Without a purpose, life is barely worth living. That's one sign of depression: when nothing seems to matter and our existence seems meaningless.
But where does purpose come from?
Religious people typically say "God." They believe that God has a plan for us and we just need to let it unfold, trusting in the Almighty. People who strongly embrace a particular culture or nationality may feel that their purpose is to live in accord with the tenets of their society.
And as Joseph Carter says in an essay I read today in Question Everything: Essays from the New York Times Philosophy Series, Aristotle considered that everything in the universe has its own inherent goal.
From cars, trees, animals, all the way to the cosmos itself, Aristotle argued, each thing has an inherent principle that guides the course of its existence.
But Carter argues that purpose arises from ourselves in "The Universe Doesn't Care About Your 'Purpose'." Here's the PDF file if you're unable to access the New York Times essay.
Download Opinion | The Universe Doesn’t Care About Your ‘Purpose’ - The New York Times
He basically sees that the stories we tell ourselves are what provide a sense of purpose. It's as if we're our own screenwriter who pens "The Story of My Life," along with being the lead actor in this drama.
Naturally Carter puts things more philosophically than that crude summation.
Meaning begins and ends with how we talk about our own lives, such as our myths and stories.
...Purpose springs from our longing for permanence in an ever-changing universe. It is a reaction to the universe’s indifference to us. We create stories about the world and ourselves as contours, “phantom bodies,” of the inevitability of loss and change.
Myths appear timeless; they have what Blumenberg calls an iconic constancy. Stories pass through generations, often becoming traditions, customs, even laws and institutions that order and give meaning to our lives. Purpose grows out of the durability of human lore. Our stories serve as directives for the ways we need the world to exist.
An indifferent universe also offers us a powerful and compelling case for living justly and contentedly because it allows us to anchor our attention here. It teaches us that this life matters and that we alone are responsible for it.
Love, friendship and forgiveness are for our benefit. Oppression, war and conflict are self-inflicted. When we ask what’s the purpose of the recent gassing of Syrian children in the Idlib Province or the torture and killings of Chechnyan homosexual men, we ought not simply look to God or the universe for explanations but to ourselves, to the entrenched mythologies that drive such actions — then reject them when the institutions they inform amount to acts of horror.
The purposes and goals we create are phantom bodies — vestiges of and memorials to the people, places and things we stand to lose and strive to keep. Purpose indexes the world’s impermanence, namely our own.
...Purpose is about loss, or at least the circumvention of it. And there’s nothing wrong with that. We create purposes to establish happy endings in a universe where endings are simply that — endings.
...So, take a moment to think about the mythologies informing your purpose. I’ll reflect on mine, too. The universe, however, won’t. And that might be the most meaningful distinction of all.
Sometimes I've thought that we don't really need stories about our lives. Isn't simply living life enough? Is it necessary to fashion a narrative of My Life where I'm the starring character of my own theatrical production who, not surprisingly, usually comes across as an appealing hero or heroine?
Sure, one with flaws, because that makes my character more interesting. But essentially a good person who is doing their best to make their way through the myriad problems and opportunities that have arisen in My Life.
At times I've viewed this personal mythology as being out of touch with the lack of self that I've come to believe, via Buddhism and neuroscience, is likely to be true. However, when I examine how I actually live my life, I realize that just as Carter says, I need stories about myself that foster a sense of purpose.
Even materialists can’t deny the fact that purposes somehow exist to give us meaning and happiness.
Anthropologists like Dean Falk recently suggested that goal-directed behavior is also evolutionarily advantageous. This doesn’t imply that evolution itself has a purpose, of course. (Though some have argued otherwise.) What it does suggest is that as purposeless as human evolution is, we generally benefit as a species from a belief in it.
Every day I sit down at my laptop and write a post for one of my three blogs. No one forces me to do this. If I didn't do it, there wouldn't be any big problem. I don't view my writing as very important to the world at large.
I write because this gives me a sense of purpose. I write for myself, mainly. I feel a need to get thoughts and feelings out of my head and into cyberspace. When I finish a blog post, as I'm about to do, I have a feeling of satisfaction.
I've fashioned a story about myself that includes the plot element, you write blog posts, and some people read them. Everybody has such stories about themselves. It's how we create meaning in a world that lacks it.
The wonderful thing is how often our individual stories coalesce into a shared sense of meaning and purpose. Our friends typically share much of what we find meaningful. Same with larger groupings, whether they be work-related, religious, sports-related, political, artistic, or whatever.
Though each of us is responsible for creating our own meaning, it's those shared meanings that give life a special pleasure. For example, a marriage that works well is when two people share a story of their togetherness that is mutually meaningful.