I suppose I should start by asking if life even has a purpose before I dive into what that purpose might be.
And the truth is – I don’t really think life does have a purpose. I think it’s totally random and ultimately meaningless in the REALLY BIG PICTURE scale.
But… We don’t live life on that scale, we live life in the here and now – and here and now, everything we do has meaning, and consequences. In the here and now, we are all struggling to define ourselves, to make our mark, to create our legacies, to mean something.
On that level – yes, our lives have purpose.
The hitch is that, we have to create that purpose, because there is no god, no deity, no greater power doing that work for us. We are here, what we do with that is up to us.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot, and talking around it in various circles. I’ve heard some interesting things.
My dad made a statement recently that there is far more suffering in the world than joy because joy is fleeting while suffering tends to last.
Both my husband and I took issue with that – and yes, we’re privileged white folk living in middle class America, so our level of suffering is pretty low – but even still, I’ve done quite a bit of traveling, I spent my 21st birthday not out at the bars drinking until I puked, but in a refugee camp on the Thai/Burma border and in that place where I thought I should see only despair, what I mostly saw was joy – joy in playing a game of cane ball, joy in friendship, joy in the little day-to-day things, like shoes that fit and food on the plate, that my middle-class American upbringing has made me blind to…
I think from the outside we see much more suffering than is really there in the world.
Suffering makes headlines, suffering fills the news reels, suffering – far more even than sex – sells.
This is not to say that suffering doesn’t exist, or that we don’t need to worry about refugee kids, or starving families, or injustice because look – those kids are smiling, it is simply acknowledging that despite all of the suffering – joy can be found nearly everywhere we look.
I’ve heard from another group of friends that our purpose here is to accumulate goods, property, material wealth… And that strikes me as odd because when I look at the suffering in the world, most of it is caused by this pursuit.
First, there is the obvious – that in order to accumulate material wealth we have to take it from someone else. Sometimes we trade fairly, sometimes we steal it, often we try to make our theft look like fair trade. Those acts of theft leave suffering in their wake.
Also, in order to accumulate material wealth, we have to take the materials from the earth – and it’s not usually a pretty process. There’s a lot of destruction that goes into our need to have a constantly growing economy based on consumption. That environmental destruction and degradation creates additional suffering.
Last, there is the suffering of the pursuers for whom there will never be enough, because someone else will always appear to have more. The constant striving and never fully achieving “enough” creates another layer of suffering.
Then last night, I was talking with my husband who is feeling pressure to decide “what he wants to be when he grows up” and is sick and tired of the idea that our careers should define us, and that we have to base who we are on what we do to make money to accumulate things.
He pointed out that when he dies and his life flashes before his eyes, he doubts he’s going to be taking a tally of the shit he acquired.
Much more likely, he will see the faces of the people he affected for good or ill.
If there is any judgement coming, it will be based, not on how much crap he owns or how much money he made, but on whether he made life better or worse for the people around him.
If there is a legacy to be left, it won’t be in a pile of material goods, but in the stories people tell and the memories they share of him.
And when he dies, and those images flash before him, and those judgements are passed – he wants to be remembered for the smiles he shared, the smiles he helped create, the good moments he helped others enjoy.
When his life is weighed, he wants the joy he created to outweigh the suffering.
And I had my Ah-ha!
Because he’s right.
At the end of the day, at the end of my life, what I want to be remembered for and measured by is not how much stuff I hoarded – I am not a Viking trying to buy my way in to Valhalla with my accumulated mountain of useless baubles – but how many lives I touched and by how well I followed the campsite rule of leaving each day better than I found it.
It’s one of the things I like most about my new job, 90% of it revolves around making people smile, giving them 2 hours of joy as well as the skills they need to take it home and do it again. Am I changing the world? Perhaps not, but I’m shaping moments, and moments, like pennies, add up.
I can’t tell you what your purpose is, but I can say that I believe that if we all focused more on what we were doing to make our corners of the world better for the people we interact with and better for our communities, instead of focusing on how much material crap we had – the world would be a better place, not just for the people around us – but for ourselves too.
If we focused on making sure everyone had enough, instead of worrying about how we were going to get more… The world would be a better place.
The Buddhists have long taught that striving is the source of suffering, and I believe that to be true.
We forget, so often, here in the whirlwind busyness of the West, that most of us have plenty, more than plenty. We get so busy striving and counting and hoarding that we forget to even appreciate what we have, and more, we forget that often the best way to appreciate something is to share it.
I have enough, I have more than enough, so this year I am going to focus on sharing more and hoarding less and the only thing I am going to strive for is more smiles.
I wish you all the feeling of plenty in the coming year.