Play, Travel, & the Meaning of Life

Sometimes when traveling, I mull over the purpose of my trip… and of my life. By the standards of some people, I’m wasting my time traveling when I should be filling a house with some combination of stuff and children.

So, today I want to share with you the reason why I’m traveling. Oh, and in the process I will also definitively explain the purpose of life. No big whoop.

In college I studied philosophy, which everyone says is a perfectly useless major. Cute California classmates would consistently ask me, “Why are you studying that?” In fact, I was asked this question so often that I can still remember my canonical response… I would lean over, look directly into my interlocutor’s pretty blue eyes, and with a slow sophomor[ic] grin I’d say, “Well, why do people surf? Why do they dance or make love? Why does it feel so good to jump in the ocean? I study philosophy for the same reason.”

Obviously, I was an insufferable asshole. But that’s not the point. It wasn’t even the truth…

I studied philosophy because it played to my strengths as a writer and thinker. I studied philosophy because I didn’t know what else to do. Most of all, I studied philosophy because I was foolish enough to think I would discover the purpose of life. I honestly expected that. Yes indeed, I was foolish and naive.

Every day the earth spins and all over the green bits people are starving and loving and working and warring and feasting and dancing and dying, and, yes, they’re blogging too. And without the slightest pause the whole cycle starts again.

Have you ever wondered what for? Of course you have… That’s why I studied philosophy. In fact, I took any course that might give me any hint to go on. I studied particle physics, artificial intelligence, poetry, cognitive science, anthropology, etc… I probably spent a year longer in school than I needed to. Ok, maybe two years longer. So you see, this was incredibly important to me. It felt like life and death.

Some of you may also think think figuring out “why” is your life’s most important mission. Well, if that’s what you think then close all your other tabs because I’m going to tell you the answer. Right here, right now.

Are you ready?

The purpose of life…

…is to putz around however you want.


Yup, that’s it.

I suppose it is worth explaining how I came to this discovery. A few years after college I discovered Alan Watts, who became an enormous influence on me. He was the first to expose me to a profound, truly foundational question that was never discussed at the philosophy departments of UCLA or UCSD. That question is this:

“Is it serious?”

And by “it” he meant the whole dang caboodle: life, the universe, god. Ya know, shit like that.

The Puritans thought it was extremely serious. They believed that you have to work and produce because you’ve been put here for a reason— to do “god’s work.” As Americans, we have this kind of thinking mixed right into our Sunny D-Lite. Even if we’ve dropped the belief in God we’re very anxious to find our purpose and to achieve and to maximize our ability to “get things done.” These days we seek out “life hacks.” As if life is a problem in need of a solution. That’s actually quite funny and I’m laughing as I type.

(I wonder if this serious streak helps explain why we rank so low on the health leaderboards even though they eat more sausages in Germany, smoke more cigarettes in France, and eat more simple carbs in Italy.)

“We are here on Earth to fart around. Don’t let anybody tell you any different. — Kurt Vonnegut

It’s not just America. It’s pretty standard across modern industrialized cultures to assume something is more “real” if it’s serious:

  • “He isn’t serious about his studies.”
  • “Is this a serious relationship?”
  • “It’s time to get serious about my career in stand-up comedy.”

Let me ask you, at what age should a person “get serious”? 5, 15, 25, 35, 55? How serious should we be at 75 or 85? Should our seriousness during our lives form a bell curve?

“Angels fly because they take themselves lightly.— GK Chesterson

Is there any faster way to take the enchantment out of a relationship than to make it fundamentally serious? Or do you go for that ever-so-steamy serious sex? How serious do you want your life, really? And if there is a god, how serious do you think she is?

If humans aren’t making god chuckle, I feel sorry for her. Seriously.

Because of Alan, I’ve accepted the basic idea that the universe is fundamentally not serious. Once you take this point of view, it’s clear that you don’t have to live. You don’t owe your life to society or God or your parents or your company or whatever you’re praying to these days.

Life is an invitation to play— and accepting that invitation is just as important, just as vital, as any other activity you could possibly do.

But for most people, this is hard to accept. Because, if you were not “put” here for a reason, then you actually don’t have to exist at all… If you don’thave to go on living, then you are making a personal choice to embrace life every day, and that’s more responsibility than a lot of people are ready for.

In the end, realizing that life is fundamentally playful has some surprisingly heavy consequences.

Another irony here is that “getting serious” is just another form of play. And a fine form indeed. I love a good drama. Beethoven composed very beautiful, very serious music… but it still needs to be played. Everything you see is played “on the world” in just the same way that tennis is played on a court or a play is performed on a stage or a song is played on an instrument. Or at least, that’s what mystics are talking about when they refer to the ground of all being… The ground of all being is the PS4 that the entire universe is being played on.

Don’t believe for a second that something is more real when it’s more serious. The highest level of expression, performance, and love will always maintain a sense of play.

And if you remove the playful part, watch out: you may also remove the zest. (The savor, the brio, the bite, the tang, the oomph, the panache, the esprit, the verve, the vim, the élan, the gusto, the flair.)

And this is where it gets a bit tragic. People spend their whole lives trying to get “there”— trying to arrive at a serious destination like success, or heaven or enlightenment, or even happiness… but in fact they’ve been missing “here” the whole time. That’s a recipe for removing the juice from life.

We’re here, spinning around on a totally raw and wild planet, floating in space on the arm of a galaxy, and it feels like there is something we just have to do. But our lives are a free-form dance, an open-world adventure, an unguided tour, an enormous improv session, and the ultimate romance.

With all that out of the way, I can finally explain, at least to myself, why I travel.

“Why do people surf? Why do they dance or make love? Why does it feel so good to jump in the ocean.”

That’s why.

Photo credit: Unsplash