If it is possible to live with a purpose, what should that purpose be? A purpose might be a guiding principle, a philosophy, or a value of sovereign importance that informs and directs our activities and thoughts. To have one is to live seriously — though not necessarily wisely — following some track, believing in a hub to the wheeling universe or a sea toward which we flow or an end before which all the hubbub of civilization subsides. What is your purpose, friend, or what should it be?
Perhaps most of us do not come to a clear conclusion in the matter, but this does not mean we have no purpose, only that we do not recognize it or admit it or even choose it for ourselves. In the unhappiest case nature simply takes its course, which is a turbid meandering through the swamps of desire. If life means nothing then only pleasure is worthwhile; or if life has meaning and we cannot get at it then still only enjoyment matters — such is the view of brutes and some sophisticated philosophers. It slips into the unconscious by default when we hold no other, but we are reluctant to entertain it and will rather, if we think about it, take as our purpose support of family, search for beauty, improvement of society, fame, self-expression, development of talent, and so on. But it might be fair to say that apart from these or beneath these the fundamental purpose of many of us is the search for love, particularly romantic love.
The love of a man for a woman and a woman for a man is often the floor to which people fall after the collapse of other dreams. It is held to be solid when nothing else is, and though it frequently gives way and dumps them into a basement of despair, it still enjoys a reputation of dependability. No matter that this reputation is illogical — it still flourishes and will continue to flourish regardless of what is said in any book. Love, or possibly the myth of love, is the first, last, and sometimes the only refuge of uncomprehending humanity. What else makes our hearts beat so fast? What else makes us swoon with feeling? What else renders us so intensely alive and aching? The search for love — the sublime, the nebulous, the consuming — remains sacred in a world that increasingly despises the sacred. When the heroic and the transcendental are but memories, when religious institutions fill up with bureaucrats and social scientists, when nobody believes there is a sky beyond the ceiling, then there seems no other escape from the prison of self than the abandon of love. With a gray age of spiritual deadness upon us, we love, or beg for love, or grieve for love. We have nothing higher to live for.
Indeed, many take it on faith that romantic love is the highest thing to live for. Popular literature, movies, art, and music tirelessly celebrate it as the one truth accessible to all. Such love obliterates reason, as poets have long sweetly lamented, and this is part of its charm and power, because we want to be swept up and spirited out of our calculating selves. “Want” is the key word, for in the spiritual void of modern life the wanting of love becomes increasingly indistinguishable from love itself. So powerful, so insistent is it that we seldom notice that the gratification is rare and the craving relentless. Love is mostly in anticipation; it is an agony of anticipation; it is an ache for a completion not found in the dreary round of mundane routine. That we never seem to possess it in its imagined fullness does not deter us. It hurts so bad that it must be good.
Practically nobody questions the supremacy of romantic love, which is good enough reason to do a little poking around the foundations of its pedestal. Who is entirely satisfied with the romance in his or her life? Who has found the sublime rapture previously imagined? And if one has actually found such a thing, does it last, or does it not rather change and decline from the peak of ecstasy? And if it declines what becomes of one’s purpose in life? If a purpose is achieved it is no longer a purpose; it can no longer guide or sustain us. Does one taste of nectar satisfy us forever?