It's not just the goal, it's your relationship with the goal that matters
This is a great and helpful piece, John. Your points about showing up in the background and not getting overly attached to our goals and imagined futures resonated with me big time. I can also relate to the struggle to find the sweet spot between healthy aspirational force and self-torture. What happens most often is my bipolar bouncing between the two, or between the energizing thrill of the hunt (the hunt being learning and writing, self-discover and self-expression) and the self-torture/diminishment that comes along for the ride—all of it together driven in part by compulsion and ending in a crash. There *is* also often a completed goal (or advancement toward one) ahead of the crash, but still there's a crash. I'd like to remedy that, and I think some of what you wrote here about the distinction between aspirations, goals, and obligations might help.
I especially loved this paragraph:
"Perhaps goals are merely a reflection of a romanticised purpose to our existence, a futile attempt at proving life has meaning, a direction, a telos. Perhaps creating goals is a kind of sublimation of the natural suffering of existence. Our genes just want us to survive, and doing constructive things with our lives feels like we are surviving - tricking us into having a sense of purpose. We create goals as escapism, to avert our attention from the savagery of nature. Or perhaps life does have a purpose, and we are here to strive, to learn, to experience, to create, and to expand our consciousness, as they say. These are interesting questions to which I cannot claim to have an answer."
Are you familiar with the term "surrogate activities." I don't mean to steer this comment down a dark road, but I learned this term recently when reading Ted Kaczynski's "Industrial Society and Its Future" for the first time, and as it relates to my own writing-centered aspirations and goals—among other things—it, too, resonated with me in ways not far off from what you wrote here.
This is a lovely insight and expression of the tension inherent in goals, John.
"A healthy relationship with a goal involves trust in the process, and trust in our systems to pull us towards it, allowing us to be fully immersed in it.
"We worry about the future and grieve the past - but in doing so we lose what is called for in the moment, our full attention to the process.
"By focusing too much on the goal, and being outcome dependent, you’re not focusing on the moment. If you are immersed in creative work, then aiming for sincerity and truth in your work may be more important than the achievement of a mere arbitrary goal."