Monday, November 23, 2009

A Sense of Purpose

Five tiny fingers, each but an inch long. I remember how they used to curl around one of mine, gripping with all the prehensile power of that old monkey gene. The rosebud mouth, in sucking movements. Eyes tightly closed. What was she seeing in her dream state? I often used to wonder that.

Later she would open, expand, uncurl those curved limbs and learn to move along the carpet, hand over hand, foot behind foot, tasting the carpet fluff, peering, inquisitive, reaching, grabbing. Quivering with a sense of purpose.

For the purpose of a baby, of a child is to learn, to explore to discover to venture forth to push the boundaries of the known, incorporating more and more of the outer world into the convolutions of the evolved cortex. In order to live in that world successfully.

In the Spring, I watched the blackbird in the tree outside my window. She was feeding her young. Little, feather-fluffing balls, squeaking, demanding, beaks agape. She had a purpose too, a single-minded, dedicated purpose. Every atom of her being was concentrated in that one, unifying purpose—to fill that gaping yellow hole until the chirping stopped. And then to fill it again, and again, and again.

What about later? When the babies had flown. What was her purpose then? Was it to sing, for the delight of human ears or for delight in the sunny morning—or as a call sign that speaks of territory, ownership, belonging?

It’s a strange and slippery concept, purpose. Scientists avoid it if they can. They study the what and the how, the when and the where and the who. But they avoid the why. Because nobody really knows. We just do our best. And usually, purpose is a fuzzy thing, like it might be for my friend the blackbird now, as winter draws near. (Though I guess her purpose now is simply to stay alive, stay fed and stay warm, to breed again next Spring.)

But then there are other times that purpose feels clear and strong and burns brightly in the human psyche.

Thomas Berry spoke of 'The Great Work.' All the work you and I and everyone need to do to bring our species back into balance and harmony with Gaia before it is too late and She sloughs us off as a failed experiment. The ‘green revolution’that we need to have and are finally beginning to have. Right now, there’s no better or more important purpose I can think of than that one. To keep right on learning and growing, just like a baby does. To push the boundaries of the known, incorporating more and more of the outer world into our inner being until we know—really know—that we and the planet are one. And start acting out of that knowledge at last. Then we shall finally have learned how to live in the world successfully.