Deep in the Wee Hours

Someone else, deep in the middle of this steamy night, is pondering whether life has meaning. Beyond the trite aphorisms whose validity we seem to accept without question, another insomniac wonders whether life does, indeed, have intrinsic purpose. Does it have inherent value, or is its significance artificial? To further explore, is its importance real, or do we feel compelled to assign consequence to it simply because it is all we have—because, without core value, nothing truly matters in the larger sense?

Of course it has value, respond those who—nodding in affirmation at the motivational words printed on art paper suitable for hanging and available for purchase with payment plans that charge usurious rates—accept the general consensus without questioning its legitimacy. Do they know something we don’t? Or are our doubts and skepticism evidence of flaws in their thinking?

There is no question that human life matters to those who live it. We matter to one another, too. But beyond the intimate and personal, is there an unbreakable thread that ties us all together in some form or fashion? John Donne wrote

…if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as any manor of thy friends or of thine own were; any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind…

We tend to treat those words as having emerged from a fountainhead of wisdom. But were they written as much to justify a hope or a belief as to express a truth? We will never know, no matter how deeply we explore; no one can ever know the thoughts and emotions that prompted John Donne to write those words. But we can question words of wisdom. And we should. We should not simply accept the common consensus, even when it sooths our troubled souls. We should question everything. Even ourselves.

Many months ago, I wrote another post that, like so many others, addressed the issue of purpose.

“…I forgot my purpose. Not just my purpose in looking up the word, either. My purpose. My. Purpose. Why I am here. My reason for being. Ma raison d’être. No, that’s not entirely true. I didn’t forget. I’ve never known. None of us have. We make up stories, we create elaborate explanations for our existence…”

No matter how many times I explore the question, I do not find answers. Or I pretend to find satisfactory explanations, but I later admit they were not satisfactory at all; they were just briefly successful lies to myself.


I have no legitimate reason to feel exhausted; nonetheless, I do. I feel like I should go back to bed and stay there the rest of the day, but I doubt I could get back to sleep, so I probably will not try. Instead, I will stay awake and will fulfill my obligations today; a meeting of church committee chairs, a call to my doctor’s office to request a visit to address the swelling of my feet and ankles, the ongoing efforts to unpack and organize and make our “nest” into the relaxing oasis we envision it will one day become.


Why am I not satisfied with the way things are? Why not accept the crack in the kitchen counter and the ugly but usable stove-top? Why not adapt to the bathroom cabinets? Why daydream about living in a different climate? Why dwell on what seems unsatisfactory? Why? Because there’s something gnawing at me, something saying life is not quite right, that it needs some adjustments to make it better or to make it tolerable or to make it “perfect.” I’ve always wanted change instead of happily adapting to the life I am living.  I wonder what it is that’s missing? This is nothing new; it is as old as I am. I’m growing immeasurably weary of the sense that there must be something better; a better environment, a better way to experience the world, a better way to be. I wish I could be completely satisfied with the way things are. But to do that I think I would have to withdraw from the world. Or I would have to simply accept dictators and unjustifiable wars and starvation and poverty and gun violence and power-mongering and cracked kitchen counters and ugly but usable stove-tops. And, perhaps, I would have to accept an emptiness that cannot be identified and cannot be filled.


I will say again what I said months ago: “The only thing about which we can be certain is that we can be sure of nothing.”


It’s just past 5:30. I’ve been up and out of bed for more than two hours. This cannot continue.

About John Swinburn

"Love not what you are but what you may become."― Miguel de Cervantes
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