“Purposeful Purposelessness”

Christopher BowerChristopher Bower is a recent social work graduate of Boise State University and a Fulbright Scholar. He will be serving as an English Teaching Assistant in Tajikistan, a mountainous landlocked country north of Afghanistan. He is an invited speaker to the Northwest Conference on Social Work, Portland, Oregon (September 30th and October 1st, 2016).

I must begin by stating that I have not found it necessary to use any mind-altering substance since the 11th of October, 2007, and for that I am extremely grateful. Today, things are different than they used to be. Naturally. I was not always a scrawny, bearded hippy with obnoxious holes in my ears. Now an avid Pokemon card collector, I used to be involved in gang violence, dealing drugs across the Treasure Valley, and heartlessly stealing from the people I called friends, then helping them look for whatever it was I took. By way of my relationship with Boise State University, I have learned to down a fifth of inspiration, roll up a mcfatty blunt of altruism, snort a line of the purest, most refined happiness. My addictive personality, channeled with the right resources, has now brought me elsewhere. I now long to make sense of a seemingly senseless World.

The something I was looking for at the bottom of a bottle, end of a line, or at the base of a bowl in a pipe, it did not exist where I kept trying to find it. Neither did a good excuse to continue on the way I had previously lived, if there even was such a thing. Now I know that what I was really looking for is real, abundant, free, and it comes from helping another person. With the same dedication to my drug addiction, I was introduced to a new passion to attend to in my efforts. How important is it to be passionate when determining the significance of one’s life? Kant would say that we should sacrifice our passions to do what we are good at, in order to materialize our supposed maximum utility in helping others (Schwen & Bass, 2006). Thankfully, what I am passionate about is, in itself, serving others.

All the things I used to talk about while getting high on a couch, like, “Dude, we should go to the Grand Canyon,” only ever ended up as a twelve hour nap, after which I would wake up next to an empty wallet, endless seas of fast “food” wrappers, forty dollar receipts for tacos, and having done nothing I had talked about doing the night before. Again, today, things are different. I owe the newly empowered denial of the petty excuses I once was self-drenched in, fueled by the pre-fabricated MTV existence that I had let keep me from pursuing my actual dreams for so long, to the gift of higher eduation. After a time, I realized I was as fake as the reality I was pretending that I was “cool” in. Boise State University has guided and fostered in me the desire to strive to provide access to education to underprivileged populations, be an active voice for social justice movements, and snatch everything I can from the hurricane of life. It taught me to comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable.

If there is a moral to this story, it is a simple one: if someone is bored, it is because s/he is boring. There is no valid excuse to being bored, I promise. Exhausting them all, I used to deploy these empty claims-as-excuses to do horrible things, like to be a boring, non-thinking, non-questioning, apathetic idiot. Our shared World is too infinitely beautiful for that type of sub-par living. Metaphorically, of course, I ask to be locked up in a room for nine days with nothing but a marble in order to be granted an opportunity to prove that each moment, with the right attitude and intellectual resources, is one with potential for enjoyment. For instance, is it not fascinating that in a classroom we are all just a bunch of fleshy meatbags, sitting in a room made visible by artificial lighting, draped in fashionably shaped organic material that only gets its value according to its spelled out label, like “Patagonia,” or, Gord forbid, “Urban Outfitters.”

We breathe, we eat, we make poopoo, we sleep, then repeat. This monotonous process used to be boring, but with the little jump-start of a Liberal Arts education, it becomes aspirational. Because in between bathroom breaks, hipsterly organic meals, and naps in the ASBSU Office, we get to appreciate it all and explore the boundlessness of our surroundings. Why do we not embrace the nearest tree as the reason we get to breathe when it assists in the conversion of harmful chemicals into respiratory gold? Never worshiping the nearest river as it hydrates the vegetation we get to stir fry or toss into a CrockPot. Avoiding the wonder of the nearest toilet as it wisps away the stench we all dread. Steering clear of appreciating the nearest bed, forgetting that we used to sleep on conveniently geometrically pleasingly shaped rocks; whereas nowadays we have people that spend years at prestigious universities to develop beds that we call “intelligent,” because we can jump on one end and not spill a drink placed on the other. Is this all not fascinating?

As someone that used to purposefully take things for granted, I now feel it a duty to spread the word of the gorgeousness we swim in each moment. For example, due to connections made while attending university, I have gotten to serve with the Belize Education Project, the Centre for Social Action in Bangalore, India, the Wassmuth Center for Human Rights, the coveted LeaderShape retreat, people with disabilities in Colombia and Venezuela, and, most recently, a movement that my brother and I started, called PB&J Sunday, where every Sunday we purchase ethically sourced, healthy foods and go make sandwiches at the local gathering place for the people without houses, engaging in enlivened conversations with people that are not as spoiled as I am.

I know now that we not only have every reason to go out and make a difference, but we have every responsibility – or right – to. And, no excuse not to. If the excuse was ever, “I’m too busy,” I slowly learned that I needed to get creative in order to compensate for this new addiction. Whether it was bringing homework with me on weekend backpacking trips or making so many well-organized to-do lists that I could no longer avoid the heaps of things needing done, there was virtually always a way. If we want to, we can start making a difference with our university foundation right now, and one that actually counts.

We often hear that knowledge is power (thank you, Sir Francis Bacon), and that with power comes great responsibility (thank you, Francois-Marie Arouet). In a university setting, this means that the people we sit in class with, pass by on campus, see TubeYou-ing in the Albertson’s Library, these people all hold a new level of power. We could choose to be frightened by this shared power with those we see. But we should be inspired. Inspired to aggregate our knowledge together as a collective unit to solve this beautiful World’s complex problems.

As someone that studies social work, I am well aware of the problems in this World. As someone that also studies political science, I am equally aware that I am a large part of the problems in this World – as well as everyone else. University has shown me, through rigorous and sometimes unintentionally laughable coursework, that we can be driven by all of these realizations to want to continue to learn, to be a lifelong learner – to remain teachable. Each human being that has ever inhabited this gargantuan space rock, soaring at unfathomable speeds through vast almost-nothingness, has only limitless gifts to offer in terms of lessons to be learned. By taking advantage of these gifts, we have most likely seen feat after feat, once thought to be impossible, accomplished with astonishing ease – though sometimes with considerable barriers as well. I use the word “gift” intentionally, because that is exactly what higher education is: a gift. We ought to remember to treat it like one, no matter how hard we pompously and ignorantly think we have individually worked for it. I only pray that we remain able and willing to give this privilege away with the same passion it has been relayed unto us.

The best way to keep a gift, is to give it away. This may seem dramatically counter-intuitive, but even if it were, that might not necessarily be a bad thing. The true point here being that, if we are to acquire a certain set of skills, like Liam Neeson in that one movie, then hoard them all to and for ourselves, their value is left to be gravely hindered, if not rendered completely useless. Of what use is it to know how to change the World, but instead stop the process at metaphorically lobotomizing ourselves by way of a mundane life, wasting away in front of an idiot box, drowning in life-numbing “reality” shows? To some, the answer may sadly be different than one would hope, with most of these people having probably never been challenged to think of the question. Luckily, higher education hammers out the paving of this road in unique and invaluable ways. Arguably, the most worthy application of the university experience is to challenge ourselves to create a World we are comfortable leaving behind for others when we die, even if we are not content with the way these people currently exist.

On another tangent, I do not believe people are rude; I believe they are unhappy. If we are not aware of what makes us unhappy, or more importantly, what fosters happiness for us, then we will not know we are being rude. Another gift of education is the opportunity to boost our own social and self cognizance, to challenge ourselves to be more aware of how our lives manifest themselves in accordance to our relationship to others. The university climate is one of critical inquiry, one of questions as opposed to answers. This brings to mind one of my life mottos. I have two, and one of which is, “To be awkward and mean it,” which is irrelevant here – maybe. The other is, “To revel in wrongness.” Instead of claiming righteousness, we have an obligation as privileged and educated people to always question things, to seek to be wrong, to be humbled by new knowledge of all that we do not know. After all, when we are absolutely “right” about anything, what is the point in exploring any further? When we are “right,” we are finished, and when we are finished, what is the point? This brings me to a word of advice that I always need to remind myself of: I should not listen to a single thing I say. Regardless, I shall continue.

Specifically, internal quarrels with religion arise for me here. For example, if we are religious and believe it entirely, why would we want to protect our children from death if we really think the afterlife is infinitely superior to this one? Tragically, I also feel that this “God idea” is oftentimes used as an excuse to commit heinous acts. The “God idea” is used, whether purposefully or unknowingly, as a reason to justify inflicting selfishness on others. But if selfishness is what is being justified, then the motives therein are inherently impure, which renders its products – the beliefs – inherently impure. So, true belief is impossible and we are all damned no matter what; (sigh) the religious people are right after all. So, again, what is the point? I do not mean to single religion out, as it is just one of the most glaring examples in my agnosticized experience – thus, I happily include Atheism and its “God” of Science, too (equally damning).

Following this notion, I think that what all of us could work to better understand, is that there is a necessary codependency of the sciences and the humanities. They are, in their ideal forms, a singular unit, undivided by their common goals. If only we saw it for what it actually is. Imagine, a scientist working to discover something non-judgmentally for its positive social consequences and not viewing humans as mere numbers; and an artist coming down from their pseudo-exclusive ivory towers, filled with cheap cigarette smoke, to show scientists the intrinsic beauty of their work. Using art scientifically, using science artistically, this will be increasingly important in a World that is only becoming more divided. Self-proclaimed psuedo-epiphanies like this have been made abundantly clear in my well-rounded educational experience at Boise State University.

When asked what my ideals are, I am reminded of William James’ pragmatic approach, when he writes: “Ideals are relative to the lives that entertain them” (Schwen & Bass, 2006). Even people are just ideas. We would never consider a quad-amputee, say, half of a person – tragically, I am sure some people do adopt this horrific way of thinking anyway. Yet, purely physically, maybe they are, with regards to our narrow-minded expectations of volume and form. Thus, the physical nature of people at all is called into question, too. We are ideas that exist insofar as we are ideas experiencing themselves. What we cannot escape though is that we exist in a perpetual state of exemplifying something. Now, are we being examples of what to be or what not to be? This is indubitably the question!

Albert Camus, a French Existentialist philosopher, posited the idea that the deepest philosophical question we could ever ask is about why we should not kill ourselves. Well, I would venture there are a few diverse platters’ worth of reasons people would give, but it seems to boil down to the idea that we all want to leave our mark. Reiterating the idea that, in a socialized landscape, we are only ever either an example of what to be or what not to be, I mercifully wish for us to place a higher value on the former. This raises another question though: What is a “good” example? I shamelessly both blame and thank philosophy courses for this one. Honestly, as an unshaken yet malleable Agnostic in the most thorough of fashions, I am completely content with there not being an immovable “Truth” in any attempt at an answer to that question.

In essence, we are all thrown into this World with a whiteboard full of meaning and answers that others have had the chance, against our will, to freely scribe upon with whatever they choose, whatever they think is “best” for us. I believe that the university experience is a catalyst for the erasure of our own whiteboards. We all have our own ideas of right and wrong. For instance, my idea that I keep expecting tuition to go down is wrong, and my idea that “Kiss From A Rose” by Seal is the best song ever written is clearly right. But one thing we can all agree on is that country is the worst thing to have ever happened to Earth outside of climate change. I digress…often. Subsequently, who – or what – is to be the judge of such things? Is there even a need to have a designee of sorts in the first place? For me, the definition of insanity is, “always reiterating that the definition of insanity is, ‘doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results,’ over and over again and expecting different results.” I cannot think of a better interjection to end this line of endless questioning with.

In the typical life, people will have experiences that shape their perspectives. With a university education, we are presented with a chance to first get perspectives, then are able to test them out and/or prove them for ourselves through their related experiences after their application. Coupled with being pressed to remain unique, there is a healthy formula at play here. Uniqueness should not be forced though, or one might get socially constipated and metaphorical reconstructive surgery will no longer be an option, because s/he will have been too lost, too far away from who s/he really is. If we exist in anomalies, we begin to think in anomalies. This is how new ideas are born. University pushed me to be a radical with my ideas. If not, then how can I know that I actually believe what I say? However, we must remember to never be a reactionary mess of un-substantive, ad hominem attacks. We must recognize that we live on Earth, so we have to actually organize how we act on radical thought.

A final lesson brings about my love for clichés, like short strolls far away from large bodies of water or long after the sun has gone down. Following enough forced relationships with jargonized bullshit for the sake of jargonized bullshit in academia, I have learned to appreciate simplicity. This in no way means that I practice what I preach – obviously. But that only brings to mind the aforementioned lesson I have picked up to always remain teachable. One of my favorite clichés though is: Professors are not meant to teach; they are, instead, meant to be the chief learner. It is philosophies like this that are apt to shape our educational experiences in ways that yield the most potential for learning.

I have been taught to be grateful for what I have and not resentful for what I do not. With all thanks due to Boise State University, I have been pleasurably learnt back into a state of mystery about all things. The awe and bewilderment of life not only quenches my addictive traits that bend towards craving complexity and hardship, but also soothes me with an unmatched tranquility I could not have received through any other medium. It is awfully weird to acknowledge the role that Boise State University has played in the life I live and love intensely today, and even more so to think that it is coming to its close. The journey through the Rousseauian freeing chains of higher education has been a ride I will likely never regret having taken. Overall, the blessing and curse of university is poetic in stature, Olympic in its impact, and just confusing enough to make sense. The life of critical thinking comes with great responsibility indeed, but now that I know it exists and am sometimes even troubled by over-thinking, I could not imagine a life without it. I will forever be indebted to Boise State University, the Honors College, and any other outlets I have been able to be associated with in pursuing my degrees.

On the brink of impending graduation, I would be remised not to end without a sincere thank you to my Parents, followed by a bout of gratitude for all of the Parental figures in this life, whichever unconventional form they might take. The ones that let us lead ourselves – whether with resolutely deliberate direction, wildly astray, or simply just around – and are there to love us with inimitable compassion when we mess up. At that, I sincerely hope to continue to mess up, because we, as inevitably “fallible” humans, will mess up. Which leaves me with two thoughts: 1) The next time I mess up, I must remind myself that I now have a piece of paper that proves I did it with an endorsement of Boise State University; and 2) I must always remember to be there for those that might need me as well, because this World needs people graced with the privilege of higher education. I have spent enough nights pretending to do homework in the Albertson’s Library while falling into the seemingly guaranteed and insatiable draw of the void of The BookFace, the popular social networking website. It is now time to prove that I have earned my right to make a lasting, systemic, positive change in the World I get to share with all others.

May altruism be our guide and may we seek to bring others up to bask in the glow of the stars with us all, because we are not alone, and some of us just need to be shown to open our eyes and make sense of this seemingly senseless World – for now.

With all the peace in my heart,
-Big Daddy (Papi Grande) Bower.


Schwen, M. & Bass, D. C. (2006). Leading lives that matter: What we should do and who we should be. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.