Life’s Purpose

—What is your purpose?

So asks a recent New York Times Op-Ed column by David Brooks. That’s the title. Before narrowing down to ask us to sort out our purpose in life, Brooks observes that

Intellectual prestige has drifted away from theologians, poets and philosophers and toward neuroscientists, economists, evolutionary biologists and big data analysts. These scholars have a lot of knowledge to bring, images-2but they’re not in the business of offering wisdom on the ultimate questions.

I think he’s right. I remember reading widely in the 60s for the wisdom in Tillich, Norman O. Brown, Eric Fromm, Erik Erickson, Rollo May, Camus, Robert Lowell, and many others. I listened for wisdom in Dylan and Pete Seeger, in Beethoven and Bach. I do think times have changed. The weaving of wisdom through our culture’s public discussions is only a whisper relative to political polemics and unmaskings.

In my last Zeteo post, “Metaphor and Dreamwork,” I lamented the shallow picture, wide-spread among social science researchers, of humans as data processing machines. Brooks is right. Specialists give us research but its assumptions are often flawed – we could say, for lack of wisdom. He’s right to drive a wedge between knowledge and wisdom.

Nevertheless, there is something off-base about his lead question, “What is your purpose?

He speaks of those moments when reflective people become overwhelmed, when they ask “What’s the meaning of it all?” and ponder whether their life is on course or adrift, whether they any longer know what ideals underlie their activities, day to day. We know the sense of being stalled, in doldrums, drifting backwards because we were slow to tack — we’re in irons.

But if I find myself asking “What is my purpose?” this is often a symptom of being lost — a cry of despair.

To tell the truth, however, I just don’t think we get back under way by discovering a purpose to our lives.

I transition out of doldrums as the question happily disappears, not as I happily discover a purpose — the sort of thing I could post on the fridge. Asking myself, What is my purpose? will be a sign of my being lost, a cry of despair. And getting back on path doesn’t need an answer to Brook’s question. If someone else asks me What is your purpose? it is most likely a sign of that person’s disapproval and demand for explanation. It’s unlikely to be an invitation to me to candidly reveal what makes me tick.

During the Korean war, US prisoners in camps holding soldiers from other countries, died at an alarmingly greater rate than the non-American prisoners, even though the food and treatment were the same. (I don’t have an authoritative scholarly source to verify this account, but it was in circulation among reputable journalists after the repatriation of prisoners.) Many American prisoners, too many of them,  “lost purpose.” They just failed to get out of their tents in the morning. After a week or so, they expired. Their bodies shut down as their morale shut down.

Non-American prisoners survived because they lined up every morning to their military drills and exercises, and were disciplined by their superiors if they didn’t. If they had been asked, “What is your purpose?” they would be baffled. The question didn’t come up because they were caught up in the flows and rituals of life, even in a prison camp. Americans, so the theory goes, were too individualistic to see any point in going through drills so long as they were prisoners. Subsequently, they “failed to thrive” (as one says of infants who die for no apparent medical reason).

Brooks has an overly intellectualized sense of what gives meaning or purpose to a life. We can ask the philosophical, religious and moral “Big Questions”: why am I here, what do I believe in, what would I die for, what do I live for, why are these people my friends and not others (what do I value in a friend), and so forth. These questions bring out what I value, what I remember as valuable.They don’t reveal my purposes or aspirations. Just today a friend wrote in the midst of a crisis that might well have brought a cloud of despair around him. He wrote that what saves him from despair and brings joy to his life is knowing good people, people he values.

Exploring the terrain of meaning, purpose and values is like creating a mural or symphony or poem. The links we find or sketch out among images tentative answers give us a sketch — many little sketches, perhaps — of our lives. But looking back on where we’ve been and finding gems there isn’t looking forward, purpose in hand, to find our way out of a dispiriting stall. The smile on a child’s face or birdsong in morning light can give me reason to live. But my purpose in life isn’t to purposely look for children with smiles or birds singing at dawn.

If you persist in asking “what is your overall purpose in life?” my impulse will be to reject the question as ill-conceived. I’ll tell you why I like Sam, and why frogs entrance me, and why I’m entranced by coastal fogs even more. I’ll tell you why I vote as I do, why I don’t take communion, why I jog (when I do) and prefer Plato to Aristotle. I don’t need to know any overall Grand Purpose. Yet my helplessness here doesn’t mean my life is helplessly purposeless, or adrift. Only someone with an overly intellectual view of motivation would think that when my neighbor acts with great purpose in her life, it is because she has figured out the purpose of her life.

If you want to know why I don’t think my life is adrift, I’ll recall why today was a good day and what made yesterday a bad day. I’ll tell many little stories from my life, including stories about fog on the coast and my friends. The little stories won’t add up to one big story with a thundering punch line: “The purpose of my life!” Brooks is correct that we should put moral imagination to work when we feel stalled, or need to ask about meaning. But even when that question feels global, there’s no need for a global answer. We can build up imaginative reconstructions of what went well here and failed there and get a kind of collage or diary that exposes the meaning of segments and episodes of life.

My not knowing any Grand Purpose doesn’t mean my life is helplessly purposeless.

That’s good enough and all we can get. We just don’t have the capacity to step out of our lives to survey the meaning or purpose of life-as-a-whole. We are creatures in transition, forever in transition, forever breaking into new days and nights.

Without a global and timeless overview, we still relish the wonderful pieces of a life under way — a family meal, a well-wrought poem, a view from the bridge, the smile of a child. We search for occasions of meaning we can believe in, that we value. We defeat a sense of purposelessness without uncovering any all-purpose Purpose. We join clusters of occasions narratively. Or go for a swim.

No single creed or ideal will speak eternally for me — for many reasons, not the least being that I am a work in progress. The narrative of bits and pieces of my life is underway. Whatever my tentative and soothing answers about meaning or joy today, I expect the questions to return tomorrow or next week. That’s a good part of the lives we lead. But when it returns I’ll seek yesterday’s moment of satisfaction. I’ll not seek hope within a Purpose, to be grasped as a guide into tomorrow.

Ed Mooney, contributor

Citation: David Brooks, “What is your purpose?,” Op Ed New York Times, May 5, 2015

Second image: Edvard Munch, “Melancholy.”

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