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What is the Purpose of Life

Ms. Carroll is an avid researcher & freelance writer who writes on a myriad of topics with which she has experience and knowledge.

"The purpose of life is a life of purpose." - Ludwig Wittgenstein


Philosophers pontificate it; dreamers chase it. Scores have written books about it. Yet many of us still struggle with the world's greatest question, "What is the purpose of life?"

Theologians assert that purpose is duty. The Book of Ecclesiastes says "Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man." The Qu'ran states that Allah created man to serve and to worship Him. According to Buddha, man's purpose is to end suffering because we bring sorrow upon ourselves when we mis-prioritize money, health, or friendships. Atheists, who do not believe in a deity, must find purpose through self-realization.

Despite a deluge of doctrines and dogmas, we still find ambiguity in duty and servitude. There are hopes that purpose outlives our existence. There are beliefs that life has no meaning at all. Against these mixed interpretations, where is purpose to be found?

Since finding purpose is difficult, we tend to measure humanity in terms of good and evil. But however difficult, it is widely accepted that purpose is not found in materialism, self-gratification, or murder and mayhem. It is found in charity, selflessness, and peace. It is clear that purpose is not found in fraud or foolery. It is found in progress and perseverance. Purpose is not idle; it is movement toward a goal. As Ludwig Wittgenstein suggests, "the purpose of life is to find a life of purpose."

Goals are the Milestones of Purpose

In order to control personal or collective outcomes, we must set goals or face entropy. Entropy is a physics term which means that unless there is control over a process, there is chaos. Some know this as the second law of thermodynamics. The law states that without intervention, all things will deteriorate. Like entropy, a life without control becomes chaotic. We risk aimlessly circling our goals without landing. Oftentimes, we lack vision or feel overwhelmed. How many times have we said, "I wished I could!" or "It's out of my control!" How often do we ask ourselves, "What am I here for?" or "What's the use?"

Without a sense of direction our paths take distracting turns and we wind up caught in senseless drifts rather than traversing the skies. We become slaves to survival rather than masters of possibility and we expend more energy sustaining the status quo than attaining new heights. We can avoid the drifts by understanding two things about ourselves.

First, each of us has something distinctly extrinsic - a skill, an ability, a gift or talent, a passion, a desire. Sometimes our inner gifts are not obvious -- it takes fueling them or exposing them to realize them. Second, each of us has an intrinsic need to be appreciated, recognized, fulfilled – to make a lasting contribution. We are not drones of senseless obligation and repetition. We may be slaves to tyranny, but we still choose our master. We choose to kill or be killed; we choose war or peace; we choose to live in fear or face our fears. We are creatures of emotion, perception and intelligence. We all have something that sparks a fire in us and if we listen to the voice within us, we shall see that we are not driven to be recognized, as much as we are to do things worthy of recognition. Purpose isn't really about ourselves; it is about what we can do for others.


Purpose is an Evolution and a Migration, Not a Destiny

For this reason purpose is not a revolution; it is an evolution. It takes time to see progress through. It requires both patience and tenacity to explore and expand. The Great Pyramid took 20 years to build. Mother Teresa didn't resolve poverty despite 45 years of devotion to doing so. Martin Luther King, Jr. didn't eliminate discrimination although he received the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts. While it might take three days to get to the moon, it took years to invent, develop and perfect the space shuttle that brought the journey to fruition.

Our predecessors have shown us that purpose is not stationary. It is an epic journey. We still struggle with poverty, we still battle discrimination, and we are still exploring the universe. Purpose is like a migration -- it is a winding road of volition rather than a direct route to destiny. And it takes physical and mental determination. Consider how birds travel thousands of miles and back where they started again, when simply staying near abundant resources would be far easier. The obstacles are numbing – inclimate weather, predators, illness, failing strength, lack of food and sleep. Like the great migrators, we move from goal to purpose and back again, despite the obstacles, and despite the sufferings of life.

Source:  Photo by Vicki Parker

Source: Photo by Vicki Parker

Failure Can Lead to Purpose

It is a fallacy to assume that failure means a lack of purpose. In fact, it is an historically common occurrence that the passion of one man sparks a chain of passion in others. Einstein conceptualized string theory long before he died - he just failed to prove it. Following his death in 1955, physicists kept the theory alive until it was eventually proven nearly 30 years later. This is evidence that the absence of success does not erase the prospect for purpose. Nor does the absence of a personal goal, so long as a man is devoted to another's goal. The founder of Bellingrath Gardens said the Gardens were his wife's vision, but it was Walter Bellingrath that saw the vision through after her death. Once a fish camp, the now 65 acre Gardens has been one of the best known tourist attractions in the South for nearly a century. It is known as the healing place. Some could argue that Mr. Bellingrath more aptly advanced his purpose in founding Mobile, Alabama's first coca-cola franchise. It certainly made him wealthy enough to build the Gardens, but Bellingrath Gardens has far outlived the beverage franchise in terms of human spirit and appreciation.

Scott O'Neill is the epitome of meeting goals and realizing purpose. O'Neill was driven to cure dengue fever. The fever is a mosquito transmitted virus which sickens millions and kills thousands each year. O'Neill knew that the Wolbachia bacteria would render the virus ineffective, but he also knew that success depended on injecting Wolbachia into a very tiny mosquito embryo with an even tinier needle (DNA would then transfer the bacteria to the mosquito population over time). Twenty years and over 18,000 injections later, Scott O'Neill finally broached success.


Keep Your Dreams Alive

It is only human to lack clarity at times, but purpose is effervescent when we just keeping pushing forward. Like the Chinese Proverb, "A bird does not sing because it has an answer. It sings because it has a song." Sometimes we must just keep singing and trust there is purpose in the song. We must desire to achieve just like the Holocaust victim Anne Frank who wrote in her diary in 1944,

"I finally realized that I must do my schoolwork to keep from being ignorant, to get on in life, to become a journalist, because that’s what I want! I know I can write ..., but it remains to be seen whether I really have talent ... And if I don't have the talent to write books or newspaper articles, I can always write for myself. But I want to achieve more than that."

Ms. Frank's first journal entry was in 1942 at the age of 13. Her last journal entry was in 1945 at the age of 16. Today, her diary has sold more than 30 million copies and been published in more than 50 languages.

Anne Frank's words found a world audience, but it is a mistake to expect that reaching goals will noticeably change the world. Ms. Frank's words could just have easily impacted one person, whose impressions then impacted another, who was then inspired to set new goals. The circle of purpose goes unbroken. Purpose is not static; it is dynamic. And it is not extraordinary. In fact, it is quite ordinary. It is part of all of us.

Purpose Isn't Tangible

Tom Beamer was a husband, a father, a Sunday School teacher, and an account manager on September 10, 2001. His life by some counts, may have seemed mundane. Yet his life had somehow prepared him for September 11, 2001. Beamer is now well-known for coining the phrase "let's roll" before bravely attacking Flight 93's hijackers on 9-11. He has five buildings named after him and was posthumously given an award for courage. Though it is true the events of 9-11 changed American history, it would be unfair to suggest that Beamer's actions as a father, a husband, a Sunday School teacher, or an account manager were any less far reaching than his heroism on 9-11 - just ask someone who knew him!

It is noble to seek out purpose although it is intangible. It is even more noble to set goals because they are tangible. Working toward goals lays the framework for the sum of the whole as of yet unseen. As we pursue goals, especially in the absence of any real clarity or vision, we must realize and be satisfied with knowing that we may never know or understand our purpose. Purpose is rarely well defined though it is an enigmatic magnet that draws us toward it. Chances are more likely that the reason for our existence will be left to those who come behind us.

Source:  Photo by Vicki Parker

Source: Photo by Vicki Parker

Purpose is Infinite

Notwithstanding the ambiguousness of purpose, those who truly seek it will not falter because the point of purpose is not to recognize it, but to keep alive the goals that support it. Purpose is staying the course, and staying the course has purpose. Otherwise, purpose would command an ultimate stopping point ... and purpose is infinite. The meaning of your life will outlive you and the generatations that follow you. You are merely the beginning of an everflowing stream of hope that slowly winds its way to the shores of purpose.

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