A Question of Purpose

My thoughts have been circling around what may best be described as questions of purpose. This might be considered central to any life led with some degree of introspection. As with most things of value this pursuit has been short-changed by our culture’s dominant modus operandi. It’s taken quite a while to sort this out.

Not that it is sorted now; but certain features are coming into focus. I’ve known for a long time that working creatively in isolation is a frustrating business. It’s also an incomplete business. While a certain and even a prolonged apprenticeship may be required; until what we do has connected with others; it is not quite complete. We have not quite done what needs to be done. Doing what needs to be done is a definition of Purpose, Isn’t it? So we come full-circle.

That my calling has had so many seemingly disparate elements has not only confused others. It has confused me. Sorting out how the parts are to fit together – an activity central to all art, craft, to the workings of communion – has been a central focus in all I’ve done. A qualification, I guess, to tackle this job!

My work is on the cusp of a new phase. I can feel a fledging taking place. A plumage developing. A new competence. Not the confidence of tackling a familiar task; but a confidence that comes when we feel ready to do what we have not done before.

Of course, it’s not that I haven’t done what I am now beginning to foresee before. It’s that I have never put the suite of activities together as a dynamic whole before. The parts have been kicking about for a long time. It’s just that now I can see how they might fit together.

In this there is a coming-together. A coming-together is a definition of integration. Integration has long been a guide for me in my attempts to sort things out. All these hints, and portents even, bring me to this verge. A place from which to launch into flight.

The image at the top of this post is of two old wooden buckets I found outside the Shipyard at Mystic Seaport last year. It has continued to intrigue. I think of it whenever the question of purpose arises. Maybe it’s time to unpack what it might mean.

My guess is that the lighter bucket is the most worn-out. The other still has all its parts…. They’re at the bottom of a bin holding random scraps of rigging: chain and twine and rusty-bits & pieces…. They show how they were made: to the same pattern. Though we cannot tell if one is older than the other. The one on the right may have been prematurely discarded, Who knows? Maybe it leaks….

They show the effects of time. Their wooden surfaces oiled and then oxidized. Galvanized hoops powdered with zinc-salts show rust. The rust has bitten into the oak of the light one. Visible where its upper hoop should be, was. Their hemp cordage handles frayed and bleached by sun and salt-water.

In their own humble way they stand-in for any wooden vessel: a wooden boat is put together of the same materials and differs only in size and in that they are meant to keep the water out rather than in. As with any such vessel they strongly signify their purpose. Lying there even in this discarded condition they cry out, They proclaim their utility, and something more…. They stand for anything whose purpose is clear, that has been made with integrity, and that does not hide how the effects of time and wear have changed them. In this way the vessel, any vessel, even these humble buckets, stand-in for us. These two vessels cry out to me as examples of how we may be of use.

A tool is an instrument. A vessel is more than that…; but it does reverberate with its potential instrumentality. The blurring between tool and object and quasi-living-thing that a vessel projects brings it into an almost human – at least a creature-ly status – in comparison to the strictly utilitarian.

Many people live their lives primarily as instruments. They have great capacities to accomplish while maybe lacking, or at least giving less attention to, how their talents might be put to use. In one light this can be seen as a path to great success. Many who make their names and fortunes at some one thing do have this quality of powerful instrumentality. In another light, it seems to be a shame. A loss to them and to us all. Instrumentality, any highly evolved utility without suitable attention paid to what it will be used for has always been a recipe for disaster. Here lies the path to Tragedy….

All these elements speak to me from this image of these two humble yet well-made, well-worn vessels. Their present utility is in question, Do they leak? Probably….

As someone finding myself at the long-end of a lot of years piling on, living in a time when so much of what we once took for granted elicits more and more uncertainty as we wonder whether anything we have at hand is up to what we confront, rummaging around in my own personal “bin,” looking to see if anything at hand will serve; I feel quite an affinity for these old buckets. I wonder whether my parts and bits & pieces are up to contributing anything of value; whether I could be of use, have some purpose?

Part of this situation I find myself in is a result of many mistakes of identity. In part my own mistakes of perception: What do I do? How might I contribute? Perhaps, looking too hard at what I was not, missing the value inherent in being this particular vessel. In part, due to my immersion in the great sea-changes effecting all of us.

The result has been an acute awareness of the workings, and failures, of instrumentality. Coming late to value for myself what a voice and a pair of eyes with these particular talents, this history, the marks of failures and partial successes; what it is that I do have to offer. I am only now in a position to begin to envision – and begin to express – how this might actually work.

One more thing before we leave those buckets to bake in the sun. There are two of them. It’s not one container, one vessel. It’s two.

In one way this might invite a bout of comparisons, Which one is in better shape? Which worth more…. In another way two here stands in for many. Two may bring us to thoughts of competition, especially in this cut-throat culture; but it is also the foundation for the possibility of dialogue, of communion. There is a resonance between them that stands-in for relationship. In any and all of its forms.

This is another strong sign. It speaks to me from this image. The last thing I’ll say about them is how they come from and are steeped in the traditions of wooden boats and all the crafts of the sea. In this too we share a great affinity.

Coming from a background that colored my view in ways that gave more value to the pragmatic than the esoteric arts, I’ve long been in a trough between these two great waves of human endeavor, veering one way and then the other. Never fully at home in either. This instability and the shadows of uncertainty it has cast over me has always seemed a curse. I’ve been slowly discovering that it is a gift. Along with many, if not all, the frustrations and barriers I’ve had to confront over the years. This gift has brought me a familiarity with negative capability. The capacity to find a way to hold contradictions in an ongoing dynamic instead of bouncing off them out of fear or mere frustration. What I’ve learned here is a lesson that someone who has been a more efficient instrument for the will of others might not have been able to take-in.

This is a sampling of a few of many such struggles with contradiction that have turned around to show themselves as potential sources of strength. Signs of how these gifts I’ve received might be gifts I could share with others.


We confuse roles with identity. We do it to our selves. We do it with each other, asking, “What do you do?” While meaning, “Who are you?”

It’s not just laziness, or tact, that compels us to conflate the two. We hope to find who someone is through their actions and not just by hearing who they think they are. It’s only that in over-simplification we leave out something significant. Especially when someone’s role is unclear or unusual. We tend also to jump to conflating utility with purpose. And by utility we tend to mean whether there be profit in the interchange.

I see my purpose, the form of my utility, differently. At a time when not only profit but ease and a lack of seeming friction, “Hey! We’re on the same side, page, team….” Is more highly valued than bringing up painful subjects and asking us to think for our selves.

“What are you selling?” this question is never far below the surface when we are confronted with a “message.”

I’m not really selling anything. What I make does not find a market. What I offer may be valued in some intangible form; but not in any way that brings anyone profit. While I see the course of what has been illuminated by my investigations as one leading towards greater peace, a sense of sufficiency, a centering…, greater integration within our world; it tends to be taken as difficult, uncomfortable, only good for some one else, “Not for me.”

What do I want?

There are two sides to this. I want to help. I want to belong.

These may seem simple enough; but we do have a hard time understanding how to put such primal needs into practice.

We tend to see helping as somehow promoting what the other wants.

We see belonging as being part of a faction in opposition to some other.

I’m not after either of these results. It’s not surprising if people tend to be confused, “Does he want to help me or not? Does he want to belong?”

The hardest part of any change is getting to a point where we take a step.

I’ve spent decades on this question. I’ve found ways to look at the most difficult questions in ways that help bring us to a viable next step. This is what I have to offer. This is how I can help.

We chase after power and profit in the fear that without them we have no place.

I’ve found that everything we do to increase our power and profit destroys any chance of there being a place where we can belong at all. That underneath this pressure to succeed there is a longing to belong. A longing that is corrupted when we join into factions at the expense of the rest. In all of these antics we spoil what we are after. We push our desires ahead of us into a future, a salvation to come. Anything that, or anyone who, impedes our efforts to “stay ahead” of what we’re running away from is taken as a distraction or an enemy. Something, someone to be feared and avoided.

This is the point we have reached. If I’m to make something of what I have to offer it has to include finding some way to break through these barriers to connection, to understanding, to discovering that we are ready. Ready to consider purpose.








10 Replies to “A Question of Purpose”

  1. Holy moly Tony we are in synchronicity here. I am writing a blog post right now that resonates with similar pondering. It’s giving me shivers that you posted this. Could we talk together some more about these things? I will email you more this afternoon when I’m free. xxx Julia 

    Sent from my Samsung device

    1. Julia,

      Thank you for reading and finding some connection – and taking the time to comment!

      I’ve found this same feeling of synchronicity with my fellow correspondents occurs quite often.

      E-mail me.

  2. I’ve set aside for about week a posting that is parallel to this — also about purpose, but form a different angle. Very interesting.

  3. Hesse writes ” My misery comes from my great talent to wear too many masks too well. I have learned to deceive everyone else, myself included.” This becomes the source of our suffering, manifesting to our inner core. Only relief is found by starting with the soul, than the heart, going outward we find release. The Chinese philosopher DuFu tell us “Reflect on the reflection not what is the souléd mirror of the mind.

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