Purpose

A theme of this blog is that the purpose of our lives is pursuit of the goals of surviving and thriving that we share with all other living things. We are, I think, so full of this fundamentally biological purpose, rooted as it is in our 3.8-billion-year past, that we are not conscious of it as such.

It fills, however, every waking moment. As I write, my two 20-something step-kids are at their jobs as a waiter and a painter, learning how to sustain themselves. My 30-something daughter waits for her son to finish his school day so she can enjoy his company and also create the next generation. My wife, a college administrator, is in her office exercising her thinking and social skills that she is very good at and helping others prepare for their future. I, the retired guy, do chores to sustain the house, go to the gym to sustain the body, volunteer locally to sustain social purpose, and, on this blog, wax “creative,” an activity often viewed as contributing nothing to survival but which in fact results from and stimulates connectedness within the brain and among people, two types of synthesis that have done their fair share to aid the persistence of the species. We all may wonder and even agonize about the paths we have chosen, but nearly all those paths aim at a single final purpose that we can’t help but pursue.

True, there are plenty of counter-examples of activities that are not directed at all towards surviving and flourishing. The murder-suicidal killers are extreme examples, overshadowing the many who live in quiet anonymity in knots of fear and rage with no great interest in surviving, let alone thriving. And there are those who are narrowly ambitious for wealth, power, or celebrity, whose version of well-being is highly visible and visibly debased. Even the fine people discussed in the paragraph above have their negative, unconstructive moments. Like all purposes, the goals of surviving and thriving can be lost sight of temporarily or perverted or rejected.

Still, in the mainstream of most people’s lives that I know of, I see the living that we do and the purpose that we wonder about in a cyclical relationship. Picture a circle with Being Alive at the top. To Be Alive is to pursue all sorts of activities and goals, and our pattern-seeking brains can’t help but wonder what kind of central Purpose stands behind all that activity.  So Being Alive take us 180 degrees to Our Purpose. To discover Our Purpose we look over all our human activities,  including our periods of fear or aggression, and find that all that purposeful busy-ness seems directed at creating and sustaining a robust Being Alive for ourselves and/or others. So we are back at where we started, at Being Alive, with all the activities that entails–and with our pattern-seeking brains still asking, “Why?” We repeat this cycle because we are not accustomed to thinking of ourselves as innately purposeful and because we tend to look for big answers outside of ourselves.

The reality, though, to coin a brand, is that “Purpose ’S Us.”

2 thoughts on “Purpose

  1. >the purpose of our lives is pursuit of the goals of surviving and thriving that we share with all other living things.

    I tend to agree. We’ve evolved to be nice because it is overall in the individual’s interest to maintain the trust of the group, and to ensure the group’s flourishing, which in turn ensures the individual member’s flourishing.

    To push the moral questioning to the next stage, what about when we are presented with opportunities to advance our own interests at the expense of others, without sacrificing our social standing or benefits received from the group? Those seem like the situations where we’re evolved to be not so nice. Do you have any thoughts on this?

    • Like all living things, we are capable of putting ourselves first, whether it’s out of fear or basic unmet needs or great vanity. Most humans can behave selfishly in particular situations but in the long run we are so closely linked to our social groups that strict selfishness doesn’t pay off for too long. But we can easily think of exceptions—those who are very powerful, or angry, or hurt.

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