Just about everyone would say they want to find their purpose in life.
Sites like LifeHacker, TinyBuddha and the like are full of articles on it, books like The Purpose Driven Life consistently top the sales charts in the relevant categories – everybody seems to be desperately trying to figure out the plan that’s been laid out for them.
I think they’re completely missing the point.
Outsourcing Your Purpose
Nearly all of the advice given on the topic of life purpose is based around the idea of outsourcing your meaning in life. The language is always structured around the concept of ‘finding’. It’s always about ‘finding’ your life’s meaning, ‘discovering’ your purpose in life. The idea from the outset is always that your purpose in life is out there, pre-determined, and it’s your job to figure out what it is.
When we’re talking about material coming from authors with a religious bent, like the previously mentioned best selling The Purpose Driven Life it’s a little more understandable – no less awful, but understandable. Even from sources not overtly religious the topic is often couched in the language of pseudo-scientific, spiritual woo.
The general theme of it is that you have some purpose in life (determined by some deity, the universe, or whatever) and you need to find it or figure out what it is. Your agency in the matter is largely removed. The determination has been made and it’s your job to divine whatever result has been chosen for you and follow it. It’s destiny.
We’ll leave out for the moment my position of methodological naturalism and the fact that I’m an atheist. Obviously, given the fact that I see no evidence to convince me of the existence of souls, spirits, or any gods, the idea of some ‘higher power’ handing down anyone’s purpose in life is illogical to me. I’m going to humor the notion for a moment though to make a point.
Let’s assume that there is sufficient evidence for some higher power. I still can’t fathom why people can’t see how awful it would be for said higher power to be assigning people their purposes in life. What if said higher power assigns you a purpose in life you don’t care for? What if your parents determined your career and you had no option of changing? What if you lived in a strict caste system? This idea of having your purpose chosen from you from birth may be comforting to some in the sense that it takes a measure of responsibility off your shoulders, but when you stop to really consider the implications it’s awful.
You could certainly argue that your deity of choice would never make someone’s life purpose something they didn’t love, or that loving it is the nature of your life’s purpose, which is fine if we’re getting into the New Agey spiritual stuff. It’s easy to point to things like The Purpose Driven Life to show that some people think you may be assigned a purpose you don’t necessarily like. I’m not going to argue the theology of it.
Even if I grant that premise, I can’t guarantee that there’s anything I will love doing for my entire life. Tastes and opinions change, and while some may have something they can do for the rest of their life with satisfaction I cannot claim that everyone has something that fills that category for them.
So higher power or not, when we talk about ‘finding’ purpose or meaning in life it robs us of the agency of choice. It sets us up to think that our lot in life has been determined, that the rails have been laid and all we’re doing now is trying to find the right set to follow. It is outsourcing the determination of our purpose in life to en entity outside of ourselves – even if that entity doesn’t actually exist.
I find that notion abhorrent.
Choose Your Own Purpose
Life has no inherent meaning.
What’s so wrong with that?
We live in an unthinking, uncaring universe. There is no larger reason why you exist. There was no purpose for which you were born. You have no cosmic significance. Disabuse yourself of this idea that you are special or important in any way that isn’t manufactured. This is a very entrenched idea societally, so I’ll say it one more time:
There is no inherent meaning of life.
That’s a great thing, because it leads to two subsequent conclusions. The first is that if there is no inherent meaning to life, if there was no purpose for which you were born and no destiny for you to fulfill, it means that all meaning and purpose that there is in life is purely constructed – manufactured by ourselves and others. The second, which follows from that, is that if all meaning in life is manufactured rather than pre-determined we get to choose our own purpose in life.
Your purpose in life can be absolutely anything at all. You can choose to make whatever you want your purpose in life – make not find – and you can change it whenever you want. You could have a new purpose in life every year if you wanted. It’s entirely up to you to determine.
Why is this distinction important?
I’ve met a lot of people and read the accounts of even more who are entrenched in this idea of having some higher purpose in life that they need to find in order to be happy. Even the non-spiritual types express it as if they’re searching for some eureka moment where they hit on something that they feel like they could devote their life to in order to be happy.
Even though they don’t seem to recognize it as a relinquishment of control I see it drive people crazy. They start beating themselves up or begin to get downtrodden and depressed over the fact that they can’t seem to find this one magical thing they were ‘meant’ to do in life. They feel like until they find this one magical thing to give their life purpose they’re living an empty, pointless existence.
The whole time they’re excoriating themselves over their inability to figure out their purpose, they’re completely blind to the fact that they have the power to choose their own purpose. As soon as you realize that you and you alone have the power to create meaning in your own life it frees and empowers you to take charge of things.
Of course, once you come to this realization you may still have some trouble developing the self-awareness to determine what things actually make you happy right now for you to pursue. That’s fine. That’s a topic deserving of an article all of it’s own. Several, actually.
The important thing for now is to cultivate the understanding that your purpose in life is whatever you make it, whatever you choose it to be.
Have anything you’d like to add? Do you disagree entirely and think we all have some set purpose from birth? Let us know in the comments!
Photo Credit: Ed Yourdon