The question of why we exist is a powerful one, and there are more than enough answers to go around:
1. We are here to spread the message of Jesus Christ, about His Father the Almighty God, so that we can be reborn in His love and with His blessing in the kingdom of heaven.
2. The purpose of life is to attain the highest forms of knowledge.
3. The purpose of life is to end suffering.
4. Life has no purpose. It is illusory; only conceptual – and the universe is devoid of it.
5. The attainment of virtue is life’s true purpose.
6. We make our own purpose.
and on and on…
Ultimately, there seems to be two categories of answer: The first imagines that life’s purpose is objectively and externally derived (or enforced); it comes from outside of us. In this view, purpose could be attributed to some intrinsic nature of the universe yet to be discovered or reasoned, or purpose could exist as directed by a deity and dictated by prophets. The second category imagines purpose as something subjective and personal – something that is to some large extent self generated. In this view, there is some choice in the matter.
While the second view is not necessarily limited to the secular community, I most often find it being proposed and defended by them. One of the most unsatisfying and ultimately empty criticisms of the secular / atheist / materialist movement is that under their view of reality ‘life has no meaning’. Not only is this entirely untrue, the assumptions and implications of this view are troubling. If self-generated meaning (the kind that atheists ascribe to) has so little significance as to considered ‘no meaning’, then what are we left with? Externally imposed meaning? I personally find this far less satisfying. While the view that there is some kind of meaning or purpose intrinsic to nature at least implies that my own sense of purpose would in some sense align with nature, the view that an anthropomorphic god has designated a purpose for us (spread the word of Jesus!) is wholly unsatisfying. How would you like it if the government tried to impose a purpose on your life; told you what job you should work, or how to spend your spare time?
Of course, the nature of the universe does not often depend on what I find satisfying, but in this case, I think it kinda does. Even if there was some kind of externally imposed meaning, that doesn’t negate that there would also be subjective and personal meaning. Sometimes the reader of a book discerns meaning where the author intended none, or doesn’t discern meaning where the author did intend it. Meaning projected out is not always the same as meaning experienced by the experiencer. This means that ultimately what we find satisfying, what we feel our purpose is, and what we would like our purpose to be are of ultimate importance, regardless of whether or not there is meaning intrinsic to the universe, or imposed by a god. We must each decide for ourselves what our purpose is.
For his entire life, Larry Walters had dreamed of flying. Not with wings, or even with an airplane – but with balloons. Yup, balloons. That is what he wanted to do, and he did it. At age 33, he bought a bunch of helium-filled weather balloons and tied them to a lawn chair. And up he went. He quickly reached an altitude of 15,000 feet – later reporting that he experienced one major emotion – fulfillment1.
So then what?
He quit his job as a truck driver and did some brief stints as a motivational speaker, and when the demand for that died down the did some work for the US Forest Service. Eleven years after fulfilling his dream he walked out into the forest and shot himself in the heart, ending his life at the age of 44.
When Alexander the Great had conquered the entire known world, he wept because he had nothing left to conquer. He died at the age of 33 from drinking too much wine2.
I think we need to be careful when we assign meaning and purpose to a specific goal or outcome. Is your purpose to have a good career and raise a beautiful family? What do you do once you’re at the top, and your family is all grown up? What was Larry to do after he landed his lawn chair?
Maybe if he’d been a devout christian, he wouldn’t have shot himself. Maybe Jesus would have given him something to live for. Now, obviously, I’ve never met Larry Walters, and I’m certain that the circumstances under which he decided to end his own life were not as simple as ‘I’ve got nothing left to do after flying with balloons’, but I do think that its very possible had he not yet accomplished his lifelong dream, that he may not have killed himself.
And now, if you feel like it, take a break and listen to the song that inspired me to write about Larry. This video starts with a quote from the singer of the band describing what the song is about, and then scrolls the lyrics on screen. I highly recommend following along, and tell me whether you it gives you the same shiver I get when he sings: “Is there nothing left for me to do?”
If your purpose is knowledge, you can always gain more. If your purpose is happiness, it must be maintained. If your purpose is to become a CEO and have a big house, well then, when you get that, what next?
I say again that we all are ultimately responsible for defining our own purpose in life. I think it’s important that when we decide what our life means, we don’t think too narrowly.
- The video clip linked just previously contains this piece of information (back)
- Quote from McGuffey’s New Fourth Eclectic Reader, Lesson XXXVI (1866). “Alexander lived many hundred years ago. He was king of Macedon, one of the states of Greece. His life was spent in war. He first conquered the other Grecian states, and then Persia, and India, and other countries one by one, till the whole known world was conquered by him. It is said that he wept, because there were no more worlds for him to conquer. He died, at the age of thirty-three, from drinking too much wine. In consequence of his great success in war, he was called Alexander the Great.” (back)