Thursday, May 31, 2007


In Lewis Carroll's Alice In Wonderland, there is a song called "The Lobster Quadrille", that begins:

"Will you walk a little faster?" said a whiting to a snail.
"There's a porpoise close behind us, and he's treading on my tail.
See how eagerly the lobsters and the turtles all advance!
They are waiting on the shingle--will you come and join the dance?"

Later, Alice reflects on how she would deal with the inconsiderate porpoise:

`If I'd been the whiting,' said Alice, whose thoughts were still running on the song, 'I'd have said to the porpoise, "Keep back, please: we don't want you with us!"'

`They were obliged to have him with them,' the Mock Turtle said: `no wise fish would go anywhere without a porpoise.'

`Wouldn't it really?' said Alice in a tone of great surprise.

`Of course not,' said the Mock Turtle: `why, if a fish came to me, and told me he was going a journey, I should say "With what porpoise?"'

`Don't you mean "purpose"?' said Alice.
`I mean what I say,' the Mock Turtle replied in an offended tone.

Porpoise--purpose. A clever play on words, something for which Lewis Carroll aka Charles Dodgson was justly famous. It's intriguing to think that the different porpoises possess different qualities which serve the fish on their aqueous journeys. And, following Carroll's example of the "portmanteau words" used in the famous poem "Jabberwocky", we can ask ourselves, when we set off on our various pilgrimages, whether they be over land, sea, or consciousness: "With what purpoise?"

A comprehensive approach to the subject of purpose/purpoise can be found in the
branch of psychotherapy called "logotherapy", conceived and developed by Viktor Frankl. Logotherapy focuses on healing through finding meaning (logos = meaning) in our experience here and now, rather than, as in traditional therapy, rummaging through our past to find how it may be influencing us in the present. In this context, "meaning" can be considered to be analogous with "purpose." It is what motivates and informs our thoughts and actions at any given moment.

Frankl was a survivor of Auschwitz, and had begun his treatise on logotherapy prior to his internment. He arrived there with the manuscript sewn into the lining of his coat, but it was discovered, and despite his pleas, it was sneeringly confiscated, along with all of his other personal items. This was his initiation into a journey (internment/internship?) that taught him about the meaning that could be found in even the most abysmal of life experiences. He shared those experiences and insights in his classic book, Man's Search For Meaning.

The core of his philosophy can be found in his quote of Nietzsche:
"He who has a WHY to live for can bear almost any HOW." All through Frankl's ordeal, it was brought home to him that that those who held on to their hopes, a vision that gave their lives meaning, whatever that might be--a project to be completed, loved ones waiting for them--were the ones who had the best chance of survival. Stripped of all the accoutrements of their previous identities, reduced to their prisoner ID numbers, the most important attribute of their humanity remained: "Everything can be taken from a man but...the last of the human freedoms--to choose one's attitude in any
given set of circumstances, to choose one's own way."

Finding purpose does not always entail suffering, of course, and does not always mean having a great and noble mission in life, at least not as generally perceived. The idea that we must accomplish great things in life can actually be a hindrance to realizing our potential. Purpose is not something "out there", a mirage shimmering in the distance, ever receding as we advance. Rather, we are "on purpose" when we fully embrace each moment in all its uniqueness and power. The Now moment is all we have, and as we are fully present in the moment, one with our breath, with our beating heart, we are one with the breath and heart of All. There is great power in peacefulness, in stillness and silence. There are holy men in the East who choose to remain in their caves, meditating on universal peace and love, sending those vibrations out to the world. This is their service, the purpose they have chosen for their lives.

To take another example from literature, "Pollyanna" by Eleanor H. Porter, generally regarded as a classic, can also be seen as a powerful spiritual guide. Pollyanna, a young girl whose parents have passed away, comes to live with her aunt Polly, who feels very put upon by this intrusion into her well-ordered, sterile life, but is resolved to "do her duty" in caring for the girl. Pollyanna, whose father was a minister, learned from him a "glad game", which consisted of always finding something to be glad about in any situation--an example of the attitudinal freedom that is the focus of Frankl's work. The irrepressible Pollyanna does much good in her contacts with the people in town, winning many converts to the glad game. Following the book's publication, "glad groups" formed across the country, practicing and sharing its principles. Purpose is something that grows and builds upon itself, ever reaching for greater and broader expression.

Alice, too, inadvertently discovers a much greater purpose in her experiences in Wonderland than the one she originally conceived, to "get into that beautiful garden": "Oh, how she longed to get out of that dark hall, and wander about among those beds of bright flowers and those cool fountains, but she could not even get her head
through..." She cries the Pool of Tears when she finds she has grown so large she cannot escape from the hall into the garden. "Who in the world am I?" she asks herself as she sits in the rising flood of tears--a question later echoed in the Caterpillar's contemptuous words: "You! Who are YOU?" Although her soul-searching is, in childlike fashion, limited to wondering whether she's turned into one of her friends--Ada? Mabel?--she's begun the process of inner growth and self-discovery, which is often uneven--thus her constantly changing size--and lonely: "I am so VERY tired of being all alone down here!"

When at last she does get into the garden, she realizes that those who are seemingly so powerful and far above her have their own very real limitations, thinking to herself: "Why, they're only a pack of cards, after all. I needn't be afraid of THEM!"
In the conclusion, Alice is called to "give evidence" in court, ("Who Stole The Tarts?") and The Queen, acting completely in character, insists the sentence be passed before the verdict. Alice contradicts her vigorously: "The idea of having the sentence first!"

"Hold your tongue!" said the Queen, turning purple.
"I won't!" said Alice.
"Off with her head!" the Queen shouted at the top of her lungs. Nobody moved.
"Who cares for YOU?" said Alice (who had grown to her full size by this time). "You're
nothing but a pack of cards!"

In voicing this thought, she incurs the wrath of them all: "At this, the entire pack rose up in the air and came flying down upon her", and as she tries to beat them off, she wakes to find her sister brushing some dead leaves off her face.

Through her Wonderland adventures, Alice grows in awareness of her own worth and power, seeing the flimsiness and the unreality of the prevailing attitudes in those who would dismiss her or cancel her out, without knowing anything about her other than that which is immediately obvious, e.g.: "Rule forty-two: All persons more than a mile high are to leave the court." As Alice speaks out against these attitudes, having grown to her full size both physically and spiritually, she wakes up from the dream:
the dream we each call our life, the drama that leads to our awakening, the reclaiming of our personal power, and dominion over our own limiting and erroneous judgments of self and others. It is this awakening that may be our ultimate purpose.

Many people I encounter lately, reflecting on the state of the world today, are hard pressed to find any purpose in their lives at all, and see little hope for us individually or collectively. Thousands of years ago, Cicero was similarly distressed at the corruption of the politicians in Rome, lamenting: "Oh Tempora! O Mores!" ("Oh, the times! Oh, the customs!") He himself, though, refused to give up on the possibility of positive change, holding to a vision of transformation in government and a "golden age" that may yet transpire globally. It is here now, for those of us who do the best we can to connect with the "purpoise" in our existence--moment by precious moment.