Reading The Purpose Driven Life, with Schopenhauer

                                                                                                           —December 2012

Really—I don’t know what the meaning or purpose of life is. But it looks exactly as if something were meant by it.
—Carl Jung

 

i.

 

The Truth will make us miserable, Rick Warren says. That sounds like you,

Schopenhauer. It’s OK, though, because all our miseries 

are Father-filtered: The Lord wills them, slips them through. 

God will bake our afflictions like a cake, take

the bitter taste of oil and egg yolks and raw flour 

and stir them into harmony, just so.

We tried to bake my mother a birthday cake

when I was a kid. I don’t know what went wrong

but that batter rose in a lopsided tumor

over the pan’s sides then burst open, with a fetid

cloud so acrid we buried the whole mess in the backyard.

 

I’m not saying the Lord will make of our

sufferings that kind of botched concoction, but still: 

there are cakes and there are cakes.

And miseries, however Father-filtered, feel purpose-shriveling.

This morning I reused the coffee filter, pouring new

grounds over the old; the used ones clumped the bottom and clogged the way

and the water just massed there, in the paper, a black-sludged stew.

 

 

ii.

 

Rick Warren says life is a test, and once we know that

we will never feel insignificant again.

But my life-test Study Guide feels

like it’s on a grayed-out link. I click it anyway.

I copy and paste the URL into three different browsers;

they try so hard to sound human, saying Oops! and Oh snap!

So I have to write the questions for myself, as

in one of those experimental high schools.

 

Rick Warren’s chapters are structured on 40 days and 40 nights 

to learn The Five Purposes of Our Lives.

I write each Purpose out on a 3 × 5 notecard.

They get confused, though: is

to be a magnifier of his glory the same

as to give him pleasure?

They’re both listed as Purpose Three.

I missed the second Purpose altogether, Schopenhauer; 

I can’t even read my scribble-card on that.

The first is to give God pleasure, the third (wait,

this can’t be right) to become like Christ.

You missed those both. You need to focus.

Did you get the second one? Do you think we can still pass if we miss it?

 

You liked the burial beetle as an instance

of nature’s profligate

futility. So: pleasure is to life as burial beetles are 

to what? The carcass 

into which they lay their eggs, whose flesh

they scoop and eat and feed their larvae?

If the world were a paradise of luxury and ease

men would (a) feel replete with Purpose and thanksgiving

or—you should know this one, Schopenhauer,

you wrote it—(b) either

die of boredom or hang themselves.

 

 

iii.

 

We must offer up the sacrifice of thanksgiving, says the Psalm. Listen

with me for its fat-hiss and flare; sniff

the sizzled clawlike curl 

of its charred meat.

To give thanks you have to have

them first. Get them. Wherever you can. Pleasure

must be taken. We will take it. We will take it again and again. 

 

Take notes with me, Schopenhauer, for lo 

these 40 nights and 40 days.

This book sold 32 million in hardback.

We’ll find our purpose there, together. Especially now.

There’s been another massacre; twenty first graders

mowed down in ten minutes in their classroom.

The President says we must take meaningful action

but hasn’t said what meaningful might mean. 

 

 

iv.

 

I’ve been taking, Schopenhauer, unmeaningful actions,

going back and forth to Rite Aid

for wrapping paper, Christmas cards, mailing boxes, little migraine-strobing crèches.

I keep forgetting what I’ve gone for. Keep forgetting

the difference between a ritual and a compulsion and a rite.

I keep wondering if Mass and massacre have some common root.

All the way there and back the radio

alternates Snoop Dogg Christmas carols 

(On the second day of Christmas my homeboy gave to me

a fifth of hendog to take my mind off that weed)

with news flashes of the children 

led with eyes closed past the piles of bullet-riddled bodies.

I’m OK, Mommy, but all my friends are dead.

By the time I got to the drugstore I was thinking

of the defunct rite of Extreme Unction, of what good

any unction could be in this extremis: 

I saw the Rite Aid sign and for an instant wondered

if it was us in need of aid from those lost rites

or the rites themselves that needed help.

 

 

v.

 

A small parenthesis in eternity—Rick Warren’s quoting Sir Thomas Browne—

our lives are a small parenthesis in eternity.

They stand in apposition, interjective; we’re like

a little piece of a Faulkner sentence, a crowded (oblivious and much-stuffed) 

aside. What’s kept inside there doesn’t even know

the rest of the syntax

it interrupts. It 

thinks it’s the whole sentence, the whole

lust-strewn, Time-mournful, Faulknerian sprawl.

 

 

vi.

 

Don’t be troubled by trouble, Rick Warren says. He’s pithy that way.

We need hope to cope. God uses our problems to draw us 

closer to Himself. We’re near now, my Lord, this Christmas, we’re near.

God uses sledgehammers on us, jackhammers, wrecking balls,

whatever it takes to reach us. 

Apparently, Bushmaster AR-15 semiautomatic rifles, with 30-round magazines, too.

We must become better, not bitter. God never wastes a hurt.

 

Everybody’s looking for some purpose

behind Adam Lanza’s rampage.

He couldn’t make eye contact. He didn’t bathe. He played Call of Duty hour after hour.

He was jealousy-enraged against his mother’s students, except

she wasn’t ever a teacher. The purposes behind the massacre

make no sense; still, it looks

exactly as if something were meant by it.

 

This December the hurts are everywhere, laid waste. Stir, Lord, like Ezekiel, their 

clumsily reassembling dry bones.

 

 

vii.

 

We’re all in warm-ups, Schopenhauer, in spring training. Pick a metaphor

for preamble. Larvae with the regurgitated shrew-corpse flesh in their mouths.  Life’s not the thing 

but its precursor. We’re resident aliens, Warren says, with “spiritual green cards.”

 

So this is the mudroom, with its

boot-smudges and strew of sopped wool.

These years are the undergarments, their Infinity-enwrapped flash and frill.

This life is the foreplay, a tongue-flit on the clit.

This the pre-soak, the stain remover

working its lemon-acid gel through each soiled strand.

 

The point is, we can’t get the point. The point’s deferred.

We’re unhomed here, unhomely.

The point is our pleasure’s never the point. 

It’s God whose pleasure counts. We’re here to please Him. That’s our First Purpose. He watches us while we sleep. He sniffs and licks His lips.

The point is this is Forever-Practice. The point

is invisible, interred. We’ll unbury it in Eternity—come 

with me, Schopenhauer, drive the point

in, let it

pierce and pierce us, now, 

 

then then.

 

_____
*Rick Warren, The Purpose Driven Life: What On Earth Am I Here For?

 

Bruce Beasley is the author of seven collections of poems, most recently Theophobia (BOA Editions, 2012) and The Corpse Flower: New and Selected Poems (University of Washington Press, 2007). He has won fellowships from the NEA and the Artist Trust, and has been awarded three Pushcart Prizes. A native of Macon, Georgia, he teaches at Western Washington University.