You can buy a man’s hours off him, you can steal his days from him, or you can rob him of his whole life, but no one can take away from any man so much as a single moment. That’s the way it is.- Robert Seethaler, A Whole Life
In A Whole Life, Seethaler creates a stark, quiet sense of purpose in Andreas. Without giving too much away, Andreas, a farmhand, has spent his entire life in the mountains and we follow this life through a lens of his quiet solitude. His life is at first glance, unextraordinary. He is aging, limited physically as he trudges on in a world that makes sense to him- it is both small, and manageable. He speaks of death:
It’s a messy business, dying,’ he said. ‘As time goes on there’s just less and less of you. It happens quickly for some; for others it can drag on. Starting from birth you keep losing one thing after another: first a finger, than an arm, first a tooth, then a whole set of teeth, first one memory, then all your memory, and so on and so forth, until one day there’s nothing left. Then they chuck what’s left of you in a hole and shovel it in and that’s your lot.
So what is the point, Andreas?
We look for purpose because it creates a framework for us to work from, a self- created template that gives sense to something that doesn’t always seem to make complete sense. In a world where we seem unsettled and nervous about our insignificance, purpose is pacifying and places ourselves in a place of certainty and stability; at first glance over that definition, purpose sounds like a cruel illusionist, creating a masquerade for something that was never there to begin with. Do we cling to purpose in the same way that we might with faith, trust and actually, we’ve fabricated it all just to appease ourselves?
I don’t think so. Andreas’ life is ‘whole,’ because he chooses to make it so. He asserts himself in the world by finding a deep connection with his place within it. The certainty with which he turns his face to the sun, feels the rock of the earth, holds a silent, steady respect for the mountains that surrounds him- these all give him purpose. He is purposeful, because he acknowledges what could be insignificant as deeply powerful and meaningful to him; each moment taken to notice these tiny moments holds energy because he chooses to give them as such. By selecting the moments where he finds purpose, he becomes the master of his own destiny, and it is no longer a choice of what is or is not important, but shifting to such a stance, that every minute that passes is watched by Andreas with a determination that it had its own stage, before moving on to the next. For Andreas, watching this all is his purpose- his recognition is purpose. We could all learn a little from him.
The busyness that we might conjure up to pacify ourselves from the unease that might come with the alternative is the ultimate battle: being able to consciously decide not to fill our minutes and hours with the stuff is difficult, and not at all what we are used to. However all that comes with busyness, is a lack of time for the thinking, and the being, and the watching. It’s hard, because it means being happy with the space that appears instead, but if we are ever to work with purpose, a sense of deliberation to what we do, it is so, then perhaps now is the time to try to master the space as well as the stuff.