What is the purpose of your existence? I doubt you will find the answer hiding in a fortune cookie or written in a book specially for your eyes. Your unique purpose is not a statement handed to you by another; it is a decision you make.
Many of us find purpose and meaning in service to others. For doctors, social activists, grandmothers, and many others, a critical element of joy depends on being needed. Last month, the Dalai Lama and Arthur C. Brooks published an editorial in the New York Times, entitled Behind Our Anxiety, The Fear of Being Unneeded. The premise of their essay was that contemporary man suffers from angst and hopelessness because he does not feel necessary to those around him. They wrote, “Being ‘needed’ does not entail selfish pride or unhealthy attachment to the worldly esteem of others. Rather, it consists of a natural human hunger to serve our fellow men and women.” Certainly, providing social support is a time-honored way of feeling at peace in the world.
But, not all meaningful callings require selfless service to others. The pure “flow” of inspired creativity can expand the world of art, provide deep psychological insights to the artist, and lead to the construction of objects of beauty, individuality, or social revolt. This work can be the wholly-satisfying essence of an artist’s life even if no other person ever sees the creation. Others can find their highest meaning in simple harmony with and appreciation of the natural world – gardening, hiking, or just being in nature.
Aging to advanced years imposes challenges to the way you view your value in the world. Living under the confines of social roles (parent, employee, congregation member…) can set you up to outlive your purpose. What remains may be years of suffering and misery unless you actively seek out new ways to reconnect. Once released from lifelong roles, YOU are the one to decide what it means to be a “productive member of society”.
When you find it hard to discern your life’s meaning, there are hints to revealing it to yourself anew. One way is to go back in time to your early childhood and take an objective look at that child. What aspects of the world were exciting to him? What was he particularly drawn to, good at, or curious about? Although passing time changes the physical world, it rarely takes away the foundational aspects of character. Another approach is grounded in the present moment: what do you want to do right now? What would inspire you to stop reading this blog, get up, and do something? There are as many answers as persons. At 92, Leza crochets nearly 8 hours every day, making blankets to donate to a homeless shelter. She loves to sew and to keep people warm. At 73, Jeffrey started a referral business to link up local yard and maintenance workers with seniors who need support. A different tack was taken by Charles at the age of 69, when he retired gleefully to a house full of books. His life purpose right now is to indulge in his desire to learn.
“Meaning” is a dynamic property of your relationships to the world. Philosophical and theological interpretations can give you help in maintaining life purpose, but none of them will save you the work of thinking, of acting, and of engaging the moments of your life in ways that have significance to you.