Purpose and Meaning

Yesterday, I was at a table read for a friend. He had written a fantastical screenplay where Dorothy and Alice’s universes collide. I had pulled out a page of it because it made me think about this book and why I’m writing it. In the story, a character has done unspeakable evil and there is a moment in the script where she has changed back to the innocent girl she once was, no longer under the magical sway of the villain. But even though she is back to being a sweet, curious girl of integrity, she remembers all the horrors she has done under the influence of her evil mentor. And she is mournful. She feels guilt, remorse, anger. And she is lost. Because her purpose, given to her by the antagonist, was to exact evil on a once pristine world. And she succeeded. She was a war’s weapon of destruction. And she asks her new allies, the protagonists, what she should do now. Another character tells her “My aunt always said ‘Purpose finds you, not the other way around.’” And the changed girl asks, “Was your aunt an assassin?”

Isn’t that scene such a quintessential philosophical seed, replete with all the questions about the meaning of life? All the fundamentals are there. What do we do (purpose)? What makes it important (meaning)? What makes it “good” (morality)? And who will assign me? It speaks to my fear that maybe my gifts that I am expected (by Someone or someones) to execute are actually to the detriment of humanity. And it, of course, speaks to my dream of changing the world for the better through metamorphosis.

What is the purpose of life? Purpose of objects is easy. A stapler keeps paper together. A microphone makes speakers or musicians louder. A car moves you from point A to point B. I have a purpose. In fact, I have thousands of purposes to each person I interact with. My purpose is, mostly, external. It is dependent on interaction. My purpose at 9am is to make an office run. My purpose at 6pm is to be my husband’s wife, my friends’ friend, my cat’s opposable thumb. Even if I think I have no purpose, I do. I affect another being’s existence. I may be doing that purpose amazingly well or very poorly, but make no mistake, someone has given me that purpose. I mean small “s,” for sure; big “S” dependent on what you believe. The person next to you on the subway has given you a purpose. They have an expectation of you. People who know you have a deeper expectation and purpose for you. There is even a chance they will communicate the purpose they’ve given you. And we, on our own, guess or ask those people in our lives, “What do you want me to do?” We look for purpose. When we find it, we are transformed.

And then there is, for lack of a better word, our grand purpose. It is the one we give ourselves. It can be a career, a hobby, a status, a child. And it can change. It is what drives all of our decisions. A man wants to be a father. That is his purpose. He will look for all he believes a father should have. He will look for financial stability, a spouse, a safe home. And through time, he may learn that he can be a good father without one or all of those things. He really only needs a child to be a father. And then, when that child is in his life, he will set up a whole other set of tasks to fulfill his purpose in a meaningful way. Which leads to meaning.

Meaning in life. That’s the rub. We want to know what we should do with our time here, but it is not easy to be content with what one recently did with it. And we often ask why, especially after a mistake, why did we go down that road, separating ourselves from a purpose we can be happy with. Like that character. She did unspeakable horror. But really, the same conundrum happens to us when we realize we spent years in a job we never really felt right in or a relationship that goes south. Meaning. When we find that, we find our commitment to our purpose.

I think the key to our meaning is in our purpose as a species. We are a species that wants to survive. We live our lives, not only working on our own survival, but also working on the survival of our species. I just fostered a dog. I want to work on his survival, too, so really, humans, in general have a purpose to help this planet survive. Our individual purpose is to use our talents to make that survival happen. But we are doing a piss poor job. Put a pin in that, we’ll get to that in a minute.

Meaning gives our purpose legs. Our purpose is to help everything clinging to this planet to survive. Our meaning is to help it want to survive. My father is a war vet. He was in WWII and Korea. He retired just before Vietnam. He misses being a soldier. It’s his purpose and meaning. I can see it in his eyes. He felt deep, profound meaning in being in the military. He looks back on being in WWII as a true source of pride. And rightly so. He fought against an evil he understood. And he risked everything, including his own life, to fight that war. He once told me he was glad he got out before Vietnam. He was glad because that war had no meaning to him. And that is the most crystalized example of a man who had found purpose and meaning. He never confused his meaningful purpose, his inner purpose, with any purpose bestowed on him. Even as a soldier, he knew he was a soldier when a soldier was needed to defend a people who were defenseless. He knew he was a soldier only when it had meaning. And knowing this helped him make decisions in every action of his life after retiring. He told me Mom (admittedly his Achiles Heel when it came to logic and knowledge of meaning and purpose) wanted a child. And he didn’t. No meaning in it. But she talked him into it. And the moment he laid eyes on me, he said I became his purpose. And, as a child who wanted a lot of meaningless things, he wasn’t one to compromise on his dedication to do only the purpose that has meaning. There is something necessary to living and not often found in the knowledge of purpose and meaning and the self-awareness to fulfill both. The key would be. I assume, in one’s code. Ah yes, another difficult level of self-awareness: what is right and wrong and commitment to it.

So, let’s go back to that pin. We have a purpose to survive and to use our talents to help society survive. But we are not good at it. We are killing our planet…quickly. Is it because, while our species procreates and that is its purpose, our meaning is completely off? Do we need a collective meaning to our existence? Have we ever had that? Is it something we, as a society, should aspire to have? I would think that is what nationalism, culture, or religion would be, but these are degrading societal glues. What is left for us to look up to as the greatness beyond the sum of the parts? And more urgently, if I struggle in my daily grind, my minor purposes to find my own meaning, who among us has the time, energy or ability to find meaning for all of humanity?

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