into the background.

But it kept popping free. I would snip it off and tell myself ‘you are a hack. Who the hell do you think you are? You’re such a doomed writer that even the company that published your first novel collapsed a month after they released your book!’ [True, but not the subject of this chapter.]

Now that I’ve left my job and the fires are crisply burning my bridge to the sector, I will confess that no matter how senior my job, I almost never was able to fill my day with official work. In the worst cases, such as my final hoorah, I would spend at least half my day in idle. Looking for emails to answer, working half-heartedly on projects I knew no one really cared about, including myself, taking long lunches and watching the clock. A lot of days I filled the time or dreamed of filling it, with writing my blogs.

Yes, I did feel guilty. I felt cheap too. As if I was ripping off my colleagues who thought I was always busy. A sort of cognitive dissonance entered my life as a permanent companion, sometimes devil and sometimes angel, egging me one way or the other.

I thought often of Iqbal’s couplet.

Finally, one day, I decided not to snip the wayward thread but to give it a gentle pull and make it even longer.

That happened when I was offered a book contract and when my novel, The Shah of Chicago, which I had written but never submitted to a publisher because I knew it would need a very special one who could understand where the main character was coming from, was immediately accepted.

God may or may not exist. But I felt the boot in my butt and heard the cosmic voice whisper, “Can you please tell me what YOU want to do.”

***

So, that’s it then. Writing is my purpose and life’s mysteries are solved.

Not exactly.

To me, Purpose is a lot more elusive. It is not a thing or a label or an occupation. I’m smart enough to know that if the big P was not to be found in humanitarianism it sure as hell isn’t going to be found in calling myself a ‘writer’ or artist. Purpose is a force. An energy of sorts. Something invisible but palatable that pushes me (us) forward. In that sense, restlessness, even madness, can be taken as a sign of purposeful living. Purpose is not static and Purpose is never final. There is no terminus where you alight the train and walk into the sunset.

But what is certain is that writing and the creative life is a more authentic path for Purpose to meet Me.   Like mud man and the SELF of Iqbal, I am convinced that each of us MUST tell God/Universe/Allah/ Brahman who the hell we are. And what the hell we want out of this short little time called Life.   Because She or He sure isn’t interested in telling us.

Now isn’t that a mind fuck?

 

 

 

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2 comments

  1. Jen Hacking · February 24, 2016

    Good morning Nate – I read a lot (A LOT) of material – books, blogs, news, etc – this post of yours has left me a little stunned. I’m wondering how you reached inside of my head & pulled out all those thoughts & now have little chills on my skin. I am plagued by restlessness, running from desk jobs where I’m pretending to fill my time & seeking purpose through work – which in the last 3 years I’ve tried to fulfil by working internationally; not strictly in development, although this always creeps in.
    Since we are of the same generation I’m wondering if you agree with me – that we had work ethic drummed into us growing up, then the traditional work environment crumbled after the 80’s.
    Thank you – you’ve clarified some of my thought processes – purpose….interesting.
    Jen

    Like

    • Nate Rabe · February 26, 2016

      Hi Jen,thanks for reading and commenting. I think you are right about the work ethic. it certainly was something that was one of the THE pillars of my world view drummed in by society, family, church etc. just unquestioned. When I look back my own dedication to it was never solid but I did the best I could with it because I could not conceive of any other way to live. But now of course, with maturity things become a bit more focused! Good luck with your restlessness…as I say, it is not necessarily a bad thing. All things in balance. What is your purpose? Nate

      Like

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