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What is Our Purpose?

Girl silhouette sunsetI recall an introductory Anthropology class which began with the early human societies we refer to as “hunting and gathering” societies. What most affected me from that class was the idea that those peoples’ sole purpose in life was survival.

Survival of the Fittest

They had to have shelter to protect themselves from the natural elements; weapons to protect themselves from the wild beasts on the land; and food to eat to stay alive. All of their activities revolved around these three things. They were living for the purpose of living: basic survival.

Religious Beliefs Based on Survival

As technology advanced and societies grew in numbers, they developed religious beliefs and rituals. But still, all their spiritual concepts continued to revolve around the central theme of survival. The religious rituals were aimed at avoiding drought and danger, luring good hunting expeditions, fertility.

Though we have advanced far away from the lives of those early humans, I am not so sure our purpose is much different. Though we no longer worry about life or death situations such as a hungry tiger at our back door, we are concerned about getting a particular job or promotion; we are anxious about our health; and we hold fast to hopes that our economy will become rebalanced and return to a healthy surgence.

These too are concerns about survival. In fact, it is my contention that we worry so much about issues regarding our survival that we seldom indulge in contemplation over our personal or collective purpose.

What is Our Purpose? A Two-Fold Answer

What is our purpose? I believe there are two basic answers to this question. One answer is a philanthropic response regarding the whole of humanity; the other an individual response regarding me, myself and I. The two are intertwined. They overlap, are locked together, and cannot easily be separated.

Many professions attract individuals who have a strong sense of purpose to their lives and most of that has to do with a calling to help others. Health care professionals, ministers, teachers, researchers, politicians, lawyers and law enforcement professionals usually enter their chosen field because they believe they can make a difference in the world. Farmers, construction workers, mechanics, and other laborers also believe their hard work has a purpose to make the world better.

Making the World a Better Place: Serving Humanity

What is in our minds when we think we can make the world a better place? Obviously we see vast gaps in the human experience. Some people have better health than others; some have bigger homes; safer neighborhoods, more supportive families.

Whatever your definition of “good” or “better” is, we all recognize that some people have more of that “good” and “better” than others. Because we identify ourselves as a part of the whole human race, there seems to be an innate desire to put effort into equalizing the playing field more than we currently perceive it to be. Our individual purpose then, is to serve our fellow humans.

Before We Can Serve, We Must Survive

River geese over sunsetTo do so, however, requires that we ourselves must survive. Our basic needs must be met in order to go out and serve others. It’s like the instructions on an airplane: if the pressure drops suddenly and the oxygen masks are released from the ceiling, parents are instructed to put their own on first before assisting their children.

The theory behind this is simply that the parents will be useless to their children if they do not have enough oxygen themselves. Likewise, modern psychology promotes self-care for busy, stressed-out mothers, arguing that they will be better mothers and have more to offer their children if they are happy and relaxed. It makes logical sense that if we are to help anyone else, we must first help ourselves.

Answering Our Purpose: Consumed with Personal Survival

The problem however, is that our world has become so complicated and so congested with requirements that we have become consumed with personal survival and tormented by the longing to contribute to society.

We are left then, with the overwhelming feeling that there is no answer to the question, what is our purpose. We struggle to pay the bills and stay afloat; we can’t afford to go to the doctor when we are run-down and sick; we have tried, over-stimulated, and stressed-out children. And every day we live with the threat that our jobs are not secure.

Then we hear the tragic stories on the news about our fellow humans who are hungry and homeless, sick and lonely, accosted by crime, and we feel guilty that they are suffering so much more than we are. So we drop an extra dollar in the collection plate at church and contribute our change at the gas station to a worthy cause; we ask God to make things better for us and for them. A new day comes and we repeat the cycle, continuing to be overworked and underpaid, continuing to live in order to survive and dreaming of “someday” when we can truly fulfill our purpose – whatever that may be.

We Are But a Stepping Stone in the Human Journey

I believe that this scenario summarizes the reality that most of us experience, but I do not believe that it has to be this way; nor do I believe this is all there is. Even though we are ultimately living to survive like our ancient ancestors, I believe it is important to attach our minds to a sense of greater purpose. The human experience is far greater than our own social, cultural, and personal experiences in our own claim on this particular period of time in all of time. We are but one stepping stone in the human journey. That in itself is extremely significant.

Think back to those early humans. It was their lives that grew into ours today. Their instinctive drive for survival inspired creativity and invention, new technologies were born, new leaders emerged. For all the wars and chaos that sprang up along the human path, “good” and “better” also emerged. Philosophies, ideologies, and values came from tragedy and loss.

Our lives today serve this same purpose. From our personal struggles to the chaos in our societies, we all serve the purpose of learning and growing. Whether we realize it or not, we are making a contribution to our own psychic and spiritual experience and influencing the lives of others we encounter. This, in turn, affects the evolution of humanity.

What is Our Purpose? Survival

I believe our purpose is to retreat from the rat race from time to time to contemplate our purpose, reevaluate our choices, and aim to live with the conviction that whether we know specifically what our purpose is or not, we do have a purpose, and therefore, each of our lives matter. Much like early man, our purpose is ultimately survival; and personal survival translates into survival for our entire human race.


About River Lin

River is an independent writer and consultant. With a Master's degree in teaching English as a second language from Ball State University. She lived in Japan for 15 years teaching and editing. Now based in the U.S., she works for a variety of clients. Published work can be found in print, online at various websites, and at goarticles.com. River blogs about writing, design, cooking, pets and thoughts about life.

7 comments

  1. I decided that changing the work would require saving a fair amount of income so that I could start my own business. So, I actually started doing this type of business on the side, in addition to my regular work. This was an exciting process, although I was thoroughly tired at the end of each day! I would wake up, do a little bit of work for my side business (it was something that could be run online), and then go to my regular job. Once I returned, I spent several more hours focused on my own business. This cycle repeated itself 6 days a week. I was working a total of 75-80 hours each week. Despite this, I actually started to finally get some satisfaction from my work. Even the main job seemed to be more bearable, since I now understood it was simply a means to my other goals. Once I saved enough income, the online business could be expanded and then I could start cutting back hours at the physical job and redirect them to my own business.

    This was just the change I needed. It gave me a lot of encouragement seeing that I could actually make changes. More importantly I was becoming happier. This made me think about implementing even more changes. Yes, the entire process was a bit scary, but one should never be afraid to a chance at finding their happiness. You can always go back to where you were.

    The next major change I implemented was moving. Most people will move from one side of town to the other. Some people will move from one town or city to another. Others may consider a move to a different state or even across the country. Myself, I went to an entirely different country, with a new language. This move turned out to be an excellent decision, and I am happier now than I can remember in quite some time.

    After much contemplation and finally taking some action, I think that our purpose is to try and be happy. Obviously, this does not mean that we need to treat people badly or act like an idiot in the process of finding this. In fact, I also think that the journey to happiness is at least as important as reaching the goal itself. I am perfectly aware that not everyone will achieve this goal. The main point is that we should always be searching and striving towards this goal. It is also quite possible that once we have achieved our happiness, we will be in a better and more realistic position to then do something which benefits humanity as a whole.

  2.  

    One of the ultimate questions that people must answer for themselves is what their purpose is. Seriously. This is actually a question that I think most people tend not to think about because it may make them feel uncomfortable. This is a deep psychological question. Even Freud and many other types of psychologists have been fascinated with the answer to this question and the steps that people take to figure it out for themselves.

    Finding our purpose is really one of the ultimate questions each person must either attempt to answer or repress.

    This is something that I have been thinking a lot about recently. What is everything all about and what is really important to me? I have come to understand that these are really different ways of trying to discover purpose and meaning in our lives.

    Many people think that they can find meaning in their lives through their work. This leads them to find a job, career or profession that they think they will enjoy. Possibly they have an altruistic goal and want to do something that will make the world a better place. Personally, this was never my goal. Certainly becoming a teacher in order to help kids learn and be better prepared for the world or to become better people is an admirable goal, but this was never something that I considered when trying to find my own purpose.

  3. Many people will try and convince you that your purpose is some kind of high ideal. They will insist that you must try to make the world a better place, or do something that will create some kind of legacy or something that people will remember you by. I completely disagree. I do not think that we have any obligation to try and do something just for the sake of improving humanity.

    Sometimes there is an event that seems to affect a person in a profound way. For me, this was a particular birthday. As the event approached, I became more and more reflective. Then, after the birthday arrived I actually became depressed. I began to realize that I still had a lot of dreams and goals I wanted to achieve. Unfortunately, I was not going the path I needed to in order to achieve any of them! This was quite disturbing to me. I also realized that quite possibly half my life was over already and I was certainly not happy with what I had accomplished so far.

    I was not happy with much of anything in my life at that point. I hated my job (interesting that this is the first thing I list when talking about areas of happiness and discontent in my life). I was not happy with my living situation. I did have some good personal relationships and a good, supportive family. That was probably the main thing that kept me going during this process of self-discovery.

    As I kept thinking about my situation, little by little I stopped blaming everyone else for my feelings and my problems. I started to take personal responsibility. My life was the way it was, because of actions I had taken in the past. I think this is one of the key things that everyone needs to do before they can find their purpose. You simply need to accept your situation for what it is and then take personal responsibility for it. There is just no other way to move on.

    Once this happened, it was much easier to come up with a plan and actually take action. I identified all the areas of my life with which I was not happy. Then, I determined to change each one of them. The ones at the top of my list were work, living situation and income. I first determined to change all three of these.

  4. Since we spend most of our lives at work, this is an area that naturally receives a lot of attention. But as I look around, I do not see many people who are truly happy or satisfied with their work. For most people this seems to be simply a job. It also seems that many people are working only for the weekend. So much for finding their purpose in their work.

    If purpose is not found in work, then where else should one look? I believe that a true purpose can only come from inside. We each need to really examine our own beliefs, feelings and opinions. We each need to discover what makes us happy. This is the only way we will ever find out our true purpose.

    This is another question that has bugged for a long time. How exactly does one find happiness? This is a question which I am still trying to figure out for myself. One thing I can say for sure is that if you are not happy in your current circumstances, than change your circumstances. We all have the power to do this. I think that many people do not give themselves enough credit. They say that change is impossible. Then a whole list of excuses is mentioned.

    Frankly, excuses do not help. Ultimately, they just show that you are afraid and provide reasons to rationalize away your inaction. Believe me, I understand how this works. For years I just sat and waiting and brooded. All the while I grew more and more miserable. I knew that I had to change, but for some reason, just could not seem to find the motivation to actually change.

    This is a hard question to answer, but I think people need to find a reason that is stronger than their fear. Maybe you are afraid of being alone? I certainly was. So I stayed around family as much as I could. However, this only made me more sad and depressed, because I saw other members of my family that seemed to have good lives and be happy. They were taking consistent action which was in line with their purpose and moving them closer and closer to achieving some of their goals.

    I think there are many people who were in my prior situation. What will it take to finally get you to take some positive action? That is difficult to say. I only know that if you do not find something to motivate yourself, nothing will ever change for you.

  5. River,

    What a well thought out article. It’s like a concentrated gulp of the why’s of existence. Thank you!

  6. Wow, River, excellent job of addressing this highly controversial and difficult topic (especially in this day and age of globalization, where everyone’s world views are crashing together at the same time).

    Why I’m not entirely sure what my purpose on Earth is, I know that I can’t wait to read more of your articles!

  7. “He has shown you, O man, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? But to act justly, and to love mercifully, and to walk humbly with your God.”
    ― Anonymous, Holy Bible: King James Version

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