Prelude to Definitions
For the most part, I have spent my life pretty unsatisfied with answers given to me. Part of that is not my fault and part of it is. What I mean is this : sometimes people have bad answers and sometimes people have bad questions.
Let’s pretend you are out for a walk on a bright, hot day. It’s the middle of summer, high heat of the afternoon, and the breeze starts to fade away. The sun keeps shining and beads of sweat start forming on your brow. Your hands get a bit hot, and as you use your arm to wipe away some sweat, you realize your mouth is dry. Bone dry. Then you see all those walking around you – not just as a crowd of people anymore, you see that some of them have water bottles, or popsicles. Everything around you that pertains to water becomes prominent. The longer you continue on being thirsty and the more time that passes without having some water, the worse off you feel. The hotter and more uncomfortable you feel.
Here are some pretty surface questions : What are you ? Thirsty. How do you fix it ? Drink.
That is normally what people ask – What and how ?
What is the purpose of life ? How do I get it ?
I don’t think those answers, in and of themselves, have the ability to satisfy. Here’s why : have you ever done the right thing, in the right way, and still felt dumb ? I have. In high school we had a section of the gym curriculum get split up into guys and girls so we could each do a wrestling and dance component. For one week the guys would wrestle and girls would dance, and the week after, we would switch.
During the dance section, our class split off into groups and had to choreograph a dance number to a song. This was not a hit amongst the guys in class, so we all goofed around for a week. Each group needed to present on Friday – and the goal of my group was to go up together and wing it. Turns out, my boys bailed on me, and I was the only person who showed up to class on Friday and had to dance – in front of everyone. And I did. I just went for it. To “Man, I Feel Like a Woman.” Looking back, that was a brutal song choice – but, we thought it would be funny.
So, What did I do ? I fulfilled the requirements for marks in my gym class. How did I do it ? I danced my little heart out. And I still felt like garbage. Embarrassed.
So just answering the What and How doesn’t necessarily fix overall feelings.
There is a deeper, first question that we should ask, namely, Why ?
Why would I dance like that ? Why would I do that in front of so many people ? And when we think back to the water scenario above, we can ask, Why do we get thirsty ? Why are we of the thirsty sort ?
Once you ask something like this, things can change. Curiosity spikes. You become inquisitive and less thirsty, maybe even less embarrassed.
I say all of this to make sure you’ve read Part 1 of this series dealing with Why.
What is the Purpose of Life ?
When we start getting into definitions, we also bump into a lot of varying philosophies. From the outset, I’m not a philosophical mastermind, hence what you’d read in the about section of this site. This is a re-forming how-to guide for life. I fully plan on learning more and mastering more; I plan on discussing this more and writing more.
Giving a hard and fast definition for purpose or meaning in life isn’t as easy as a simple google, and there isn’t an entry on dictionary.com that you can look up. That’s because there, in some sense, is a multitude of meanings. There may be an overarching thing all humans exist for, but that is a different topic for a separate post. In fact, that question may not directly impact you – and you may not be interested in that question : what is the meaning of life ? That’s a philosophical / theological question. The question that really concerns us is this :
What is MY purpose in life ?
That is what we are interested in. And I don’t think we’re interested in a simply rational way ( by rational I mean, answering what / how with a few general statements ). There was a time in philosophy where the rational and intellectual was seen as better than everything else. That the mind was superior to the body. But that’s mostly junk ( in my opinion ). We are not just reasons and premises and conclusions, and our bodies do more than just carry our brains around. We are embodied people. Our meaning and purpose is some sort of combination between our desires, thoughts, actions, and emotions.
Life, your life, has meaning in that it serves something. You read these sentences, they communicate, and as a whole, they have meaning. That’s one perspective – that your life, as a whole, has meaning, in what it communicates and its function. And I think that is pretty close to the truth –
Speaking of Truth
Before we get into everything further – there ought to be a challenge. This I’m taking explicitly from Jordan Peterson, so if you are wowed by the wisdom and cleverness, let him know.
Truth is pretty paramount to purpose. How can you know that you are doing or serving is ultimately good or right ? that’s a pretty tough question, and to be honest, probably worth its own post series.
Peterson offers this sort of thought experiment :
You are in a great and satisfying romantic relationship, and have been for quite some time. Would you want to know if your partner is cheating on you, even if it would destroy the relationship ?
The answer is most likely yes. We want to know the truth, even if it causes pain. We desire the truth and to have it impact our living and thinking. Purpose is like this – some aspects of truth and morality play into it. The rest of this post assumes you’ve got your feet underneath you for that. If not, there’ll be some posts on that down the road.
Three Forms of Meaning ( or Purpose ) : Order, Freedom, Explore
Dr Peterson says there are three main categories people find themselves in as far as living out their purpose and meaning.
Order in the Court
The first one Peterson suggests is Order.
A brief and quick explanation of this would be living in an disciplined and ruled way. Living your life this way, and pursuing this as overall purpose has some pretty big benefits. There is safety and stability and oftentimes, pretty clear direction for your life overall. But it doesn’t end there; this form of purpose sort of exists on a spectrum. Though there is this order and security, there is also a tend towards tyranny. As in, not very much freedom. The safety and security come from obeying the rules – all of them ( at least it tends to this ).
To put this into more tangible terms, pretend you live in an old city. Around the city there runs a high wall. You are born and your dad is a blacksmith – which means you need to be a black smith. There’s a king who calls the shots on what the city does and how it operates. There’s some goodness there. The walls keep you safe from attacks of other cities or wild animals. Being born under a blacksmith gives you direction for your own career, and some security in providing for self and family. Lastly, having a king call the shots, means you have some guidance for what your community does – and support if you have trouble accomplishing those specific tasks.
Now pretend you don’t want to always stay inside those walls. Pretend you don’t want to be a blacksmith. Pretend you’re pretty sick of the king and how he does things. In this tend towards tyranny, deviating from the order has really negative consequences. It could be a fine, maybe even imprisonment, or depending on how tyrannical – death. There is a binding and shackling to the order. Deviation from this order has consequences.
And there are definitely real world examples of this. Crack open a history book, or google any totalitarian regime, and read your fill of ordered purpose tending toward tyranny and death.
And I Just Can’t Wait to be Free
The second form of purpose Peterson offers is Freedom ( or chaos, but we will get to that ).
This also has its own benefits. If the major drive of your purpose is complete freedom, then the benefits are pretty clear : Autonomy, choice, thrill, excitement. The list could go on for a while. But, similar to the above, this form of purpose exists on a spectrum as well. The rules and regulations and order that sometimes binds people have no hold. But while there is freedom and choice and excitement, there is a serious tend towards chaos and turmoil. The pursuit of complete freedom usually finds chaos as a destination.
Again, let’s put this into more tangible terms. You live in a tribe – sort of. I mean, you live amongst a group of people, but there is no real leader. You can go wherever you please. No walls surround this tribe of yours, so you can travel the wild as you so choose – the world is your proverbial oyster. There’s also no expectation of you to have the same career as your father. On top of that, no king calls the shots for your tribe, if they can even be called a tribe. In sum, you are free to go and do and be whatever you want. There can be real thrill here – each day is brand new and open for you to choose.
Now, pretend you have eight options for locations to travel to – and the road to some of them is dangerous. Pretend that you could have any job, how do you know which one is best or most satisfying ? Since there’s no overall leadership, and no real tribe, you have no community or connection. Keep letting this go, and there is chaos. When there is absolutely no structure, and autonomy or freedom become the source pursued as ultimate purpose, anarchy ensues. Add to this, that once constraints are put on you, you need to reject them. Chaos. You have to live in disorder to know constant freedom. You might not be bound to any rules, but you also have no anchor to hold you fast in life.
Explorers Are We
The last form of purpose goes under the title of Explorer. Peterson states that this is a sort of mediation between the order and freedom, the tyranny and chaos.
Essentially, purpose is having a sort of order around you that stabilizes you, yet freedom in that structure to not only explore yourself, but to go into chaos and find patterns and bring stability. The benefits are pretty manifold; safety, stability, freedom, thrill. It’s sort of like the best of both worlds. The issue I foresee, in trying to implement this into my life is two headed. First, those in both of the other camps, will have issues with ideas in how / why you live. That may or may not bother you – but it will be something to consider. Second, one needs to be very engaged to ensure they don’t slip back into those other two categories.
To put this in tangible terms. You live in a fortified city, born to a blacksmith, with a king who governs pretty decently. Inside this city, you’ve got the safety, guidance, and direction you need. But, you also aren’t sure if you want to be a blacksmith – and you wonder what exists outside the city walls. So you travel – you go exploring into the wild. In that, there is an awareness of what home is, and an ability to enjoy things as they come. From there, suppose you decide you want to be a butcher. You now have the choice to return home and take up this new trade, or settle in a new place. But the settling or returning is what makes this unique from the free person. You are allowed to settle, have order, rules, etc.
Wrapping it Up
Purpose is a really tough thing to define on the whole – and even more difficult for an individual. The goal of this post was to confirm first, that we have to move beyond just being hungry for purpose. We need to know why – at least why it’s important to pursue. There’s also this close relationship between purpose and truth. If for example, your purpose is to help people, what is true about helping them ? Is it giving them Doritos every day ? Is it giving them a fish ? Teaching them to fish ? telling them to follow your religion ? It varies depending on how you define truth. This post only alluded to the fact that truth is important – maybe some time later there will be more explorations into what truth is.
The big idea of the post was to present three sort of frameworks / definitions to purpose and let them resonate with you as needed.
What do you think of this sort of framework ? What do you think it is missing ? Also, next post will deal with HOW you can find your personal purpose.
Also, if you missed the last post, check it out :