Creating Our Own Purpose Driven Life
I don’t believe in an afterlife, so every second of my time on earth is precious. The years remaining in my life provide the only chance I will have to fulfill my potential and make a difference. The people I love are to be cherished in the here and now for there will be no reunions in another realm. The suffering and pain on earth must be alleviated today because there is no happy ever after in the sky. Beauty is to be admired and appreciated now because tomorrow it will fade away. I must make meaning in life every day, because there is no-one providing a purpose for me to fulfill.
When I was a Christian, I wanted to believe that God endowed the universe with purpose and my personal life with meaning. I spent time every day reading the Bible to discover God’s purpose in the universe. I spent time praying every day to discover God’s will for my individual life. I was not alone in my search. Similar beliefs were held by most people for much of history and went largely unchallenged until nineteenth century philosophers began to consider the possibility that the universe and human life had no built-in meaning. For centuries science had been moving humanity further away from its prized position at the center of the universe.
After Galileo discovered that the Earth is not the center of the Solar System and Darwin revealed that humans had evolved from earlier primate ancestors, it was no longer possible to consider that humanity deserved any special place of honor. The answers that satisfied ancient philosophers who had very little knowledge about the workings of nature are no longer relevant to those of us living in the twenty-first century. Even believers know this is true. Some subconsciously hide from this knowledge by burying themselves in a reactionary fundamentalism that claims to provide pre-packaged meaning in an attempt to fend off modernity, while others bravely face the future looking for ways to make meaning through their religion in the face of postmodern meaninglessness. Those of us who are not believers have it a little easier, but it is still sometimes difficult to face the fact that the universe exists for no reason.
If the universe has no ultimate purpose, does that render our individual lives meaningless? I must answer with a resounding “NO!” Although meaning is not provided to us, we humans are uniquely qualified to make our own meaning and to find fulfillment through the act of living purposefully.
Our most basic purpose is to survive, as individuals and as a species. Evolution has given us, as it has every other species, the tools and drive to pursue this purpose. But mere survival no longer satisfies our need for meaning. Both the beautiful and ugly sides of human nature are the results of natural selection and evolution. Consciousness and culture give us the ability to cultivate the beautiful and weed out the ugly.
Selfishness, sexism, racism, and even homophobia may have provided survival benefits to early humans living in small bands and tribes, when our numbers were so few that it was important for every woman to bear children and for those children to be fiercely protected against all possible forms of harm from outsiders. But generosity, selflessness, philanthropy, and community also provided survival benefits as culture developed and eventually became more important than physical evolution in humanity’s journey. These traits are rewarded by our own bodies, as the pleasure centers in our brains are activated when we cooperate with our neighbors and colleagues, bond with our partners, and nurture our children.
The evolution of these physical characteristics has led to our search for meaning and given us the ability to look beyond our basic biological needs and instincts to choose a higher path. There is always someone to help, something to improve, something to hope for. That’s why meaning will never run out as long as humanity survives as a species. If we get discouraged trying to save the world, we can help our neighbor’s daughter with her homework. If we feel useless stuffing envelopes for a political campaign, we can volunteer at a soup kitchen on Thanksgiving. If our children are grown and have moved away, we can give time and money to a local charity. As we move from helping ourselves, to helping our families, neighbors, and societies, finally to helping our species and even our world, we find that our need for meaning is met by our own choices and actions.
There are many worthy causes and many ways to find meaning in life. Eventually each one of us must come to recognize those causes that are closest to our own hearts and those issues that arouse our strongest passions. These may change many times over the course of a lifetime. Some people find meaning in raising a family, others in pursuing a career, and still others in charity work, volunteering, creating art, public service, and many other spheres.
Every day we must search our hearts to find out what it is that gives us meaning and to find a way to fulfill our purpose while we attend to the needs of our families, work to make a living, struggle to keep up with our daily responsibilities, and are bombarded with negative news.