What is the purpose of your life?

August 26, 2006 | By | 5 Replies More

One day Alice came to a fork in the road and saw a
Cheshire cat in a tree.
‘Which road do I take?’ she asked.
‘Where do you want to go?’
‘I don’t know.’
‘Then,’ said the cat,’ it doesn’t matter.’ 

Lewis Carrol: Alice in Wonderland

One thing fundamentalists have that many of us lack is a well-practiced response to why they exist and what life is all about.  Their response goes something like this: “I am here to serve Jesus Christ so that I can join Him in heaven. How do I serve him?  I follow these Ten Commandments.” 

Pretty slick, eh?  The entire purpose of a human life boiled down to ten seconds.

What about the rest of us? What would we say if someone asked us for our “purpose”? Would we even claim to have “a purpose.”  If forced to answer, many of us might say that we’re “trying to get by” or that we’re simply “doing the best we can” or that we try to follow the golden rule.  But most of us don’t have anything resembling the simplistic formula of fundamentalists.  At first glance, that fundamentalist formula makes fundamentalists look decisive, strong and admirable.  This succinct certitude probably gains lots of converts among the many people who join up.  In reality, though, such a simple statement of purpose serves only as a mere placeholder that raises (or should raise) hundreds of questions among honest and thoughtful people. 

I haven’t worked out any succinct statement regarding my “purpose” in life [not that I haven’t tried—here’s one tongue in cheek attempt – my “new improved” version of the Ten Commandments).  Is it a problem whereever one has not worked out one’s purpose in the form of a short string of words?  At the gut level, I am inclined to say yes. I’d like to be able to say something to look strong and decisive (like those fundamentalists).  I’d like to display that same smug self-satisfaction that the fundies display.  Intellectually, though, I am skeptical that any such statement could be concocted or, if concocted, that it could be put to any meaningful use. 

But it would be nice to have something that look presentable.  Then when someone wanted to know who you were, you could say:  “My name is X and my purpose is Y.” 

How else could such a statement of purpose be useful?  Seven years ago I became a parent. To prepare, I read several books on how to raise children.  The advice given by the various books often conflicted to the point of absurdity.  For instance, one prominent author wrote that you should never tell your child “no.”  The rationale given was that saying “no” would damage the child’s self-esteem.  Another author stated that children need a daily dose of “vitamin N” (no).  He reasoned that, as adults, we tell ourselves “no” all day long and it’s good for us.  Therefore, it’s also good for children to get used hearing the word “no.”

Amidst the confusion generated by all of those child care “expert” authors, one child-raising book stood out to me [The Manipulative Child: How to Regain Control and Raise Resilient, Resourceful and Independent kids, by E.W. Swihart and Patrick Cotter].  The authors suggest that parents should take the time to write down their statements of personal values.  Parents often haven’t seriously thought about what they believe or the conflicts inherent in their belief systems.  In other words, the authors recommended that parents draft a statement of what they are tying to accomplish when they parent their children.

Fair enough. Certainly, the challenges of parenthood include many moments when one faces conflicting goals and (therefore) conflicting solutions.  It can be helpful to have some articulated ideas ready to guide you in those moments.  But it’s not enough to simply say “I will try to be a good parent.” As much as this sort of statement resonates in the abstract, it doesn’t really give a parent any real guidance regarding any real-life dilemma.

With regard to parenting, I decided that I wanted to cultivate honor, honesty, integrity, curiosity and kindness in my children (who doesn’t?). But striving for teach your children the importance of these traits seemed too abstract. After considering this issue further, I landed on this: I will not be alive forever to take care of my children.  It is possible that I will only be around for a few more years (if that).  Therefore, my decisions should always be guided by the thought that I am here for a limited time to teach my children to skills they will need in my absence to navigate and survive this oftentimes confusing and dangerous world.  This principle is practical enough to give me real traction. When I am faced with the dilemma of whether to do something for my children, or to teach and encourage them to do that same thing for themselves, my principle steers me toward the latter.  Teach a man to fish is a big part of what guides me in parenting my children.  That principles helps me because it’s neither too general nor too specific for the task at hand.  I serves as a bridge between abstract principle and day-to-day action.

But why stop at parenthood? Shouldn’t each of us take the time to articulate a statement regarding the personal values that guide our interactions with people outside of our households?  After all, we are often faced with social and moral dilemmas for which we have hundreds of conflicting moral rules that aggregate to no practical guidance (not that the Fundies’ purpose statement gives any better guidance). In many situations, we often make decisions ad hoc. Would we come to the same decision next time we are faced with a similar situation?  It all depends, right? Depends on what?  It just depends, because we aren’t really acting in accordance with any articulated rule.  We’re just working our way through the day, sometimes flying by the seat of the pants.

So why are you here on earth? A sarcastic response might be that “I am here because I was born and I didn’t die yet.”  For me, it would be satisfying to come up with something better.  I am not certain this can be done, but it just seems that it would responsible to try to work out some principle (something with more nuts and bolts, more real life traction than “Love thy neighbor as thyself”). 

A few weeks ago, Grumpypilgram wrote a post that mentioned an article that bicycling could be bad for the environment because widespread bicycling would extends the lives of bikers, thus putting more long-term stress on the environment.  The article was written tongue-in-cheek, but it illustrates my point nicely. If one’s ultimate goal in life is really to minimize stress to the environment, then the best course of action would keep those humans off of those health-enhancing, life-lengthening bicycles!  But no one would really suggest that our ultimate aim should be to wipe out all the humans to salvage the environment.

That post got me thinking.  What are the kinds of things that people say when asked their ultimate purpose?  Based on the formulations of purpose others often concoct, it’s not a pretty sight.

Some people really see Earth as a mere way station, a disposable diaper one visits during one’s travels to heaven or oblivion.  [Purpose: Exploit the Earth, dominating all other forms of life].  Others believe that being a good steward of the environment is a credential that would make it more likely that one would be admitted to heaven [Purpose:  Nurture Mother Nature].

Even lots of non-Fundies focus on heaven, of course.  And people have many types of beliefs that (they believe) get them into heaven (Beliefs about what is sufficient to get one into heaven should be the topic of another post someday).  For instance, I’ve encountered people who are convinced that a highly materialistic consumerist lifestyle is evidence that God loves them and that they will be admitted to heaven as long as they keep living high on the hog and uttering those magic words, “I accept Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior.” Those two things, then (rampant consumerism and the utterance of magic words) would serve, for some, as their purpose for being alive.

Others believe that their purpose is to live for others.  Living for others runs a continuum, though.  There are those of us who say they want to dedicate our lives to the needy (of many stripes) but never actually get around to it.  On the other hand, there are people who truly deny themselves most creature comforts because actually give away much of what they have for the benefit of others.  I’ve also run across people who say their purpose is to keep a particular person (or family) happy: Codependence as a life purpose.

There are also people who have never actually articulated any purpose for living, though their actions make their purpose apparent.  Some people want to be the best baseball fan their team has ever seen. Some people who are obsessed with collecting, whether it be stamps, musical CDs or porcelain cherubs. There are many people who feel obsessed to learn as much as they can about some topic or another before they die.  Some people sincerely assert that their “purpose” is too be drunk or stoned as often as possible—I’ve met a few of these.  Or to have as much sex as possible (I’ve met a few of these too).  Or to fight off all human emotions, instincts and urges—to be the world’s best ascetic.  Or to have as many children and grandchildren as possible.

There are lots of people out there with “purposes” that sound trite to me.  Some people simply want to be popular, so they party hard.  Some people have a main purpose to be concern themselves with movies and movie stars.  The purpose of some people is to live in a very big house with a well-groomed yard and to drive a fancy car.  Some people want to get rich or to be universally liked.  There are people whose purpose is to gain the respect of someone else and others whose purpose is to prove someone else wrong.  There are “attention-addicted” people for whom applause functions as crack cocaine.  There are people whose purpose is to scour the social landscape looking for ever-more reassurance (from others) that they are handsome or beautiful or talented or funny or brave or different.

But do people really need personal Constitutions or even Preambles?  I don’t think so, but I’m not certain of this.  Life might be like a song– something one should enjoy for its own sake, without overanalyzing it. Maybe the purpose of life, if there is such a thing, is ineffable.  Maybe it’s best, then, that we refrain from articulating an overall purpose for our lives. 

Nietzsche often expressed frustration we can’t really use simple words to express the complexity of life.  Perhaps Nietzsche’s frustration should serve as another warning.  Just like trying to analyze a song can ruin the listening experience, perhaps trying to squeeze an overall purpose of life into a sentence or two might needlessly blind us from some of the many alternate paths life offers and distract us from experiencing life’s wide range of meanings.

As was true with Alice, if we have no articulated purpose, we might not know which road to take.  But there’s also that downside to having a purpose: you can miss a lot.  If you have a vacation agenda, for example, it might cause you to walk right past something that would have made your vacation exceptional—if only you’d been open to it. 

The end.  Time for me to get back to that smorgasbord of life.

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Category: Consumerism, Culture, Good and Evil, Language, Meaning of Life, Psychology Cognition

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (5)

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  1. Erika Price says:

    I don't know about you, but I often enjoy a song as a listening experience more when I analyze it. Then again, others get worse the more I focus on the lyrics (especially if I don't agree with the content of lyrics). It seems funny that we cling to the suggestions for other people in our attempt to make sense of the ways we live our lives; we like the sentiment of "carpe diem", but we also think that "the unexamined life isn't worth living". In newer terms, "the early bird gets the worm" but we should also "stop and smell the roses". How can we possibly want or have both?

    A teacher of mine once gave some actually noteworthy advice, regarding the act of giving advice itself. She said, "we live in an age of contradictions, so you should sort things out for yourself rather than follow any canned advice." I think humans have always lived among myriad contradictions, hence the flurry of contradicting statements that somehow all strike us as wise or insightful. Whether we like it or not, life lacks any kind of objective, universal meaning or purpose, and it seems as though whenever someone finds their own personal solution to existential crisis they think that it can apply to everyone else.

  2. high and mighty says:

    Fantastic. I think that an underlying principle has been mentioned.  To articulate encloses, confines, and locks us in to behaving in a given, predictable fashion. And yes, language is a poor means of communicating. Some things simply have to trancend the intellectual processing and verbal articulation, and allow the body to experience these things. This idea almost borders on the spiritual, and being a Pagan, I often allow things to be intuited. Words are or can be vacuous, while actions, as i have said many times in other places, are the sole determinant of a person's desires and intent

  3. monkishfeline says:

    existence is essentially musical in nature. as a parent myself, i too see my role as one who must give my children the tools to create their future. as far as the purpose of life, in my opinion, looking at it from a macroscopic view, everything and anything we do or don't do will not consequently effect the universe in the larger sense of spacetime. as far as the immediate future, i've said before that life is a series of choices, choices so eminent and yet insignificant it defines all resulting interaction. a c'est la vie!!

  4. Dan says:

    To seek meaning or purpose in the fact of existence is one of the philosophical fallacies that burden our collective psyche, and cause religions. The most common solution invokes the "agent fallacy" wherein one assumes that anything that happens is due to the will of an autonomous entity. Naturally, "we" are the chosen few to benefit from the beneficent agent at the root of our one and only true faith, as opposed to "them". What makes us chosen? Our species, race, gender, geography, language, diet, handedness, and/or whatever we read into whichever text is gospel.

    "Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought" by Pascal Boyer is a very good book for anyone who wants to try to understand the other side in religious debates (whichever).

    Anyway, I think that meaning comes from purpose enacted. I think Erich has expressed this well without resorting to the sweeping generalities and obscure words to which I am prone.

    I can't resist a reference to "up with which I will not put": http://www.wsu.edu/~brians/errors/churchill.html

  5. Jason Rayl says:

    What Is The Purpose of Life?

    The way it is phrased, there is no answer. It lacks one word to make it useful.

    What Is the Purpose of Life Today?

    That's really all you get. What are you gonna do TODAY? Sometimes it's the same thing you did yesterday, and may be the same thing you do tomorrow, and if it continues, then a pattern is established, but it all comes down to deciding what the point of getting out of bed TODAY is going to be.

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