Nothing frustrates like the promise of purpose and the delivery of wasted time. Worthless, time sucking purposelessness. Wanting to get somewhere, do something, accomplish something useful, but instead getting more “Blahhhh”. I am sure all of us can relate to this feeling at some time or another. The feeling that life is going nowhere.
A few years ago I heard a story that nicely illustrates this kind of frustration. The story describes the experience of a man who hears from God. God tells the man to go outside and push a large stone. Well, if God tells you to do something, who are you to argue? So this man goes outside, sees the enormous stone and begins to push it. Let me just say, if God told you to push a stone, and then you walked out of your house and saw a stone there, you might get the feeling that you are on the right track. You might feel like you are following destiny, fulfilling a purpose. So the man diligently, day after day, pushes and pushes. And he pushes and pushes, and pushes. And the stone…..doesn’t budge. Not an inch, not at all. The man grows more and more weary and frustrated by this task as it seems more and more impossible. He cannot reach his goal no matter how hard he tries, he just gets nowhere. The man finally cries out in his frustration and tells God “I cannot move this stone”. And God says “I didn’t ask you to move it, I asked you to push it”. So profound.
The Myth of Sisyphus
Wait, what?! What is that supposed to mean? You want me to push the stone, not move it? Thanks a lot God, maybe later I can not move something else for you. We can all just sit around not doing stuff. Which reminds me of the ancient myth of Sisyphus. According to the myth Sisyphus was a cruel Greek king who is cursed to endlessly repeat the same worthless task over and over again. Sisyphus is doomed to endlessly push a huge stone up a hill only to watch it tumble down to the bottom again and again for eternity.
When we feel stuck in life we can often feel doomed to push our efforts endlessly and uselessly uphill only to see them and our hopes tumble to the bottom over and over again. Just as we think, “Yes, I can see it, hope, purpose, usefulness”, our dreams crash against the barrier of frustration and hopelessness. The job I thought was the answer to my future and my happiness, the relationship I hoped would pull me out of my slump, leaves me again at the bottom of the mountain that I cannot scale. Trapped in this useless pattern until I just cannot push anymore, I just can’t. In fact I won’t, I won’t waste my time anymore pushing against what I cannot move.
Wax On, Wax Off
This reminds of another man who was asked to do a series of mundane tasks that seemed to him to be absolutely worthless. In fact he was insulted by his sensei’s repeated requests. Wax these cars, paint this fence. The now famous training scenes of the original Karate Kid movie show us someone frustrated to the point of exasperation. “Wax on, wax off”, Mr. Miyagi’s tagline, was essentially telling Daniel to “push” the stone. Are you kidding me? All this pushing is getting him nowhere? Daniel is trying to prepare for the battle of his life and all Mr. Miyagi is teaching him to do is to complete a list of useless chores. Mr. Miyagi is getting shiny cars and freshly painted fences, but for Daniel it’s all just a colossal waste of time.
The “point” of the “pointless”
Of course if you have seen the Karate Kid you know that every job, every effort, every minute actually served as practice for the skills he would need when he faced his greatest challenge. Although each task did not seem to be “up to the task” of training him to fight his battle, and seemed boring and miles away from his purpose, they had actually prepared him perfectly. So it turns out “waxing on” and “waxing off” was not a pointless time wasting task if the goal was truly internalizing the core skills and motions of Karate. For that matter, pushing that stone wasn’t worthless either, if the goal was building resilience, strength, endurance and patience. But it’s easy to miss the point, and some of the purpose, when you feel like you are just wasting time.
Handfuls of Purpose on the Journey
The book of Ruth from the Bible has a quote that works great in the context of this post. The story recounts the experiences of a woman named Ruth who made a journey with her mother in law (Naomi) to return to her mother in law’s homeland. Their lives and their destinies seemed hopelessly stuck. Her mother in law had journeyed to Ruth’s land to find a future, to start a family. What she found was grief, loss and heartache. Naomi, and so Ruth as a part of this family, had suffered many hardships, her husband and two sons (one of which was Ruth’s husband) had died leaving her and her two daughter in laws struggling to survive. Widowed and alone, Ruth and Naomi hoped to gain the favor of a near kinsman so they can survive. Although this moment may have felt like just “pushing a stone”, this moment ended up being full of purpose. Pushing against adversity was worth the effort. Her mother in law’s near kinsman Boaz does indeed show them favor and allows them to glean from his fields. In fact he tells his gleaners to leave “handfuls of purpose” for Ruth who he will in time ask to marry him. The Hebrew word translated as purpose in this passage has the underlying meaning “to draw out”. The situation she found herself in was not her destination, but it was meaningful. Every step of her journey was leading somewhere. Every step had a kernel of purpose she could scoop up to gain just a little more of what she needed to keep moving forward.
The Point of the Push
A moment can be purposeful and meaningful, even if it is not destiny. And sometimes it takes some “drawing out” to see this. Maybe where you are doesn’t seem to be anywhere close to where you want to be. And lets be honest, maybe you aren’t there yet. But look closely, maybe where you are, what you are doing, the burden you are pushing against, the weight you are carrying, maybe it can serve as a training ground for your destination. Maybe your circumstance harbors the opportunity you need to build useful skills and attributes that will serve to prepare you for your arrival in that destiny. Maybe it’s not flashy, enjoyable, or maybe its even miserable, but maybe, just maybe, it’s not a waste of time.