What Is Life For? Some Reflections on Purpose
There is a ritual I enact each year during the New Year’s holiday: taking a day of silence to reflect on where I’m at and where I’m going. I spend contemplative time meditating and looking back over the past year, I consider my intentions for the year to come, and I write in my journal. I spend time in front of my bookshelves, considering what I feel drawn to reading (or re-reading) at this time. My particular mind having the nature that it does, I often make lists. I think about the people I care most about and about the state of our world. I do what 12 step programs call a moral inventory of the areas of reactivity that still trip me up. That said, there is no prescribed practice I follow beyond the simple intention to reflect on what’s so in my life.
One thing I do NOT do during this time is make New Year’s resolutions. If not that, I asked myself, what was my purpose for this day of self-retreat?
This simple question unfolded into a deep inquiry about PURPOSE. As I began to write about it, I recognized that it was actually not such a simple question, and reflecting about it has been illuminating. I hope that what I write here will be generative for you as well.
In general terms, looking for purpose is an aspect of the basic human drive for meaning. Looking up at the stars and the vastness of space, it is natural for questions to arise about our place in the universe. Is anyone else out there? What happens to us when we die? What is life for? But in addition to Big Questions, we also seek purpose in the down-to-earth situations we encounter in life. I resonate with an idea expressed by Victor Frankl, the psychiatrist at Auschwitz, that the perception of meaning boils down to becoming aware of the specific possibilities available to each of us in each situation we encounter in our lives.
With this in mind, we can view Purpose as a meaning we assign to whatever it is.
What follows is a summary of my further reflections, organized around both the personal and existential aspects of PURPOSE.
What is life for?
One basic premise in the most commonly held view is that the purpose of life is to fulfill one’s given nature. I believe it was Aristotle who first stated this idea in the form “essence precedes existence”. How we view our “essence” determines and defines the purposes we embrace. This view also has deep roots in the liberal/ humanist values I grew up with. Elaborated in the work of the psychologists Abraham Maslow, Carl Rogers, and many others, life is about the full realization of one’s potential.
Similarly, in a biological/evolutionary frame we might also say that the purpose of life is to evolve, to manifest the blueprint represented in our DNA. Our genetic code directs how we come into form (viz genetic “in-formation”), and the purpose of life may be formulated as aligning with our biological design. A similar idea in theological terms is that our purpose is to become what God has created us to be.
Here I’ll go with the general idea that the purpose and meaning of life are subjectively created rather than given. I agree with the existential philosophers that it is up to each of us to find our own individual path towards a higher purpose. How we view the purpose of our lives rests on our perceptions, beliefs, values, and philosophy. Personally, I resonate with the view that the purpose of living is to develop and evolve into greater maturity and wisdom. And, along similar lines, I would like to believe that the evolution of complex brains serves a purpose of creating increasingly higher forms of awareness in the universe.
Regardless of how we view our own purpose in living, purpose is realized through our choices and actions.
I do not mean to imply that finding purpose comes about only as a result of conscious inquiry of this sort. While some people feel a sense of calling to their purpose in living, many others seem to just stumble along, defining their path along the way. In any event, our notions about our purpose in living cannot be defined in any frame which is linear, constant, or exclusively cognitive.
And, as the saying goes, life often happens while you’re busy making other plans.
What is the purpose of your life?
You can’t inquire deeply about your purpose in living without bumping into your basic ideas of who you are. Indeed, purpose is one of the defining dimensions of someone’s self-view. In accordance with the ideas described in the preceding section, defining one’s purpose is an integral part of what we might call the project of self: delineating and expressing who we are. (We could also call this our life project.) In this view, the purpose of one’s life is self-actualization: the realization or fulfillment of our individual talents and potentialities.
In my younger years, my inquiry about these matters took the general form of the question “what is a Marjorie for” ? This question directed my life energies towards study, teaching and writing; towards helping others work through their psychological roblems; and towards philosophical inquiry. Although there were many permutations of self-identity along the way, eventually my purpose settled into the writing of INQUIRING DEEPLY NEWSLETTER as a form through which I could express myself.
Despite the circuitous path I travelled in my quest for self-identity, in hindsight I can clearly see that there was always a coherent path of purpose underneath. “Becoming myself”, as I think of it, happened bit by bit as a by-product of finding my written voice and bringing it forth into world. Birth seems the best metaphor for this emergence, as there is often a period of painful labor that accompanies the creation of new work.
Beyond the doing involved on this path of purpose, the project of self is fulfilled through every advance of self-knowledge, through increasing degrees of psychological integration, and through greater capacity for authentic and spontaneous self-expression. We become who we are when we live a life which is congruent with our values and ideals.
The Evolving Purpose of Purpose
Purpose has always been, and still remains, a central organizing principle for me. But what I recognize now is that the way I relate to purpose has, slowly but surely, been changing.
Historically, my “assumptive paradigm” was that life was a complex project that I was in charge of, entailing the job to manage, control, and make things happen. And because it seemed evident to me that the foundation of any successful project was a clearly delineated mission, defining my own purpose in living became something I inquired deeply about over the years. My priority in life was to actualize my identity, and that project involved a lot of doing. I became a worker-bee. (Truth be told, I remain one).
These days I find more purpose and meaning in my state of being than in what I am doing. This evolving sense of purpose seems to me to be a direct result of the practice of inquiry itself.
Each time I choose a new topic of inquiry – or does it choose me? – I have the sense of embarking upon a new chapter of subjective experience. Once I get involved with a question, it owns me. As I sometimes express it, this process feels akin to getting pregnant with a question. The conception, gestation, and subsequent birth of a new INQUIRING DEEPLY NEWSLETTER have their own timing. The process requires giving myself over to what is emerging as best I am able. The only thing I “do” is bring intuitive openmindness to what is unfolding at the surface of my experience.
The receptive quality of this process of inquiry is the total obverse of “managing, controlling, and making things happen”. Privileging process over content in this way, purpose becomes less about an end-point, some goal I am trying to get to, and more about the dynamic quality of my experience.
Looking back at my New Year’s ritual from this perspective, I can now see quite clearly that its purpose was simply to create space for listening deeply within. In contemplation I endeavor to connect with whatever deeper purposes may operate in me that go beyond what I may as yet know. Engaging with inquiry demonstrates to me again and again that life has a mind of its own. In this way, inquiry is itself an enactment of my central life purpose: the deepening of my experience of being.