Last night Thom and I sat down to watch a new Syfy thriller on television. Although the reviews were promising, after about a half hour of watching things blow up, people dying, and young-twenty-somethings behave in idiotic ways, we turned it off. After all, what was the point? That question has been on my mind after finishing a book entitled The Point Is by Lee Eisenberg. The author believes that how we answer that question should help each of us make sense of birth, death and everything in between. And maybe, just maybe, answering it on a regular basis could assist us in living SMART and making the most of every precious moment of our lives.
Unfortunately, a lot of what seems to happen is that many people’s lives appear to ramble along without a consistent or meaningful point. And yes, I can be guilty of that myself now and then. Whenever we rush around, filling up our days with busy work or habitual activities, whenever we live unconsciously doing things we think other people want, whenever we take the easy way out because it doesn’t seem to matter, we are muddling up the point. Our point. Then like the television program from last night, perhaps it’s time just to turn it off?
Naturally, a journalist and author like Eisenberg believes the key to finding out the point of our lives is for us each to create a story out of it all. Whatever narrative we use for our ever-evolving story allows us to, “link our ‘reconstructed past’ –how we remember things, accurately or not—with our imagined future.” To the extent we hone our narrating skills and create a story that gradually becomes complete, coherent and ultimately meaningful, to that degree do the “points” of our lives become fulfilling and satisfying.
Yet Eisenberg doesn’t just let it all go with that statement. Instead, like any writer, he weaves together elements of his learning and understanding to showcase how every story evolves. Of course, there is the beginning, middle and ending which all must add up to something significant to both the storyteller and anyone else who is listening.
Do the themes and events in our story matter? Yes and no. What matters most in any story is what we choose to remember and where it goes from there. The author quotes Gerald M. Edelman, a Nobel Prize winner with, “Every act of perception is to some degree an act of creation, and every act of memory is to some degree an act of imagination.”
Eisenberg is also a fan of thinking through the prolog to our life stories. Don’t believe you have one? Were you born a blank slate or were pre-loaded with some form of software? Were you born into bliss or born into sin? What is the legacy of your species? What prejudices does your culture hold? What does all that mean to you as an individual? While we seldom take the time to think about it, it matters to our story. Eisenberg says, “How you conjure your prestory can have a definite bearing on what you expect the ultimate point of your life to be.”
Once we get going with our narrative it is common to focus on the turning points that stand out in our memories. Those key, or “nuclear episodes” help to move the story forward in a predictable way. Those wisdom events are usually a time when we undergo a significant change in our lives. Discovering your calling in high school, meeting your soul mate, confronting the person who betrayed you, landing that coveted job, getting cancer, writing that book, are all pivotal points that can all lead up to the point behind it all.
But as any writer knows, it’s the middle of the story that can get bogged down and cause trouble. Why? Because if a writer (or a person living their life) waits until the middle to start wondering about the point of it all and how it might end, then the entire story can often stall or go completely off the rails. Whether it’s a life, an article, or a book, it’s the same. If I start a blog post without knowing what my point is, I’ll find myself in the middle with a bunch of words on a page and confused about what comes next. So, why should a midlife crisis be a surprise when people find themselves nearing 50 with no idea how they got there and fear for what comes next.
Eisenberg believes a key to avoiding a pointless life is to get past a hazy passivity, idle uselessness, and disengagement with life. Instead, he says, “A meaningful life is one that satisfies desires; connects to something beyond yourself; and results in something of objective, positive value.” But going even further, it is collectively weaving the memories and events in our lives and recognizing that we are moving onward and upward in a progressively positive way. Ultimately, “It’s the shape of a life that matters.”
The challenge, of course, is not to let the final stage, or third part of the story, end up in a downward-sloping slog. Now that so many of us are living for extended years in “biological sterility,” the larger point of our lives has nothing to do with our ability to procreate and everything to do with ongoing creativity. So, what meaning will we find there and what will we make of it? Eisenberg is convinced that exploring how we want our story to end offers benefits to all of us in the process.
Of course, all writers struggle with wondering when the story is complete. Every post I write I am tempted to add another paragraph, to clarify something else more fully, to explore a new idea. But when is enough, enough? Similarly, is there ever a right time to die? By first overcoming the strangeness of death and any fears and aversions we hold, it’s beneficial to wrap up our narratives on a high, rather than a painful descent into fear, pain and suffering. As Eisenberg says, “The main thing is that a story, long or short, and a life story, long or short, be well resolved by the end. Does the story deliver? And does it satisfy?”
There are a lot of other writing tips in the book and lots of questions about how we view life and death. But best of all is Eisenberg’s admonition, “The point is to write the best story we can. The point is to keep the story from obsessing over what’s lacking, inferior, or ugly in life and instead cast our attention on the good, the true, and the beautiful, never overlooking the pain or injustice but confronting them.” While those elements might not be the point of your personal story, it might be SMART to include them in of at least one your chapters.