What Is the Purpose of Life?
In God’s plan, every man is born to seek self-fulfillment, for every human life is called to some task by God.
Populorum Progressio, 15
You’ve heard it right. Every one of us has a task to do on this planet. You are not so unique to be different from the rest of humanity in this regard. And it’s up to you to detect and fulfill your purpose.
Logotherapy — the science behind purpose
Victor Frankl, the author of a psychology school called Logotherapy, spent a good part of his life provingthe above words of Paul VI. He was a scientist, a professor; he had a great mind. I can’t describe his theory and the way he constructed it and the load of data supporting his point of view in one blog post, no matter how expanded. There is a multitude of volumes written about the subject.
My intention is just to show you that science confirms what common sense and religion discovered a long time ago.
Frankl’s research was accelerated by his experience of being a prisoner in a death camp during World War II. He had the solid outline of his theory before, but this experience just confirmed everything he came up with earlier.
I’m a big fan of Logotherapy. In my opinion it’s the only psychology school which explains humanity as a whole. Other schools try to use a mechanical, biological approach to explain our psychology and they fail miserably, because we are not just mechanical, biological creatures. We are spiritual creatures first and foremost.
Practical not theoretical
Besides, the Logotherapy doesn’t need qualifications, prerequisites, and backbreaking assumptions. It just works. It works in death camps, it works in the life of ordinary folks, it works for great people who are changing the world and for poor people who experience torment in their lives.
In this post I will just summarize what he found about sources of purpose in a human’s life. According to Frankl, there are just three of them:
The most common way to find a purpose is through the doing. You can find your purpose in what you do in your work, in your career, in your personal activities, in your work for society or your family. Mr. Frankl didn’t elaborate this point further. He said it is something obvious.
But it’s not.
Job is not equal to purpose
Just look around. How many people hate the guts of their jobs? How many people are unhappy in their activities? How many stay-at-home moms feel they are wasting their time? How many people at the end of their careers see only that they missed the real joy of life? One of the 5 most common regrets of people who leave this world is: “I wish I didn’t work so hard”. It’s not merely enough to take some random action and find your purpose.
Action, activity is important. It’s the most common way to find your destiny, available to almost everyone. But I think Mr. Frankl slightly missed a point. Work alone won’t make you realize your meaning. It’s not the work which makes us purposeful and happy. It’s what the work is making of us.
If you are stuck in an unmeaningful job, feeling that you don’t do something significant, it won’t improve your purposefulness. This job’s whole input to your life’s meaning may be: “I know I don’t want to do this!” But it is better for your mental health to find what you love to do and do it, than to find it by going through “a hundred kinds of jobs I hate”.
Human self-fulfillment may be said to sum up our obligations.
Populorum Progressio, 16
We, as human beings, are designed to progress. Growth is a goal of every man and woman in this world. That’s why many people are miserable, although they have a lifestyle and luxuries 99% of the population can only dream about. If they don’t feel they grow, they are unhappy.
And we are also designed to work. We are creators; it’s our nature. No primal human culture has ever been focused solely on survival. No matter how primitive the circumstances humans lived in, they have always sought more. Art, religion and inventiveness are just different outcomes of this quest for growth. We just can’t stand being idle for an extended period of time.
So work and progress are interconnected. One without the other seems contradictory. And that’s why an unsatisfactory 9 to 5 job is not enough to realize your life’s meaning.
But we go through a multitude of activities throughout our lives. We achieve many different outputs and emotional states. So work, any work, gives you feedback regarding what you are good at, what makes you fulfilled. Once you realize what your talents and preferences are, it is much easier to determine your meaning.
And once you determine your purpose, you engage yourself in some activity through which you materialize it. It may be a job, it may be a business, it may be volunteering or it may be your hobby. The list is not complete, by a long shot.
No one is so misplaced that he cannot find the right place, and no one is so involved in the wrong business that he cannot get into the right business.
Wallace D. Wattles, The Science of Getting Rich.
Take me as an example. I woke up being 33 years old and realized that the life I live is not satisfactory. My past choices limited the range of options I had. I had a family to support, responsibilities; I couldn’t just decide to become a hermit or to volunteer to help starving kids in Africa.
To provide resources for my family I work and commute 12 hours a day. That doesn’t leave much time for other activities. So my primary concern now is how to replace the income from my IT job. In the meantime, I reshaped my days. Part of my destiny is to be a writer, so I write, every day. I spend at least 30 minutes on it a day, sometimes even more than 2 hours. I gave up some other activities — playing computer games, surfing the news on the Internet and so on — in order to make time for writing and learning.
Love is another way to find meaning in your life. But before we go further we have to define love because there are a lot of misunderstandings about love. If you turn on MTV or Viva, watching the spots and listening to the words of songs you could easily mistake love for dissolute sex.
Or watching romantic comedies you could get the impression that love is a fascinating enchantment and a lot of fun.
Well, love is sometimes connected with sex, quite often with fun and enchantment, but the essence of love is something totally different.
Let’s hear from some people who I consider the experts on this subject, the saints:
One who really loves, is fully satisfied only then, when everything he is, he signifies, he has and he derives — he gives to his beloved one; the more he has and represents, the more joy he imbibes from giving it back.
St. John of the Cross
The surest proof of love consists of suffering for a beloved one.
St. Padre Pio
An active love hurts. Jesus, to prove his love, died on the cross. Mother, to give a birth, must suffer; if you really love, you have to sacrifice.
St. Mother Teresa of Calcutta
I highly appreciate the ability to love, because only the love breeds the sacrifice and without the sacrifice it is not likely to undertake or fulfill one’s duty.
St. Abp. Zygmunt Feliński
No one can have greater love than to lay down his life for his friends.
Jesus Christ (John 15: 13)
Everyone who raises a child, who lives in matrimony, will surely agree that above words describe love much more accurately than the images from MTV or romantic comedies.
However you don’t have to lay down your life, to be a saint, to love at some basic level. All people are naturally capable of it: “For even sinners do that much”. (Lk. 6: 33).
So, love is a common way to find one’s life meaning, too.
The last way to find your purpose is in suffering. Victor Frankl qualifies that it’s unavoidable suffering, not voluntary. I got the impression that he treated voluntary suffering as masochism, a symptom of mental disease.
According to his theory, the main goal in human life is not pursuing pleasures, is not avoiding pain, but it’s seeking purpose. Thus Frankl said:
We are ready even to suffer, under the condition that we give some meaning to this suffering.
So when the man or woman faces unavoidable suffering — a slavery, a morbid disease, the loss of a relative — he or she can still find the underlying purpose, accept it and live with it.
This is a concept that common sense strongly opposes; the suffering is evil, it’s bad, it’s something that should be replenished, avoided at every price.
Escape from the suffering, from the thought about it — that’s our first reaction.
Suffering is a part of our existence in this world. It will always be. Escape from this truth is not a solution. No matter how much we wish to get rid of a cancer, no matter how many doctors and scientists work on the cure for this terrible disease, still thousands and thousands of people are facing it right now. No amount of wishful thinking can save them from it. That’s the fact.
Distilling the purpose of this fact is another matter of course.
People who face a cancer have many options. They can pretend nothing has happened, but this option is time-limited, the reality will get them sooner or later. They can decide to commit suicide, to shorten the torment. They can numb their minds and body by an excessive amount of opiomids. They can convert and look for an eternal salvation…
Whatever they will do it’s based on their thinking about their fate.
And that’s the professor’s point. Put in an extreme, life-death situation, you can choose to think differently about your destiny. You may paradoxically find a relief in your suffering.
Frankl gave an example of a man who suffered because of his wife’s death in his book. He was in a deep depression. His situation was unavoidable; no one could bring his wife back to life. Victor Frankl asked him a question: “What would happen if you died first and your wife was still alive?” He answered, “It would be a tragedy for her! I can imagine how much she would be suffering!”
The psychologist replied, “You see, she was spared from this suffering, but the price was your suffering after her death.”
The man immediately found consolation in this explanation, found a sense to his suffering. The facts didn’t change, his wife was still dead, he was still alone, but he changed his thinking about the situation.
Did you notice how sacrifice, love, suffering and a pinch of action are mingled together in the saints’ statements above?
They found the meaning in unconditional love. Their acts were based on this meaning — “For the love of Christ overwhelms us” (2Cor. 5: 14a). And their love-driven actions many times caused them suffering.
But it was not voluntary suffering as masochism is. It was just the consequence of the meaning they discovered by love. Let’s take, for example, the case of Saint Maximillian Kolbe. He volunteered to be sentenced to death in a concentration camp replacing another man. It was impossible for him not to volunteer. If he hadn’t given his life for his neighbor, his life would be purposeless from then on. So he did it and all his relations confirm he was content with his choice.
Purpose saves life
By the way, that man whose life was spared by the Nazis survived the camp. His chances were 1:28. He got his meaning from this experience too. He said he had to live and live a good life, because he has been given the chance by Saint Maximillian.
In my opinion, saints are the best that humanity has ever produced, so their way is the best.
Having said that, most of us are laymen destined to fulfill our tasks through more common means.
Your life has a meaning. Think it through. Where is your purpose? In doing? Then in doing what specifically?
In loving? Then loving who specifically?
Or maybe some unavoidable situation causes you to suffer? Then you still can give this situation a meaning.