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If I’ve covered this topic before, you’ll have to forgive me. But it’s come front and center again, as I imagine it does for many from time to time: What’s the point of life? Where are we going, how will we know when we get there and what’s waiting for us? So many questions, some practical, some spiritual and some religious. And I’m not talking about the afterlife or what may or may not be our second act. I’m talking about the point of life, the reason for getting up every day. Is there a goal or is it just a series of experiences?
Most people, and many ophthalmologists, are very goal-oriented. We have a plan, or plans. We craft a life that consists of a series of accomplishments that seem to have a direction. They exist on their own but, either consciously or unconsciously, appear linked and additive. They build on each other and are stepping stones to something. The question is, to what? Where are we taking ourselves? I know that each day should be its own victory but I always have the feeling I’m going somewhere, but I’ve never really understood where. In the most depressive interpretation, we live and then we die. There is no “there” there. In the weirdest of ways, I’m hoping that at some point I can say that I’ve gotten there. It’s sad that our internal measure of success is dependent on some ill-defined future goalpost.
This problem is very much related to not living in the moment. In a past column, I referred you all to a book that I think is very profound: Eckhart Tolle’s “The Power of Now.” Just to remind you, Tolle posits that we shouldn’t think about the future, shouldn’t live for the future. He says the future is unknown and unknowable, that we should, instead, endeavor to experience the “now.” I love the idea, but humans are intrinsically future-oriented—a fatal flaw I suspect, which can be all-consuming and on a par with living in the past, which I personally find completely pointless. The future at least holds the hope for something better, for a destination worth going to. And here we are back to driving for a goal that isn’t defined. I’m not talking about your goal of retiring, or your kid’s wedding. I’m talking about the goal of your existence. Perhaps many of you have a concept of what that is. And maybe for some it’s something very prosaic, like having grandchildren. For me, it’s an amorphous concept of “arrival,” of the successful conclusion to a life well-lived. This desire may simply be my response to an underlying realization that I’m likely to be disappointed. That, in fact, there is no shining beacon upon a hill. Instead, it’s just one day after the other, each one as satisfying and glorious as I choose to make it. There will be no metaphysical enlightenment at the end of that road. I can’t decide if I’m more scared that there isn’t a goal or that I won’t realize it should I ever get there.
One thing that I am grateful for is that daily life tends to drown out these more longitudinal concerns. The demands of the moment are easy to get lost in and you can convince yourself that they deserve your full attention. Modern life is complicated and busy. And the immediate future is challenging enough to plan for. Dwelling on the point of the whole thing is potentially not only depressing, it isn’t very practical. It’s completely unclear whether we have any control of what that “point” is or whether we’ll achieve a realization of understanding or arrival. So, the best I can do is to relearn how to live in my now, take some pride in my past and enjoy my present. To paraphrase Matthew 6:34: The future will take care of itself. It’s going to have to.
Dr. Blecher is an attending surgeon at Wills Eye Hospital.