What’s your Purpose in Life? Or are you just a Status Quo Stooge?
“The unexamined life is not worth living” — Socrates
I’m frustrated in conversations recently. Disappointed, bored, annoyed. Who am I talking to? My peer group is well-educated in a high-income suburb of rich San Francisco.
What are the main topics of conversation?
Making Money / Wealth Accumulation; Getting our Kids into Elite Colleges; Remodeling / Home Improvement; Whining about Republicans & Russians; Movies, TV, Sports, Vacations
I am irritated by these — in my opinion — largely shallow topics. I don’t mind talking about them occasionally, but is this all there is? Is this as deep as we can go? Today at coffee I almost interrupted my new aquaintance to ask:
WHAT IS YOUR PURPOSE IN LIFE?
I’m sure most people would be baffled or offended by this question because they don’t have an answer, because they either haven’t thought about it, or they have but they have thus far failed to find their raison d’etre. (justification for existence). Statistics back me up. A 2020 New York Times article claims only 25% of adults have a clear purpose in life. This is unfortunate for the purposeless people because a 2010 study suggests they’re going to die earlier— obviously, to put it harshly, because they don’t know why they’re here, so why stick around?
“Life is never made unbearable by circumstances, but only by lack of meaning and purpose.” ― Victor Frankl
Let me explain how desperate I am. I am a staunch atheist, but yesterday I went to a religious conference to see two old friends, a Catholic and a Lutheran. The religious people at the conference talked mainly about their “reason they were put on Earth.” Their goals, of course, were woo-woo nonsense, like “to see God and experience his glory” or “to get my soul to heaven” — but I was thrilled anyway, because at least they had profound, serious goals.
I am 70 years old, but I didn’t have a clearly defined sense of purpose myself until recently. I discovered my purpose accidentally, when I was assigned to write an education article on “The Incredible Power of Purpose” for high school children. I realized, while researching the topic, that I might be one of the aimless 75%. Or was I? I examined my thoughts carefully (as Socrates would have suggested) and my actions — and I realized my purpose was the alleviation of poverty. I started a nonprofit nine years ago that shuttles dollars to impoverished people — usually orphans, battered wives, widows & refugees — in Africa and South Asia. Realizing this, seeing my purpose clearly, has given me a stronger sense of self and direction.
I want to talk about PURPOSE with others, with everyone, with all my upper-middle class friends, but I haven’t yet. Will I be construed as rude? Aggressive? Arrogant? Challenging? I will find out. My wife and I have two dinner dates with other couples this weekend, and I aim to introduce the topic.
I’m not optimistic. For many years, even decades, the overwhelming chatter has roughly been the five topics I posted above. Invariably, get-togethers are dominated by statements like this:
how’s your remodel? what college do you want ____ to go to? Trump & Putin drive me crazy. where you going next vacation? how about those Warriors?
I am GUILTY of initiating these topics too, because they’re safe and polite. But that’s not a good enough reason anymore because I recently realized these statements just perpetuate the status quo, and frankly, I don’t remotely support the status quo.
Many of those topics are obliquely about CONSUMERISM, MONEY, CAPITALISM. Nobody remodels their house unless they can afford it and they can’t think of anything better to do with $50,000-$150,000. Ditto sending kids to expensive colleges or going on exotic vacations. What about TV and whining about politics and sports? Situationists would define those activities as passive participation in the Spectacle.
I believe in the Buddhist notion that you are what you think about — amplified to you are what you talk about. If we never talk about “purpose” we aren’t supporting thinking about it and we aren’t promoting the extremely positive value that purpose has. If we only talk and think about money and how we want to spend it, we are supporting capitalism’s intention that everyone only focuses on making (or borrowing) oodles of cash and spending it on whatever advertisers brainwash us into believing we need. Our purpose becomes CONSUMPTION.
My purpose — alleviation of poverty — isn’t remotely original — it is just a subset of the very large category “Making the World A Better Place.” I recommend do-gooding to anyone searching for purpose; in fact, the pundits and proselytizers of purpose, like Kendall Cotton Bronk, define the P word as a desire to make a difference in the world, contributing in a way that serves others and not just one’s self.
If your purpose isn’t to “make the world a better place” it indicates, logically, that you are fully content and supportive of today’s status quo.
Do you think, like the character of Dr. Pangloss in Voltaire’s Candide, that we are already living “in the best of all possible worlds”?
Or perhaps you have Ostrich Syndrome — you don’t want to think about anything that causes you fear or anxiety?
Alright, that enough, right? I’ve now completely, redundantly outed myself as a cheerleader for A Life With Purpose, and a believer in Altruism for Social Progress.
Pushy, much? So rude?
Yes, I probably am, but please, stop yammering to me about how you’re soooo veeeerry stressed about your extremely expensive and totally unnecessary kitchen remodel and how it’s so hard to decide on a backsplash.
That’s a Boring First World Problem.
You can (I hope) do better.