“Purpose,” is that thing you hear about in the movies and which you assume everyone is seeking. Finding a sense of purpose is without a doubt overemphasized today, and I’d rather stay out of the obsession. Nonetheless I’ve found it comforting to think of a few guiding principles which I can follow to know that my life will not be wasted.
The point of this piece is to share how, most ideally, I see my life being spent. Maybe it will help others as it has helped me.
These principles are ways to re-prioritize and in my case will probably help me be happier on the long term. Often I struggle to know whether or not something was worth my time despite it being enjoyable (playing a video game, watching a show are some common examples). What I’ve come up with allows me to focus more on living than on the questions associated to living. It is important to question yourself, your way of life, but your time here is short and you must take advantage of it.
I. Observe the beauty which the world has to offer
Your time in this world is limited. Consider the attention you give to architecture, landscapes, people, museums when travelling abroad. Your aim is to soak in everything, to feast on everything which the foreign environment has to provide, given the little time you have to spend. Extend this outlook to your entire life. You are surrounded by elements which do not have much purpose other than provide you with what I will call “beauty.”
Literature, music, games, paintings, poems, movies… All the arts are a source of creative wealth and therefore a source of beauty. While they have other functions than their aesthetic one, I will argue that their main function is to paint images, evoke emotions, reveal new perceptions and in this they possess beauty. Beauty does not limit itself to positive evocations. Beauty is a neutral term, for lack of anything better, and it has no connotations, rather it encompasses anything which has this general quality of being expressive, appealing to the senses, interesting to ponder about. Poe’s violent horror stories have just as much of this beauty as Apollinaire’s love poems. It’s a question of “cultural value”, though this term can too easily become condescending because of how subjective all these terms are.
If a cheap, poor quality TV show has me gripped because of its constant cliffhangers, I still know that it does not have the aesthetic quality I admire and most of the time I stop watching it in favor of something else. Life is short, and a very short-term, impulsive satisfaction of knowing how a plot resolves is nothing compared to the emotion you can receive after playing a beautiful video game or getting through an intricate, moving novel. Especially because the latter stays in your memory for good as a pleasurable experience.
Beyond images conveyed, this also applies to ideas. From reading on various theories that philosophers have conjured about art, consciousness, the divine, to understanding the movement of the stars, how societies are organized, the structure of languages…Learning about the world, how it may function, or how people have thought it functioned in the past, is without a doubt pleasurable. So the intricacies of both the human and the natural world have their beauty, too. And this is important, because it means what I believe right now about how my life should be carried out, in these three principles, is not at all fixed. Through learning I may come to think that these goals are wrong or misguided.
Sometimes it’s hard to discern what’s worth it and what’s not, but I think this is to be done instinctively and on an individual basis. Filter in what you find most beautiful, it doesn’t matter what others think, all that matters is the reaction that it incites within you. Put aside all the societal pressures to read or watch so and so only because it will make you more cultivated. Seek for and absorb the content the world has to offer because it makes you feel the most, that keeps you most profoundly in awe. To be rigorous, I could include that this passive enjoyment of knowledge and creation cannot in any way be detrimental to others and prevent anyone from having access to the same content. Otherwise one could fall in the destructive path of Dorian Gray’s hedonism, for example.
Understanding this allows me to not feel guilty when, for example, playing video games. What am I living for if I can’t experience and immerse myself in all these beautiful worlds that others have created for my enjoyment ? It was a major revelation to me when I understood that you didn’t need a justification to do things other than “it’s beautiful, it’s interesting, I enjoy it.”
Life is short, we are only visitors. I think soaking up the world’s content while you can is what makes it worth living. In the end, it may only be from the diversity and intensity of feelings which you experience that you can extract happiness.
II. Preserve the beauty which the world has to offer
I’ve come to the conclusion in the first part that there wasn’t much point in living if we weren’t sensible and receptive to everything around us, be it artistic expression, scientific concepts and all in between. While we are on this receiving end, absorbing content created by our contemporaries or by past generations, we must ensure that life must be worth living not only for ourselves but for our descendants. This means preserving what nature and humanity have created until now so that others in the future can experience the same awe and fascination that humans have been experiencing for a good while. At the same time this guarantees that future generations have the means to create as well.
“Preserving beauty” can go very far and has implications of all sorts but I will try and illustrate it as best as I can. Mainly preserving beauty is the “active” dimension whereas observing it was more “passive,” since it was about experiencing. Here the emphasis is on learning how the world works in order to improve it for the better. A first very obvious example would be working to fight against ecological disaster emanating from global warming. I could undertake studies and acquire scientific knowledge in bioengineering or geology. I would seek to reduce the damaging effects of global warming, by playing my part: conducting research, developing new technologies, etc. I could work towards saving precious natural habitats or mitigate damage to threatened populations in archipelagos.
I could also aim to work in the cultural sector, at the head of a museum or library to not only preserve a certain heritage but to make it more easily accessible to others. I could study sociology and work in NGOs or in politics. In accordance with my principles would play my part to prevent further conflicts and political instability, help local populations, ensuring that everyone benefits from the same standards of living as in occidental Europe for example so that they can better focus on what is said in part I. These examples may not be very accurate but they serve the point.
I am not implying that one individual such as myself can achieve these goals. I am only saying that however small my contribution may be, it is towards those admittedly very grand ideals that I will work. This is similar to the philosophy of 80 000 hours.
One could also become almost ascetic to respect this principle. Lowering your carbon footprint and use of resources as much as possible could be an interesting way to satisfy this goal.
There seem to be overlaps between the two principles in regards to the “learning” part, in which you deepen your knowledge in a field and explore the various ideas of the field. Learning about these ideas which have been put forward in the arts, sciences, or in philosophy can definitely be pleasurable and a part of observing the beauty in the world. However not all of these ideas can contribute to actively preserving beauty, or at least some more so than others. It is difficult to draw the line, but I would argue that the study of some of these ideas is uniquely for aesthetic enjoyment and has less of a purpose when it comes to actively improve the world around us. Studying literature, or art history, however interesting, does not fall into this category, or at least not as much and more indirectly than studying computer science would. I may be wrong in thinking this.
III. Create beauty
This principle is optional, as it cannot necessarily be followed by everyone. Creative talent emerges under special circumstances and only some are capable of performing great music, writing novels, being a high-level mathematician, etc.
However if one person has such an ability, they should endeavor to develop their talent and produce, whatever the form, to expand our global cultural wealth, and simply to have people enjoy and be stimulated by their works.
Some things we do overlap. Travelling, for example, is about exploring, seeking new customs and cultural wealth which we are unaccustomed to but which are just as much part of the world’s beauty. However it is also about learning from these different ways of living, understanding how your discipline is handled somewhere else, and therefore a way to enrich your own skills. With added knowledge that you have sought for, you can bring new innovative, enriching perspectives to your discipline and better preserve the world’s beauty or, in the case of an artist, create beauty. Social life permeates through all of these categories. Being a good, kind, helpful person allows you to create ties with which you have new wonderful experiences and acquire knowledge.
This also justifies giving everything you can in your schoolwork. First, because working hard, even if the content you are working for is not the most useful or interesting, is in itself practice to build discipline and to learn to work even harder. And how else can one fully grasp all the information that the world has to offer without this ability to efficiently absorb all the content necessary ? Second, in the system which I currently am, hard work guarantees a higher placement in further studies. This means having an easier access for learning and observing beauty (part I, though of course university only gives you access to a small portion of this beauty, the rest is to seek out elsewhere) and a higher quality education to preserve the world (part II).
But the point is not so much to categorize all our actions into these objectives. The three pillars provide comfort, they are beacons. I know that if I get the most out of what my environment and the world has to offer, ensure that others in the future can enjoy and reap from the same wealth of knowledge and creation, and try to take part in producing some of this wealth as well, then, whatever my life turns out to be, it will come close to what we can call “fulfilling.” At least this is what I think for the time being, and this is what I will strive to achieve.
You have a limited time on this earth. Suck the marrow out of life and enjoy the ride.