dreams and visions

The Worry and the Awe – Achievement and Experience

“Open your eyes, and see what you can with them before they close forever.”
Anthony Doerr – All the Light We Cannot See

And what, my friends, do you suppose is the purpose of living? Is life about achievement?

Take a look at the way we view ourselves and others – observe the nature of the awards we give, the way we magnify those who accomplish startling feats; the question is easily answered; in fact, to ask such a question in the first place appears absurd. Certainly, most of us approach life as a period of time in which to get stuff done – good stuff, we hope. An entire industry exists strictly for the purpose of motivating us to accomplish our idealized goals. (Do those seminars result in much more than making you and me feel like failures?)

I think most of us worry about the concept of achievement. We worry we’re not doing enough, that we’re not accomplishing everything should be. It gets worse as we age, as the bottom half of life’s hourglass exceeds the upper, as we recognize the impossibility of ever “catching up” on all the good we were supposed to accomplish in our lives.

I think this might be why I’ve developed such an aversion to calendars or dates or anything that calls attention to the passage of time. But it’s impossible to escape, isn’t it? The older I get, the more aware I become, and the sum of existence transmutes to a haunting grandfather clock; I cannot escape its piercing TOCK! TOCK! TOCK!

I find I cannot persist through the pain and emptiness that comes with a life centered on achievement. For this reason, I choose to turn my focus away from pushing and striving for things. It’s possible I’m wrong to think this way, but for now, I do not care. I’m too tired to care.

So what do you suppose is the purpose of living? Is life about achievement? Perhaps it’s about something less spectacular.

Maybe life is less about capturing a prize and more about becoming captured.

I’m presenting a perspective that could easily be interpreted as hedonistic – an endorsement for ditching the pursuit of goals in favor of the pursuit of pleasure. That’s not far off. What I’m really suggesting is that, in our lust for accomplishment, for making something or ourselves, we’ve lost sight of what’s most important. Our priorities are backwards, and I suppose it could be killing us.

Here is something to consider: think of the most stunning achievers in human history. Perhaps your mind goes to a brilliant composer or a painter or sculptor or writer or an athlete or a selfless philanthropist. The Mozarts and Michaelangelos, the Mark Twains and Mother Teresas of the world are elevated in our eyes for the works they achieved, understandably so.

But I maintain the sum glory of all humankind’s achievements is a mere speck of dust in comparison to the majesty of a single sunrise. What can you do with a sunrise? You might photograph or paint it or try to describe it with poetry, but what you do about a sunrise is but a futile attempt to capture something that refuses to be captured. You can do nothing with a sunrise but partake in its beauty.

There’s this famous Carl Sagan quote I use occasionally as part of a meditation.
“Consider again that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there – on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.”


In our society, we worship and flaunt uniqueness and individual achievement. Viewed in light of the vast, seemingly limitless Creation, the striving the achieve, to stand out, makes little sense. What’s left, but to slow down, breathe deep, and experience this Creation, rather than speeding through, arms extended and eyes half shut, missing out on the splendor of it all.

2 replies »

  1. I agree … I can think of many “achievers” who have not really accomplished much (in my view) and are unhappy. Discarding achievement and pursuing happiness doesn’t make you hedonistic, necessarily. If handled well, it can make you a better, more giving person, and improve the lives of those you touch. Go for it.

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