What is the purpose of life? I’ve been thinking about this a great deal lately; not just since we moved to Italy but throughout the last few years – and especially during the pandemic. I think we all did, to a certain extent.
Perhaps it would be better to say I’ve been thinking about the point of life. The word “purpose” feels like I’m asking what product we’re supposed to get out of life, like life is a machine meant to churn out a very particular result. That seems narrow and hollow. “Point” is a much better word for it; what’s the crux or the most pivotal essential role?
Or maybe, just simply, why?
I’ve found a lot of delightful writing on the subject. No surprise there. After all, you could say the whole of human creativity is just trying to answer this ultimate question (or snag some romantic attention, I suppose). It’s pretty much just those two things.
In regard to the point of life, there’s a poem in particular I’ve been thinking about quite a bit. It’s by American Poet Mary Oliver. You can the whole thing here but there are two main bits that have really ensnared my attention.
The first is:
“You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.” Wow. Oliver was a student of nature, from which she drew much of her inspiration. The question is: What if she’s right? What if it’s really that simple? What if we only let the soft animal of our bodies love what they love?
I can hear the recoil already, if only in my own mind. “Well, if we do that, it would be chaos! Hedonism! Self-serving, self-centered selfishness everywhere!”
But that’s largely because our concept of love has been so terribly diluted. Addicts do not love their substance masters. Escapists do not love their distractions. It’s not gratification Oliver is discussing, it’s love – real, pure, unmotivated love. When was the last time you thought about what your body loves? For me it’s been … all the years?
I mentioned before that I’m a product of my culture, as we all are to varying extents. I’ve long worshipped at the alter of action and productivity. The idea of taking time to consider what my body loves, and making that the objective – even in some small part – of my life strikes me as absolutely bizarre.
What would that even look like?
I imagine that if I let the soft animal of my body love what it loves I’d probably just lay in bed all day eating gelato and watching Netflix. And I’m guessing that’s not what Oliver had in mind.
But then again, how long would I stay doing that? I do get restless. And what then? What would I do, if I only heeded the soft animal of my body? After all, isn’t a big part (if not the entire point) of being alive to, well, be alive?
The latter part of Oliver’s poem has a thought on that.
“Whoever you are … the world offers itself to your imagination…” When left to my own devices long enough, I do know what the soft animal of my body loves. It does love to sleep and it does love to eat, and it definitely loves to be entertained, but ultimately, the soft animal of my body loves to create. It loves to write and paint and draw and sing – and it especially loves to explore and be delighted by the inspiration and creation that results.
The world offers itself to our imaginations and, ultimately, shows us our place, alive, now, here in the family of things.
If we can just let that be enough. If we can fight the need to make permanent what can only ultimately be transient, if we can sidestep the desire for glory and recognition, we can perhaps find the point of life; letting the soft animals of our bodies love what they love, allowing our imaginations to feast in this wonderful world, happily in the family of things.
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