What is our Purpose?

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I believe I was born to achieve something.  What exactly it is that makes life worth living is open for debate.  I disagree with Schopennauer’s assessment that: “brutes show real wisdom when compared with us – I mean, their quiet, placid enjoyment of the present moment[1].”  While it is true that moments should be appreciated in life, the brute enjoys the present only because he cannot think of the future.  Why do we live if not for the future?  Certainly Seneca reinforces this view when he writes from exile: “everlasting misfortune does have one blessing, that it ends up by toughening those whom it constantly afflicts[2].”  Indeed were we to live in the moment and in the moment only we would be defined by our adversities and not strengthened by them.  Our ability to live for something better than the present is what makes our lives worth living.

Though I do not believe life exists purely to be appreciated in the moment, I do see value in understanding life as a construct that is best utilized by forward planning.  Seneca says: “putting things off is the biggest waste of life: it snatches away each day as it comes, and denies us the present by promising us the future[3].”  My friends and I used to joke growing up when my friend Brians’ dad used to tell him: “go ahead and live, live your life away.”  His father said that to him in such a condescending way that it seemed to imply that Brian was wasting his life simply by living day-to-day.  I was always amazed at the amount of disdain that man had for his son.  The irony, at least in my eyes, is that he has been the most successful among us.  

What amazes me about Brian today is that no matter how successful he is, he is always asking questions and always trying to learn more.  This, I think, is the purpose of life, to never remain complacent and always seek to understand that which you do not.  I’ve lived my life in some respects like Tolstoy in that I understand where he’s coming from when he says: “I was tormented by the problem of how to live a better life[4].”  The difference between Mr. Tolstoy and myself is that I don’t view ‘the problem’ as spiritual, rather I look at life through more utilitarian terms.  As Tolstoy says: “you are part of a whole.  When you know as much as possible about the whole, and about the laws of its development, you will understand your place in the whole, and your own self[5].”  I look at life in terms of where I am, where I’m going and I try to reconcile that with where it is that I want to go.

Now, the question must be asked: in view of where we want to go; where will we go?  As Pascal says: “mans’ unhappiness springs from one thing alone, his incapacity to stay quietly in one room[6].”  I look at that in a different way and say that the better our ability to stay quietly alone, the greater our capacity for happiness.  Pascal says that we don’t want this, he says that we don’t want to sit quietly in a room and perhaps he is right.  Pascal says that: “we are not looking for this soft peaceful existence which allows us to think about our unfortunate condition[7].”  To a degree he is correct.  But I don’t think that the “pleasure of being alone is incomprehensible[8].”  Perhaps it is something better suited to some than others, but I do get a certain amount of pleasure from being alone with myself and my thoughts.  In fact, it is when I am surrounded by people and caught up in the bustle of an overcrowded schedule that I become uneasy.  I have no problem pondering my condition because unlike Pascal, I do not see it as being unfortunate.

Whatever fate awaits me at the end of my life, I see no purpose in pondering it now.  It’s not that I’m incapable of thinking about it or that I seek diversions to avoid thinking about it, but that I simply don’t view death as something totally relevant to my life.  ‘Tis true that death smiles at us all, but it is up to us to smile back.  I would rather spend my time living life and enjoying my existence than wasting away precious hours of my time on a subject I have little to no control over.  We can choose to live with purpose or we can choose to die with purpose.  There is far too much to live through and experience to spend any great amount of time struggling with death.  Struggling with life takes enough effort and it is in that vein that I choose to live my life.  As for those who think that death is more deserving of our time I would echo the words of Teddy Roosevelt, who said: “it is not having been in the dark house, but having left it, that counts[9].”  Life exists to be lived just as struggles exist to be overcome.  Death may have a purpose, but its’ purpose will forever remain a mystery to those of us among the living.


[1] Arthur Schopenhauer, Suffering, Suicide and Immortality (New York: Dover Publications Inc, 2006), 4.

[2] Seneca, On the Shortness of Life (New York: Penguin Books, 1997), 36.

[3] Ibid, 13.

[4] Leo Tolstoy, A Confession and Other Religious Writings (London: Penguin Books, 1987), 26.

[5] Ibid, 35.

[6] Pascal, Pensees, 44.

[7] Ibid, 45.

[8] Ibid.

[9]Bruce Fehn, “Theodore Roosevelt and American Masculinity,” Magazine of History, 2005, 52.

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