Not only to fly, but to bring the world's eyes...skyward.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

"What's your purpose?"

“What's your purpose?” My ten-years-elder sister, who I think picked it up from either Saturday Night Live’s “Coneheads” or perhaps our (somewhat) less-awkwardly-intellectual PhD father, just seemed to love the terse, condescending cynicism of that question, posing it to me whenever my behavior struck her as odd or curious—which is to say, “often.”

Most humanoids—perhaps raised by less “evolved” specimens—seem content to simply react to their bodies’ cravings from minute to minute, working only to afford the most fleeting pleasures in life. Their pitiful existences are virtually guaranteed to end without effect, perhaps either in the throes of passion or the blissful afterglow of a life, well, lived.

But some of us develop the ability to deny our baser instincts and refuse to "just" live in the only time that’s ever truly ours - the present. For my entire subspecies of such mutants, the simple fact of our continued presence in the universe each morning fairly begs the question:

What is your purpose?

The problem is, we're still pestered by all the same lower, workaday needs that the non-obsessive humans have, so we only rarely get a chance to put much thought into our answer. Maslow, we feel you, buddy. "Self actualization?" Now who has that kind of time?

I started writing A Silver Ring with the blessedly simplistic motivation of a normal human. My career as a pilot had just begun to deteriorate, and I had a new wife, stepsons, baby, house, and airplane to support—or divest. When flying became unable to pay for, well, more flying, I decided to see if I could make money doing the only other thing in this life for which I have both love and aptitude. My purpose in writing would make an answer to my sister’s favorite question as simple as another of her favorite jokes whose source I can’t recall—something about the inner dialogue of an NFL kicker: “kick ball, get paycheck.” I was going to try my hand at Tom Clancy’s bread recipe—write thriller, get paycheck.

But before my first bargain laptop was obsolete, that damned existentialist in me was pacing his stark cell, probably going a little stir crazy from all the Presidential faces staring at him from the walls I’d papered with funny-money. Every time I sat down to write a chapter of my book’s present-tense, plot-driven, action-oriented frame story, I’d get bored and have to revert to my protagonist’s family’s back-story with all the rich characters and their quirky history. I had a big problem.

I didn’t give a shit about writing a thriller.

My project became a circular argument—a conundrum in (sort of) material form. My purpose in writing it veered from making money to finding my purpose for writing it. Like Mozart’s Requiem (only hopefully with a less tragic resolution), not even I could really know why I’d done it, until it was done.

As “The End” neared, I started to think A Silver Ring was just about growing up with a bug in your blood - your fluid environment helpless against fixed heredity; compelled by a drive that entertains fantasies of eradicating anyone who dares suggest you might want to just think about doing something else with your life. That’s how I’ve always felt about flying—so strongly in fact, that I might have seemed to steal a miracle from God himself in recovering from an accident that by all rights should have been my epitaph.

Now that it’s been a few months, however, I’ve realized the story I had to tell wasn’t really just about what it’s like to have been born already knowing the answer to the pesky question, “what is your purpose?” Pilots, musicians, artists, doctors, teachers, soldiers—not one of us was really put here to be a mindless, daytime-tv-addicted extra on the set of a more important person’s life. Some of us might have to look harder than others to discover our mission, and many may lack or lose the will to find or stay the course to their Destiny, but everyone’s here to do something no one else can do in exactly the way and at exactly the time and place it needs to be done.

Enough people would agree with all of that to make another book about it, however original in its details, cliché. But now that strangers have begun to tell me how deeply A Silver Ring affected them, I’ve realized my purpose wasn’t to write a book about wondering, or even learning, “what’s my purpose?” but about, already knowing well the answer, living plagued by its unanswerable follow-up…


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