Skip to content

Purpose

by on April 22, 2021

Purpose

by Marco M. Pardi

All of us are working together for the same end; some of us knowingly and purposefully, others unconsciously….To one man falls this share of the task, to another that; indeed, no small part is performed by that very malcontent who does all he can to hinder and undo the course of events.” Marcus Aurelius. Meditations. 6.42

———————————————————————————

Ours is a world where people don’t know what they want and are willing to go through hell to get it.” Don Marquis

———————————————————————————-

In the middle of the journey of our life I came to myself within a dark wood where the straight way was lost. Ah, how hard a thing it is to tell what a wild, and rough, and stubborn wood this was, which in my thought renews the fear!” Dante Alighieri,The Divine Comedy

———————————————————————————

All comments are welcome and will receive a reply. All previous posts are open for comment.

CAUTION: The subject matter and the quotes rendered herein may strike some readers as intense. This blog is read in many countries. We hope to gain from the perspectives readers would care to provide. Thus we strongly encourage reader participation through providing comments. These place the reader under no obligation and will be deeply appreciated.

———————————————————————————–

I debated the title. Should it be Purpose or should it be Meaning? I don’t see these concepts as synonymous; to me, purpose implies forethought and design while meaning may be de facto and/or simply ex post facto. That said, I chose Purpose. But if you find that to be insufficient in Meaning, feel free to think as you like. I will say I recoil when I see book or article titles encouraging me or purporting to show me how to find my purpose in life.

Long time readers may remember I previously wrote a post about a prep academy paper I wrote, The Man Who Had No Purpose. Literary critics often say a writer’s work springs from personal experience. That paper ratified their point. In my formative years no one in my family expressed the slightest interest in what I would one day become. Thus, unencumbered by the expectations and sense of purpose imposed by others, I was free, perhaps freer than at any time since. Each time I slipped out late at night to lie on my back and ponder the limitless entity we call the “universe” I was in a time of my own making, more than just what some would later call the NOW, limited only by my growing understanding of how small and insignificant I seemed in this celestial organism which I was sure had no knowledge of my existence, and never would.

Later, in the military, I spent most of my free moments reading nonfiction books on a variety of topics and taking various college courses. Gradually I discovered my interests and capabilities merged better in some areas than others but a “purpose” to my efforts was still hard to define. In fact, it was still unclear why I had to have a purpose. I did well in the military and could have stayed as a career, simply following orders. But some serious consideration of the “lifers” around me quickly put that to rest. And the last thing I wanted was to ascend into a bureaucracy where I had to exercise power over others. Inside, I was still free. Those lifers I examined had lost their inner freedom long ago. How many others, I wondered, wittingly or unwittingly traded their inner freedom for the rudiments of survival, or even the glories of accomplishing what someone else had defined for them as their purpose.

Somewhere in those years I came across the writings of Abraham Maslow, best known for his Hierarchy of Needs. Though often depicted as a pyramid, his scheme simply ascended from physiological need; safety; love/belonging; esteem; to self actualization. To this day it is regarded as deeply insightful and is used in government and private industry in the shaping of personnel policies. Readers can easily Google the hierarchy for deeper understanding. Germane to this discussion is the following quote: ‘Do you want to find out what you ought to be? Then find out who you are! ‘Become what thou art’. The description of what one ought to be is almost the same as the description of what one deeply is.’ (The Farther Reaches of Human Nature).

At the same time I was reading Aldous Huxley, Alan Watts, Daisetsu Teitaro Suzuki and others, including Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha – Sanskrit: One who has accomplished a goal. Siddhartha Gautama was born around 567 B.C.E. and founded the philosophy which came to be known as Buddhism. I adamantly declare it a philosophy, not a religion, though I accept that many have adopted it as a religion. The inherent aim of Buddhism is the attainment of Enlightenment, not the worship of some god. I found this remarkably compatible with the direction taken by Maslow, seeking self-actualization. But Maslow went off the rails with his “Eupsychian (society)— a society geared towards the creation of self-actualized people.”(Jules Evans)

Had I known Maslow I would have suggested he read Hesse’s Das Glasperlenspiel, a fictional case study of an Esalen type enclave detached from the people who support it, not understanding them nor being understood by the common people. Christian monasteries run similar risks unless they can keep people convinced that they serve a purpose, such as reciting prayers that obtain the benevolent attention of some invisible god. So are these Christian monks “lifers” who have sold their freedom for a place to live and food to eat? I don’t think so. I can’t imagine it is possible to live such a life if one does not believe in its central premise. Buddhist monks, on the other hand, devote their efforts toward guiding the population toward enlightenment. Here too their efforts seem to bear little fruit. Is anything worth the effort? The Dalai Lama has said all paths lead to the same place. If so, why strive to identify the “right” path? Or should we sit back and content ourselves with the idea that the universe is a purposeless entity and we, ultimately, are just another extremely short lived manifestation of bio-chemical-electrical processes? Remember the 1970’s mantra, Eat healthy, exercise regularly, die anyway? Why not join the Hare Krishnas, pick up a tambourine, a saffron robe, and dance ’til you die?

For the past few years I have been quite fortunate in being accepted into an on-line discussion group composed of scholars and achievers in various fields, living mainly in Canada and the United States. The discussions are often atmospheres beyond what I feel I could offer.

A few days ago I sent around an article on Abraham Maslow. The article is far too long to reproduce here, but for reference it is:
Abraham Maslow, empirical spirituality and the crisis of values | by Jules Evans | Mar, 2021 | Medium

Within hours group members responded and a discussion developed. With their permission I am providing salient examples thereof:

(Brendan. Canada) Marco, thank you for that article. Although I knew of Maslow’s theories, I hadn’t delved into his personal life and was unaware of some of the early factors that shaped his ideas and opinions. These are giant issues that I struggle with at an intellectual level, such as, the meaning (if any) of morality. It seems to me that the concepts of “good” and “bad” are completely artificial, and in many cases, different societies differ on what they assign to these categories. It seems to me that the tribal instincts that served our species well in upgrading the intellectual capacity of our species, is now threatening to destroy us. As Isaac Asimov observed, “Our technology is growing faster than our intelligence.”

It seems that as science frees us from superstition, religion, and other forms of wishful thinking, we are coming to realize that life has no “meaning” and the universe has no purpose. As John Paul Sartre observed, “Life is drained of meaning when you have lost the illusion of being eternal.” This requires that we find a new reason to wake up every morning and take a few more steps in our journey toward death. The pursuit of self-actualization as proposed by Maslow, can help us to forget, temporarily, that our lives are meaningless but, in the final analysis, we have to come to terms with the meaninglessness of existence. Theoretical physicist Brian Greene in his recent book, “Until the end of Time”* states: “I have come to see my own awareness of my inevitable end as having considerable influence, but not having a blanket explanation, for everything I do.” Perhaps the Epicureans were onto something when they said, “Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we will die.”

Excellent article that challenges us to evaluate our moral sense and its relation to our existence.

*Until the End of Time : Mind, Matter, and Our Search for Meaning in an Evolving Universe by Brian Greene

——————————–

(Mary Ann. Canada) Beating your existential bongos while pondering the meaningless of life… “we are coming to realize that life has no ‘meaning’ and the universe has no purpose”…

‘Philosophy is a bond between you, a logic and something existing in explanations, while spirituality is a bond between you, conscience and something beyond explanations.

Spirituality is a matter of heart culture, of immeasurable strength.’

In Maslow’s article, it stated that empirical spirituality dismissed religious traditions and communities, and created free-floating rootless self-actualizers.

We are complex, evolving human beings who find meaning and purpose in connecting with others.

and……….. to embrace all aspects of ourselves and approach life with an open mind,

Einstein once said of the God question: ‘the problem is too vast for our limited minds’.

——————————-

(John. USA) I think Viktor Frankll would have something to say about this – in fact, meaning is everywhere, you just have to look for it – ( Self-Actualization is not the goal:https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OL8DyVusLeE)

—————————–

(Mary Ann. Canada) Frankl tells us that life is to be discovered in the world rather than within man or his own psyche…’as if it were a closed system’.

(Mike. USA) I cannot understand why people get upset when someone contends that life and the universe have no larger purpose. (1) What larger purpose could they possibly have? Life, the universe and everything–in Douglas Adams’s phrase–may be sentient, but not in any way we could ever even begin to understand; the same goes for any larger “purpose” we might want to imagine for them. (I reject the notion of “for the glory of God”; any god we could possibly comprehend is so small, so limited, as to be imperceptible in the face of the infinite. (2) Existence is surely purpose enough, and attempts at self-realization for the self-aware inhabitants of the universe. The expansion and refinement of the mind and soul must be more than enough to keep busy anyone and anything who ever lived.

——————————————————————————–
As I was writing this I remembered the Headmaster at my prep school and how he would berate me: “When are you going to
REALIZE your potential!?” Not a fan of being beaten with a cricket paddle I kept silent. But my unspoken response was, To what end, what purpose?

And so Dear Reader we invite your response, and your ideas of purpose. Please do inform us if you are a transient bio-chemical event, a meaningful shaper of cosmic events, or something in between.

From → Uncategorized

16 Comments
  1. Ray Rivers permalink

    Thanks for the article Marco. I have held Mslow in high esteem, not that his observations were earth shattering. The needs pyramid is the very antithesis of one of the premises of capitalism – that money can buy happiness and more money more happiness.

    Like

    • Thanks, Ray. I quite agree. It seems obvious that one must examine and establish core values before embarking on a program of self actualization. Of course, that leaves the existential question of purpose unanswered. This reminds me of the debate on the Curriculum Committee when, in 1973 I proposed teaching a 3 hr credit course on Death & Dying. Some people said, “Why study it, we’re all going to do it anyway.”

      Like

  2. Dana permalink

    This is an interesting topic for me given my childhood history.  To my recollection I’ve never actually pondered the “meaning” of life or why I’m here.  Our species exists because of a certain event the author of this site has dubbed the “hokey pokey.”  This applies whether or not a human was planned in advance.

    I’ve always been unable to consider a “higher power” or “god” although I certainly tried at times.  It was never sincere.  This inability often had me feeling left out at various points in my life until I thankfully discovered others with similar ideas.  If anything, I feel my own intuition has guided me much of the time.  It’s why I’m currently writing this response.

    The Universe doesn’t serve a purpose, although in recent years many of us have probably heard someone say, “The Universe is trying to tell me something…” and so forth.  The notion of a chaotic space as yet another “god” is just as perplexing to me as other belief systems.  
    As for planet Earth, it’s a glorious accident that we (and that includes me) have sadly destroyed in various ways. When our species no longer exists what we’ve left behind is utterly wretched.  What was the purpose of all that?  Endless wars, greed, political strife?

    For too long I equated “purpose” with a meaningful career. That was out of low self-esteem and feelings of envy for the lives others were able to lead.  I find that really sad. But I’m learning to let go of it all, so I can keep on going as we all must do.  Social situations are difficult enough for me without being asked, “So, what do you do?” I always wish I’d responded, “Um, what do I do…when?”  I don’t understand why the drudgery of work is supposed to define who we are.  Perhaps that’s because some of us have spent much of our lives working more than anything else.  We all know what “work” has done to this planet, and humans are working it to death.  I do not advocate for the idea that being “productive” provides meaning for all of us.  In fact, for many it is the complete opposite.  Bills need to be paid and (mostly) useless stuff must be purchased.  That’s mostly why we have jobs.  

    I’ve also heard we should “create a purpose.”  We miss out on so much with these never-ending quests.  Admittedly, sometimes I find a lot more meaning in one thing more than anything else.  I won’t apologize for that no matter how quirky or weird it might seem to anyone else.  The influence of meaningful involvement with others stretches far beyond my own comprehension.  

    As for your question, Marco, whether or not we are a “transient bio-chemical event, a meaningful shaper of cosmic events, or something in between,” I would like to think I’m something in between.

    Thank you for yet another inspiring entry, Marco. I’m looking forward to what others might have to share as well.

    Like

    • Thank you, Dana. You develop your thoughts with a richness that has some of us thinking we wish we could write like that.

      Your comments about productivity remind me of the discomfort I feel when I hear the phrase, productive citizen. How is productive defined? And how is it defined without casting a vast number of people into a presumably unproductive, therefore less, category?

      As you know, I’ve often considered moving to another country. As I do so, I mentally construct my application with an emphasis on what I would contribute to that country, not merely how I would benefit. In fact, in the many letters of recommendation I’ve written for students applying to graduate schools or medical schools I strongly emphasize what I see are the benefits the student would bring to the program, not just the obvious benefits the student would derive from being in the program.

      I sometimes think of just closing this site down; many people read it but only a few bother to participate – and I very much appreciate them. But I perhaps naively think some people derive a benefit from the ideas and exchanges they see here. Just yesterday I paid the fee for another year of service.

      Like

      • Dana permalink

        Thank you for your comments, Marco. This forum has helped me tremendously and has given my life added meaning.

        My comments about work might seem off-putting but I’m having trouble expressing exactly what I mean. It’s out there now, and I can’t change that.

        Like

  3. You’re welcome, Dana. You have been doing exactly what is right for you.

    Like

    • From Mary Ann in Canada:
      Author and activist for social change, Parker J. Palmer tells us that: ‘our highest calling is to grow into our own authentic selfhood… In doing so, we find not only the joy that every human being seeks but also our path of authentic service to the world.’ So then purpose = true self + service that meets the challenges of our time.

      Marco, I guess this is why you write your blogs with an outreach of information and activism for change. (…and sometimes just for fun)

      Like

    • Dana permalink

      I’m glad you think so, Marco. That’s reassuring, especially with two senior dogs who really need a lot of care. I think that’s just as important and fulfilling as anything else I’m doing or not doing.

      I’m reminded of the time spent in 2020 volunteering for Andrew Yang’s campaign. I wholly advocate his idea of redefining what we consider “work,” such as those who must care for loved ones on a full-time basis. A number of people continually advised me to “Get a job!” when I already felt I had one.

      This was a fantastic post and I’m always grateful for those who contribute their insight. I don’t read all of the comments, although that’s always been a goal.

      Like

  4. Thank you, Mary Ann. I agree, and I think one can transcend selfhood on the path to helping others, particularly the living beings around us who cannot speak for themselves – or at least speak in ways most of us do not understand.

    Like

  5. Now and again, something triggers our sense of mortality. It leaves us wondering if “our” lives matter. Have we added anything of value to this world? The initial reading of this post brought with it a deep (if temporary) feeling of depression. This isn’t the first time we have asked ourselves the questions that arise from this offering. Has my life, my being here in this space and time, served any purpose, or am I just so much flesh and wind? We do our best to make a positive difference, and hope it is enough. In your case, it has been more than enough; those who know and care about you have been changed for the better by your presence in their lives.

    Like

  6. Thank you, Rose. I deeply appreciate that. If it is at all possible, it seems continuing as a Bodhisattva is a worthwhile purpose. But then, there’s always that lingering doubt of – Who am I to suggest something to someone else?

    Like

  7. Julie permalink

    Purpose! Great topic Marco. For me it has changed many times as I have “grown up”, I clearly remember having different purpose goals when I was younger. I feel they would evolve for a lot of people like myself. It also seems to differ from person to person, as some people are far more aware of their purpose in life than others. I am also very aware of feeling “free” and clear in how I live my life. The current culture, I believe, is probably harder to stay “free” with the huge amount of media and the like influencing the individual’s true purpose. I have to say, I feel the most “free ” that I have ever felt in my life and loving it 😊👍 Having lived through some difficult times and coming out the otherside has really taught me so much, and i am so very grateful for my life now ❤ thank you Marco for continuing to write such timely, engaging and funny articles in your blog, you are truly an inspiration to me x

    Like

    • Thank you, Julie. Several of us always await your responses and insights.

      I suppose that, even when it varied, your sense of purpose was a kind of polestar for you. Perhaps, at times, it was liberating, and perhaps at times it was confining. I would guess at least part of your sense of freedom derives from your acquired ability to quickly see the calls to purpose around you as what they are: distractions. Too few people have acquired that ability. Hopefully your example will address that.

      Like

      • Julie permalink

        Thank you Marco, I feel genuinely moved by your comment, in that my comments are so well received
        and in your understanding of my comment in your reply. You have such deep insight that is so rare and heartfelt 🙏❤

        Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: