My friend Megan was challenged in a sermon to ask three people she admires to answer this: “Why did God place you on earth, and what is your purpose?” So, she emails me with these questions. Of course, I’m honored that someone as wholehearted and bright as Megan is admires me and thought to ask me this question. I’m actually delighted by the challenge of thinking this through and writing down my thoughts. And I’m so overwhelmed by the question to have put this response off for many weeks. Sorry, Megan.
This is one of THE big questions, if not the biggest. “What’s your purpose?” Anyone who’s confident about their answer probably hasn’t given it enough thought.
At the moment (I’ll probably have a different answer next week) here’s my answer:
I don’t feel I was “placed” on earth. I used to feel I was here on purpose, carefully placed in time and space as part of a grand master plan. I no longer think that. Over time I’ve come to appreciate the overwhelming size of space and the phenomenal length of time, and I’ve realized our tiny, brief little lives don’t amount to much in the context of the universe as we now know it. (Insert existential angst here.)
I don’t imagine reality being a story that I am a character in. Instead, I feel more like a lucky winner of the biological lottery. To be a human born on Earth in the 20th century in a prosperous country to a remarkably happy family… That’s great good fortune.
While I used to find comfort in imagining I was designed for some divine purpose, it also was a burdensome thought. It was on me to figure out that purpose, to search for a calling that I was expected to pursue, to play a set role. And if I didn’t figure it out and play along I would risk mis-living my life.
What if my purpose simply is to fulfill my potential as a human being? What is a bird’s purpose? Or a tree’s? We humans, though, are blessed and cursed with a brain complex enough to ponder this and torment ourselves with too much thinking.
My purpose is to be the best human I can be, to live in harmony with the reality of the universe we find ourselves in. Harmony is the key, I think. Move in sync with the rhythm of life. Go with the flow of the way things are and resist only what is contrary to our nature and to our well-being and the well-being of others.
We are rational creatures – or we’re supposed to be – and we have an affinity for connection with each other and for an appreciation of beauty and meaningful patterns. Reason and rhyme. Truth and beauty.
I’m making it my purpose to live an excellent life, filled with truth and beauty and kindness.
What does that look like every day, though? How do I make my way through the daily dilemmas and mind-numbing monotony and the regular heartbreaks, big and small, of a typical human life?
I don’t know. I get a fresh start every day, though. Some days are just going to suck. Move on and try to make the next one better.
To be awake and aware in such a grand and incomprehensibly vast universe should be delight enough for me. And knowing how small I am in the big picture should ease the angst of worrying that I need to be a big deal and do big things for some higher purpose. Ambition is overrated. Living a good life is aspiration enough for anyone.
“Consider the lilies”, right? Maybe humans should play along with the rest of nature and fulfill our role without so much strain and thinking and worry.
Be happy and kind. Enjoy each day as much as you can. Do work you love, and if you can’t love your work, do it well anyway. Be as authentic a human as you can be, in the ways you move and think and work and play. Align your life with truth and beauty and seek to understand and express those values as well as you can.
The path is the goal. The climb, the quest, the narrative arc is an illusion, or at least a mismatched metaphor. This step, this moment is your life. Make it excellent.
“A man’s job is to make the world a better place to live in, so far as he is able—always remembering the results will be infinitesimal—and to attend to his own soul.”–Leroy Percy
“To live your brief life rightly, isn’t that enough?”–Marcus Aurelius