I 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
To 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.