For some reason, every once in a while I find I am asking myself abstruse questions. I don’t know why that is, nor what I hope to discover, even if I find an answer. One of the more recent additions to my growing list of queries is whether or not things always have to be for something -do they always have to have a purpose, in other words? Can’t anything just be, without us attempting to prescribe some function for it -or is that our job: homo proposito?
It’s a little more involved, I think, than merely asking why something is. Why is a plane? Well, to fly in I suppose. But why is a stone…? How begs another type of answer, of course -one less concerned about the reason for its existence and more about the manner in which it functions in that existence.
Still, all this seems to skirt around the question of whether purpose has to be attached to everything like a label. Or whether the inadvertent use of something automatically assigns it purpose. And if it is never again used in that fashion, does it lose, or retain that purpose? But, so far I imagine it isn’t at all obvious that I’m thinking about the value of walking on a fallen log to cross a creek.
There is a trail close to where I live that wanders aimlessly through a forest of mostly cedars and Douglas firs. It ends at a sizeable creek whose purpose (I imagine everybody thinks) is to feed a little lake… Or, is the lake’s purpose merely to collect the water from the creek? You see where this is going, don’t you? You see why I’m confused…
When I first discovered the trail, there was a tiny bridge across the creek, but as time wore on, so did the bridge. And then one day, I suppose someone decided it was just too dangerous to walk across and they demolished it. Because I had been using the bridge as a way of accessing several trails on the other side, it had suddenly become a problem, created a dichotomy: either a dead-end, or a challenge.
So, in keeping with my aforementioned, admittedly aberrant, ruminations, I wondered whether the same object could still serve a purpose even if it was no longer there. And if, by some circuitous reasoning, a non-bridge could still entice me to take the trail which involved my crossing a fast-flowing deep-water creek only because there was a bridge, then it strikes me that purpose, along with bridge were notably missing.
In fact, though, for a while both trail and creek were non-issues: apart from the obvious sylvan surroundings and the possibility of a brief Shinrin-yoku, a short dead-end trail with no bridge at the end acquires a totally different value. The other trails I was short-cutting to, were less riskily accessible elsewhere.
Still, hope springs eternal doesn’t it? So do challenges. Had I not been initiated into creek-crossing on the now-nonexistent bridge, I would never have thought of crossing it. Never have felt the pull of that particular trail and its bucolic pleasures. Never considered skirting the world of teleology.
But Life often tempts you to walk down different paths; even when they seem superficially similar, you can never step in the same river twice: a challenge is not a thing like a bridge, any more than pride is something you can touch. No, I did not walk the trail towards a non-bridge; I walked the trail for an idea not yet born -I walked in optimism that it would deliver itself when the time and circumstance were appropriate. Sometimes that is enough…
I can’t even say I had a purpose in mind; I just wanted to see what might happen if I arrived -I had no other plan than that. You never know what an unleashed mind will think when it is not really looking for solutions. ‘Existence precedes essence,’ according to Sartre -I am what I am because of what I do; I alone am responsible for my actions. Otherwise, like the bridge perhaps, I am nothing.
The swirling, turbulent water of an angry creek impatient to reach the anonymity of a nearby lake is a metaphor awaiting attribution. The hiss and snarling as it hurries past those few plants brave enough to anchor themselves however ill-advisedly to its banks, is a lesson in caution written by the ones carried helplessly downstream.
I suppose I should not have braved the trail so soon after a storm had passed, but I was restless. Curious. Trees had toppled across the trail, so even getting to the water was difficult. And yet, there’s something about a roaring creek exploring its new limits that invites inspection, don’t you think? Even a non-bridge could not have withstood the flow I soon realized -there were no longer any definable banks to span. Perhaps that explained its removal.
And yet, there I was. Like a tree still standing amidst the carnage, I was remined of the television pictures of the ruined buildings in Syria after their storm of bombs. I felt guilty even being able to survey, untouched, the destruction that surrounded me. It was almost the same feeling as driving past a horrible accident on the side of the road, and being unable to pretend I didn’t see it -wasn’t fascinated by it…
But as I examined the damage, and the fallen trees the wind had claimed, I noticed one of them, a large middle-aged alder, had fallen across the rolling angry waters. Heavy enough to stabilize itself on either side of the ever-widening creek, it cleared the foaming current by only centimetres but it seemed unaffected by the turbulence below.
So, if I really am (in Sartre’s world) in the process of acquiring essence -that I am my choices- there was really nothing left but to try it. You understand my dilemma don’t you? If to choose is to be who I am, then there really was no choice if I wanted to be the person I thought I was. There are crossroads for every decision aren’t there? But, whatever, you still have to choose. The tree was simply a choice -not a why, nor a purpose. It did not fall in order that I could choose; there was no purpose to it like the bridge -simply a challenge.
So I crossed it, and as far as I can tell, that might have made a difference to who I am, to whether or not I really exist -even if I am the only judge…