Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Looking for Purpose

We all want our lives to have a purpose. To be meaningful in some way. We desperately want their to be a reason why we're here, both as individuals and as a species. The question is, do we create religion to help fill this hard-wired need of human consciousness, or do we have this craving for meaning because there is a truth out there to be found?

That isn't an easy question, obviously. We each answer it for ourselves. The religious see this need to believe, this longing for something beyond ourselves as a natural offshoot of our status as children of god. Just as children seek love from their parents, we as a species search for our heavenly father, whether or not we know that's who we're looking for.

I come at it from the other direction. I imagine that our quest for meaning isn't related to any specific truth. It's an artifact of self-awareness. At some point our species evolved a brain large enough, and a consciousness hefty enough to realize that it existed. That it was someone. In that instant the light went on for humanity as we could suddenly ask the question, "who am I?" That question, that germ of a thought that says, "who is it that's thinking this question to myself right now?" is the root of the search for meaning.

"Why am I here?"

"What's that giant bright circle in the sky?"

"Why do my crops grow splendidly some years and whither on the stalks the next?"

"Is there something I'm supposed to be doing?"

We ask difficult questions. It's what defines us. And in the absence of any forthcoming answers, we create or own. And that's both the central difficulty with atheism, and its biggest asset, for me. I crave meaning just as much as the next person. I long for my life to be "about" something. To have a purpose larger than myself. But I can't subscribe to any one of the multitude of religions available today. I can't because, at my core, I know I'd be lying to myself. Pretending to believe for the sake of "meaning".

I want life to have a purpose but I search my intellect and my heart, and come to the unavoidable conclusion that there is no inherent purpose to life at all. So what's a guy to do? I realized a while ago that your life has whatever meaning you ascribe to it. If you want it to be that you exist to save souls for god, than it is. If you want to imagine that you were put on the planet to end world hunger, then, for you, you were. If you choose to dedicate yourself to ending intolerance, then follow that path. Whether or not it's true is unimportant to your experience of it. The great thing is that you get to decide what's important to you. If there is no cosmic significance to anything than that means you get to create your own.

Making that choice is no easy task. The world is your oyster when you get to pick your own destiny. One thing I try and keep in mind is that, because my choice isn't set on some tablet, burned into rock by some divine finger, I can always change directions. So purpose is mutable. Purpose is what you want it to be at any given moment. I exist, and therefore I exist, and I get to do what makes me, and hopefully other people happy until I can't anymore.

It's all easier said than done, of course, but what's ever really easy that's worth anything?

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