A close friend of mine told me recently that he feels his life has no purpose. “I’ve done what I wanted to do; now it feels like I’m just going through the motions,” he said, matter-of-factly. His remark prompted a conversation about life, specifically, does it have a purpose?
This question is more than philosophical. How we spend our days reflects the ways we find purpose and is therefore inherently practical. If our purpose is comfort and pleasure, then we must choose between the present and the future; delayed gratification is at the heart of modern sensibilities. If our purpose is to accumulate wealth, then how we spend our time reflects that pursuit. Sensory satisfaction? Food, music, and sex fit the bill. Helping others? Volunteering, advocacy, and charity suffice. In short, finding purpose in life is as variable as people are.
But does life require a purpose? As my friend notes, life goes on with or without a purpose. Life just wants to be, and as such is constantly affirmative, saying “yes, yes, yes,” that is, until it cannot. It is this quality of life, it’s relentless pursuit of being, that confronts us and compels us to find purpose.
Were we not self-conscious, none of this would be a problem; the thought of having a purpose in life would never occur to us. This is not to say life’s purpose does not exist, simply that the question is a product of abstract thought.
Squirrels, as far as we can tell, do not think about their purpose in life. They, like most animals, simply go about their business, in the case of squirrels, collecting and burying nuts, making baby squirrels, and chasing each other around trees and roof tops. Is this their purpose? In a narrow sense, yes. In a broader sense, the life purpose of a squirrel may reflect the life’s purpose of a Black Walnut tree, whose nuts get buried and sprout Black Walnut seedlings in the spring. The Black Walnut doesn’t think about its purpose in life, either; it too just goes about its business.
So the answer to the question is a matter of perspective. The purpose of life for people, and land-living animal life overall, might be purely ecological: filter and clean the air with mucus-filled lungs and spread the seeds of plants. Answering the question about people gets more complicated when the perspective becomes personal. Self-consciousness, at least as it manifests currently, persists in asking “why?” and is rarely satisfied with “because.” For us, purpose must have meaning.
I suggested my friend consider that his purpose has been, and still is, to be dependable. Being dependable is a great accomplishment that includes engendering the trust of others. As purposes go, it’s an elevated one. Knowing that a friend can be trusted and relied upon, can be called upon in an emergency and will show up when it’s necessary, is rare and precious. As I see it, fulfilling that purpose is as meaningful as human life gets, along with kindness, love, and compassion.
As one gets older, expectations change; what we could accomplish easily comes harder. The ambition and clear sense-of-purpose we once enjoyed gets smaller. Caring about others amidst our own aging, increasing pain and discomfort? Purpose enough.