I DID IT ON PURPOSE
Over the ages humans have repeatedly asked the question, “What is the purpose of life?” or “Why are we here?” These questions only have meaning to someone who believes in a God or at least recognizes there is a spiritual aspect to life (i.e. believes in the possibility of something beyond the physical). If you believe life (including human life) just happened by chance, then these questions are probably meaningless.
If life just happened it would be nonsense to talk about nothingness having a purpose. Purpose becomes a moot point. As a result, Post Modern (twentieth century) philosophers have had the problem of responding to the question of purpose. Their solution is to reason, “Since we don’t know if there is a creator of life, then life is a chance happening and chance has no particular purpose associated with it. Therefore, if you have a need for purpose, you’re on your own. The best you can do is construct or invent a purpose you believe is reasonable and try to live with that.” Such a solution really skirts the question as being irrelevant or at best unanswerable. However, most people seek something more concrete. The fact that these questions of purpose have been propounded by millions throughout history is an indication that humans have thought purpose in life was a reasonable and relevant quest. Logically, if all societies known to anthropologists have pondered and suggested answers to life purpose questions, they must be relevant and meaningful questions that deserve further investigation rather than be dismissed as irrelevant. Why do these questions keep coming up unless they are relevant and there is a possible answer? Modern science has made incredible discoveries precisely since science assumed answers can be found to logical questions rather than dismiss them as being irrelevant as many post modern philosophers have. If you are reading this, then you, too, probably share the view that questions of life purpose are too unsettling to be put out of mind.
Pondering questions of life’s meaning necessarily brings us into the realm of religion or spiritual issues. One solution to the question of meaning is to go to the holy writings of whatever religion one espouses for an official answer to the question. For example, being a Christian I would go to the Bible for its answer. However, I’ve found a pat answer like, “Mankind’s purpose in life is to serve God”, may be a simplistic answer that really doesn’t give much direction unless the speaker is forced to think logically through the issue further. I feel that if we approach the question of purpose logically first, Christians and other spiritually minded people are forced to construct practical meaning into their belief and will have clearer directions to follow. Asking this question of yourself first, moves you to find an answer you can understand and use immediately. I invite the reader to follow this logical progression first and then supplement that with advise from a Christian or spiritual perspective.
I’ve found the clearest and simplest introduction to the question of life’s meaning was written by the philosopher, Aristotle, some 300 years before Christ. He laid out a logical progression that will form a good introduction to the topic regardless of one’s religious persuasion. Aristotle reasons on why Purpose in life is so importance and then provides a logical method to evaluate that purpose in his Nichomachean Ethics. He suggests that when we talk about Purpose we talk about function. And just as a good horse, car, tool fulfills a purpose, the same must be true of humans. Also, he submits when we ask,”what man’s purpose is?” we’re inquiring about man’s function. And just as we can easily answer the question of the purpose of a hammer by inquiring as to its function, we can do the same with mankind. Finally, he avers in living we need a purpose as much as an archer needs a target to know whether he has reached his goal.
As Aristotle suggests, let’s pursue the question of mankind’s function. So what is man’s function? He reasons that just as a shoemaker or carpenter has a proper function that can then be evaluated to discern whether he is a good carpenter or not, to conclude that “man as Man” has none is absurd and that purpose can’t be “simply living …He shares that with plants.” Aristotle reasons it’s necessary to ask what separates man from other animals. Just as we could ask, “what separates a hammer from a chisel?” The answer involves the function of each. So what is it that separates man? Aristotle says our rational, thinking ability is the answer and must be taken into the equation of mankind’s purpose. No other known forms of life have this ability at the level of humans. Our purpose is to use this ability to the level we are capable. I would also add our ability to Love by which I mean an unselfish interest in the welfare of others. This too, ties in with our mind’ ability. Only with a highly developed mind are we as humans capable of empathy, the ability to reason how one would feel if he were in the circumstance of another.
Reason tells us we are capable of feats other forms of life are not. We have well developed minds, we are able to reason extensively. We can logically follow a long chain of propositions to a meaningful conclusion. We also have a highly developed sense of fellow feeling we might call love. Aristotle concluded that if these qualities separate us from other forms of life, if we were born with these distinguishing faculties, our purpose for being was to use these faculties to their full realization. Aristotle reasoned that our purpose in life was to use our special gifts, perfect them, expand them and use them to a good end wherever they lead. He concluded that our highly developed minds that we share with no other earthly forms of life are a clue as to our purpose.
With this in mind a Christian would reason thusly. Why is it we were made by God? What was his purpose for us? Was it to simply worship him? That’s not really an answer is it? If anything, that might be an answer to why we are in existence but not an answer as to what our purpose is. Furthermore, it’s rather illogical to think we were created to worship God since by definition God is self sufficient. The only plausible reason for a benevolent God to create life would be to share the joy of life with others. Now, an indifferent or malevolent God might have as his purpose self-amusement, but most religions including Christianity reason that there is first enough evidence to conclude there is a much higher probability that there is a God rather than not. Once one satisfies himself that there is a God and that he is indeed benevolent, it follows God wants to share his pleasure and joy and profundity of living with us. Now we again ask, what is my purpose?
A Christian or any other person with a spiritual background also is furnished with another clue as to purpose in life. Christians are familiar with the concept of God as a benevolent father. In fact, most all religions have discovered the tremendous practical power of love. Starting with the idea that God is the source of love and, in fact, the Bible goes so far as to say “God is love” (1 John 4:8). Just dwelling on that terminology for a moment helps us a great deal with working out life’s purpose from a Christian perspective. All major religions have come to the same conclusion, that love is among the most powerful forces in the universe and that love is the basis of all benevolence and growth and progress in society. Rather than stall our discussion here while we reason on a definition for love, I’d posit that love is at minimum an unselfish concern for others and their welfare. Given then that all major religions have independently concluded that God is the source of love (even Eastern religions such as Hinduism and Buddhism that conceive God as being the universe itself and that humans are actually a little part of God still recognize that the universe or God is the source of love), we can use this concept in our reasoning. If God is the embodiment of love then He, by definition, is conceived of as interested in our welfare in an unselfish way. Arguing from the position of love, the major reason man was created by (or comes from) God was due to his concern for the welfare of others and to share his joy and pleasure with others. If that is true, what is mankind’s purpose? God’s purpose for mankind could not just be to have others glorify Him or praise Him, since that’s not a purely loving motive. Though those are ancillary results of God’s sharing of life, they cannot be his primary desire (given that God is love). If God is love, he wants to share his happiness, joy and pleasure with others. Jesus was able to state in one sentence his perceived purpose in living. He affirmed, “My purpose is to give life in all its fullness” (John 10:10). A Christian takes this cue from her model Jesus Christ. Jesus’ purpose helps illuminate man’s purpose. Doesn’t this tell us something about purpose for mankind?
In my estimation many Christians have an incomplete picture of why God envisioned the notion of humankind. Some have the idea that God wanted someone to worship him or to praise him and therefore, mankind’s purpose is to follow the design pattern. If that was God’s purpose then it would be true our goal is to worship, to praise, to stand in awe of our Creator. However, just a little bit of reasoning exposes that concept as a fallacy. Reason this way for a moment. If, as Jesus proposed, God is our father, we are led to a somewhat different position. Our conception of a father is one that loves his children. His motive beyond just procreation is to have someone to love, to pass on the pleasures and enjoyment he has experienced, to share. Reason would dictate that is precisely God’s motive in conceiving of mankind. God wants to share the enjoyment, the pleasure of life, the ecstasy of existence with others. Our intuitive conception of God is one who is complete in himself. He doesn’t need to create life merely to worship him. He’s beyond that.
If we can only conclude that God’s motive is love and love is more than just sharing, we have a notion of why humankind is in existence. God wants us to be joyful, to experience the pleasure he does. What an affront to our creator to look at life as a drudgery and an experience we are forced to endure. Yet that is the way some Christians appear to view the exquisite gift of existence. No, the Christian perspective is that our purpose is to experience, to enjoy, to relish life with all its beauty and diversity. Not that worship doesn’t come into the picture, of course it does. Naturally we intuitively feel the need to express thanks for what we have been given. Naturally we’re grateful for this undeserved and unimaginable gift of life. Mankind could not help but praise and acknowledge the unrequited love of our creator. But to say that worship and praise of our Maker is our primary purpose in life is putting the cart before the horse. Our purpose was and is to experience joy, happiness actually. Worship and praise is natural by-product of our experience.
I’d like to establish several thoughts I think we can all agree on. As humans, we have inherent within us a goal-seeking mechanism like all other forms of life. We are constructed to seek pleasure and the optimum circumstances for our growth and lives. But we have well developed minds that set us far above other forms of life. Also, we are seeking a fulfillment that is open-ended, not closed-ended like animals. What I mean is if a plant or animal grows, survives and propagates and takes its place in the balance of nature, it fulfills its purpose. That purpose is clear and easily stated. A plant or animal seeks no more and no less. Its capabilities are limited and therefore its vision is limited. Humans are different, we have vastly more capabilities. With our minds we can imagine, we can imagine what could be, what we’d like to be and even imagine what others are thinking and going through, we can have empathy. There are so many more possibilities. That’s what makes it so difficult to answer the question, “What is our purpose, what is life’s purpose for humans?”
Aristotle’s answer was happiness. The final purpose is “self-sufficient” in that it makes life “desirable and deficient in nothing.” He calls this “Happiness.” He felt all of us are looking for that elusive circumstance that will bring happiness. But Aristotle was quick to point out that what people think could be happiness may not be. Unless one uses his mind prominently in seeking and living this life of happiness, one would be accepting less than he could. He wouldn’t be truly happy.
I remember at the time of my origin study thinking, Aristotle didn’t give me the answers but he did give me the encouragement to continue in my personal search. It wasn’t long after that that I was leafing through a psychology self-help book at a book store that a phrase seemed to jump out at me. The simple term was “peace of mind”. I realized then and there that was my personal answer and to this day I maintain that what everyone really wants, deep down and in the end, when all is said and done, people want to feel simply a sense of peace of mind about themselves and their lives. Let me tell you a little of what peace of mind means to me and you decide if that term is a synonym for happiness and is really what everyone is striving for. Peace of mind (I’ll just call it PM here) is more than just a clear conscience. It is a feeling of fulfillment of oneself. It’s a validation of one’s existence. My life has significance. I matter! Something good came from my being born. I can leave and I don’t care about any rewards in an afterlife. I can tell God I tried! I couldn’t do it perfectly, I couldn’t love like You loved, I couldn’t create beauty as You created beauty but at least I tried. I tried at least sometimes to make a difference, not all the time but at least some of the time and sometimes I think I got it right!
Peace of Mind is a feeling that God permeates one’s being, I’ve found. I can always console myself when I’m down, at least I’m trying, and I’m really trying. PM is that sweetest feeling. I can sleep at night, I made mistakes today and maybe I didn’t really try today but some days and maybe tomorrow I do get it right. I know I have a place in society. I’m a productive member of society. I am aware of my relationships first with God and with my fellow sojourners in life and I know they are important. But one of the most important relationships is the one I have with myself. Whatever anyone else thinks of me, if I don’t think I’m worth anything, what else matters? I’m trying, though, I’m not doing it perfectly and that’s okay. The Bible reminds me that God himself said,”That’s okay”, that’s why Jesus died for me too.
This idea of PM that I’m trying to describe is more than just self-esteem. Self-esteem is a feeling of competence. Though that’s important, there is more to it than that. Self-esteem or competence gives you confidence in public but PM is a feeling within yourself between you and yourself alone. I’m a genuine person, I’m the real thing. I’m trying to live as the real thing. I don’t have to worry I’ll be “found out”. Confronted, I say, “Sure, I made that mistake and many others but I’m trying”. “Most of the time my motives are pure,” I can say. Now tell me honestly, isn’t that what we all want? Isn’t that the happiness that we all want to attain? I can hear some holy person (and I’m not using the term in a derogatory way here) say, “But isn’t that a bit selfish?” And I say, “Yes, it is but isn’t that exactly what you want?” Is there any sweeter feeling than the moment you long to hear, when before your Maker, He’ll say, “Well done, good and faithful servant, enter into the joy of your Master”. (Matthew 25:21-3) Yes, that’s what you want, too, though it may have a tint of selfishness in there somewhere. (See my treatment on motive in another place to clarify this).
So the very day I came to my personal realization of the necessity of PM, I vowed I’d make it a goal. I want this PM, whatever it takes. This is the happiness I could never quite define before. I realize it’s possible. Then and there I agreed to assess myself periodically asking did I act today as if PM was my goal. Do I feel PM yet? I, of course, didn’t do it every day and not even consciously when I did do an assessment. Little changes here and there in my life occurred. I’ll confess that it was about 10 years later, when I was reviewing the past year in preparation for my New Year’s resolution, did I first come to the realization, “You know, I really think I lived last year more of the time with a feeling of PM than without”. Wow! What a great feeling!
The point is, I’m trying. I can’t contain the feeling. For the first time I know what the Bible means when it says, we can have “The peace of God that excels all thought” (Philippians 4:7). Yes, it is possible. That’s real happiness. I know what the saint that wrote those words really meant. And though I can’t describe it fully (just like he admitted, it “excels all thought”), it’s possible! I’m the first to admit, though, it can be
In the years that have intervened since Aristotle’s time, there have been many millions of people that have testified they were truly happy. Especially today, where we perhaps have more people living at one time who consider themselves genuinely happy than ever before in history, we have the opportunity to survey and learn from their experience. Human progress has eliminated poverty for many, sickness for many, and opened doors for many. And what we’ve learned since Aristotle’s time is that happiness is not an end in itself. We can never get to a place called happiness. Seeking purely happiness is elusive. Happiness is not so much an end or destination but rather a result or by-product. When you fulfill your purpose, you experience happiness. By the same token, once one is no longer living his purpose, happiness dissipates. So, yes, happiness is possible and in fact, is probable, but it’s not what humans primarily seek.
From my own experience and interviews of others over a lifetime, I have found the truly happy people are those who tell me what they really want is not so much happiness but fulfillment. They tell me they long for a feeling of doing what they like to do, seeking fulfillment in their lives by doing what they know and dream they are capable of. The feeling most people want to experience is probably best referred to as “peace of mind,” not just happiness. Happiness is the “feeling” people want but not necessarily the purpose.
I can summarize what others have reported about purpose in a simple sentence, using the experiences of those who have lived a life with sustained happiness over a lifetime. I haven’t paid attention to those who in a moment of euphoria say they are happy. Everyone that wins the lottery says she is happy, she is excited but in many cases, a year or so later, the happiness has evaporated. What is it that individuals who experience sustained happiness over long periods of time tell us? They say they are happy because they are doing something they enjoy doing and they are seeing good come from their endeavors. What they all have in common, the baseball player, the clergyman, the teacher, the metalworker, the carpenter and the homemaker is this: they are using their capabilities, whatever they may be, for some positive outcome. Humans strive to use the abilities they have, the abilities they excel at, whether they be entertaining others, creating with their hands, caring for others, building something of value (that could be houses, businesses or objects of art). Happiness need not be so elusive after all. What we really want is to feel fulfilled and that simply requires using what talents we have and to the extent we are capable.
What I’d add personally is that perfecting capabilities simply for one’s personal joy does not promote long-term fulfillment. The lives of countless others prove that to us. Many like VanGogh, who painted pictures for his personal amusement only, to paint and not share with others, are not truly fulfilled. So I’d add to the above summary by saying that a life that emotes happiness is one that uses and attempts to perfect his or her talents and abilities with the aim of enriching the lives of others around him or her. Furthermore, only a life that over the long term brings with it sustained happiness is a life that is fulfilling his/her purpose in life. So while Aristotle would say man’s purpose in life is to find happiness, we can go a step further and say a man finds happiness when he fulfills his purpose and that purpose is to use his abilities, one of them being his mind, the mind Aristotle reasoned to be the prime differentiator of humans, to do what he is capable of and not lose sight of his interdependence on others.
For those of you who are Christians, you’ll readily notice our reasoning comes to the conclusions the Bible sets as man’s purpose. Jesus used the classic illustration of The Talents (Matthew 25:15-28). Back in the first century, a talent was a unit of money, but it’s not just a coincidence that the term has come to mean abilities. As you may recall, Jesus spoke of three servants to whom their master gave each an opportunity to use their ingenuity to multiply the master’s investment. One servant was given five talents, the second servant was given two talents and the third servant was given one. After some time the master required an accounting of their activities. The first had doubled the money entrusted to him. The second did the same while the third returned the original talent intact with no gain. Jesus tells us the moral of the story. He shows that these talents were like our opportunities and capabilities in life. The goal, from a Christian viewpoint, is to use our abilities to expand the results valued by the Lord. Since we’ve already ascertained that God is love in Biblical terms, what the Christian God values is results that increase the love, kindness and welfare of others. In fact, scripture says the form of worship that is “pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress…” (James 1:27) This passage shows from a worship of God standpoint, a concern for others is of paramount importance. Though worship is only one part of life, the point is clearly made. Man’s goal from a Christian standpoint is to identify the abilities and circumstances given to each of us in a way that promotes the welfare of others and ourselves. And as Aristotle reminds us, those capabilities must of necessity include using our minds and as I would hasten to remind, human minds allow for empathy which is a precursor to love. Some may have more “talents” or abilities than others but the Bible encourages comparing ourselves to ourselves rather than to others. The master in Jesus’ illustration was just as proud of the servant who increased the wealth from two to four talents as he was with the servant who increased the wealth from five to ten talents. Christians follow Christ’s example of giving, sharing, helping others materially, intellectually and emotionally, all this with the goal of promoting a better world in line with God’s intentions. From a practical standpoint then humans can fulfill their purpose in life by first identifying their gifts, then perfecting those gifts and directing the benefits of those gifts to the world outside of themselves. By doing this, the individual captures a sense of identity and self-esteem, enriches the world outside of herself, automatically fulfills the Christian goal of glorifying God and simultaneously feels a sense of happiness (peace of mind) that comes as a by-product of her activities.
I encourage you now to take the steps that will lead to a life of purpose with concomitant happiness (peace of mind). Your purpose in life is the same as mine, though the unfolding may be quite different. Simply ask yourself, “What are my special abilities, what have others who know me say I’m good at?” Once those special gifts are recognized, resolve to employ those talents in a career or avocation (hobby) that benefits others. Imagine how your self-esteem will soar with the unfolding of a fulfilling purpose!