The Purpose of Purposelessness


The following excerpt is from Bernard De Koven’s The Well-Played Game.

The Purpose of Purposelessness

We are adults. We lead purposeful lives. We maintain our adulthood through our display of purposefulness. Not through playing with purpose but rather through displaying purpose.

We strive to become important–to do important things with other important adults. When our lives lack purpose there seems to be no reason for our continuing to live. When our purposes have been frustrated, when we are not able to accomplish what we have set forth as our goals, we scream in righteous indignation, in pain.

We seek purpose so strongly that when our purposes are finally, ultimately fufilled–when we even come close enough to see that satisfaction is inevitable–we create, as swiftly as we can, other purposes.

Thus we ask ourselves what is the purpose of this purposeless activity. To what other, nobler end is this well-played game? Do we grow as a result? Do we become better at something else than the game? Do we earn status? Money? Wisdom?

It seems, when we think about it, that for all our striving for purpose, we spend a great deal of time and energy doing and pursuing things without purpose.

There you are, caught in a moment of idleness, walking backward down the street. There you are, looking in store windows, not because you’re interested in buying anything but because you want to be looking in store windows. There you are, kicking stones off the sidewalk. There you are telling jokes. There you are, just playing.

Why? What purpose does it serve? Why is this purposelessness so valuable to you? Why does it feel so good?

You’re being playful. You like being playful. It feels good. As a matter of fact, you’re very playful.

You play whenever you get the chance. You doodle. You listen to music. You twiddle your thumbs. You do nothing. You dream. You play with ideas. You toy with things. You turn everything else off, even the sense of purpose, and you just merely play.

It’s as though you have a switch, somewhere, that lets you shut off the very force that gives you meaning, and you just play, without purpose, without meaning anything.

But why do you turn that switch?

If you could, you would play forever. Why do you turn the switch again? Why do you stop playing?

There are so many purposes, real purposes to attend to, survival, personal survival, survival of your family, of your home, of your country, your world; achieving excellence, achieving the ultimate victory, achieving wisdom, truth, enlightenment, a raise in pay.

In this book we’ve been creating yet other purposes. Our play community is purposeful, intentional. All that we do together is for the sake of something else. We want to play well together. We want to achieve excellence in something that ultimately doesn’t even matter. And yet, when we reach that high together, we discover that we can have no other purpose left to except to stay there forever.

Why? Why do we make it our purpose to be without purpose? Why do we create games that give us purpose only so we can, by playing them well together, be released from all purpose?

It is a balancing act. It is a dialog–a play between. On the one hand there is silliness, on the other seriousness. On this side confusion, on this clarity. Here delight. Here, despair. It is neither work nor play, purpose nor purposelessness that satisfies us. It is the dance between.

The game offers us a purpose. It says: Win. And we study the game, we learn the rules and regulations, the strategies that will help us win. Given the purpose, we seek the means.

Play offers us purposelessness. It says: Play! We can’t even play for the purpose of enjoyment. We can’t even play to have fun. We can have fun, we can enjoy ourselves while we are playing, but that is payoff, it isn’t purpose. Purpose interferes with play. When we play for any purpose, when we detect purpose in someone else’s play or in our own, we lose balance, we become distortions. When we play for praise, for grades, for trades, we find ourselves not really playing.

Odd, isn’t it? Paradoxical. Apparently without solution. Is play the completion of game, or is the game completion of play? Uncomfortable, this consideration. What else can one do at such a time, facing such a profound problem?