Menanteau Serfontein – 9 April 2021
Most people grapple with the following questions at some stage of their life:
- “What is the meaning of life?”
- “Why am I here?”
- “What does purpose mean?”
- “What is the purpose of my life?”
- “What happens after I die?”
- “How/where do I find peace, joy and fulfilment?”
This is Part 1 of a three-part series dealing with Meaning and Purpose in our lives.
Part 1 explains What is meant by Meaning and Purpose and Why it is critically Important to find Meaning and Purpose in our lives.
The remaining two parts of the series will cover the following:
- Part 2: “How to Discover Meaning and Purpose for your life”.
- Part 3: “How to Implement in practice, your personal conclusions about your life’s Purpose”.
The above questions are not new and through the ages the answers have been discovered and rediscovered.
Many philosophers, theologians, academics, psychologists and wise people have investigated this and written about it. The answers to these questions are readily available. One can read about it and the answers can be taught, however in most cases, people have to discover it for themselves.
Some discover the answers relatively early in life and others discover it only late in life. Some never discover it. There are also those who know the answers intellectually, but never buy into it, or for a variety of reasons just can’t get themselves to apply the wisdom associated with the “right” answers during their life.
Until the day when the answers are personally discovered, most people live with a sense of purposelessness, emptiness, unfulfillment, confusion and even loneliness. Many people are concerned about and fear what happens after you die.
In the pursuit of meaning and purpose, some people conquer one self-imposed goal after the other on their road of repeated worldly success, acquiring financial wealth in abundance, comfort, fame, popularity, status and status symbols to satisfy their pride and ego, or to prove themselves, or to satisfy their hunger for power, or to compensate for feelings of inferiority, only to continue experiencing deep-seated emptiness, hollowness, restlessness and unfulfillment. Others pursue the notion of YOLO (You Only Live Once) which is a mantra to throw off self-restraint coupled with a philosophy of “let’s live for today and tomorrow will take care of itself”. This mantra is nothing new. Hedonistic philosophers taught ages ago that our life’s goal should be to minimize pain and maximize pleasure without regard for the future consequences of one’s decisions. These people are seeking pleasure in parties, holiday trips, alcohol, drugs, pornography, sex, debauchery and not denying themselves any worldly pleasures irrespective of its morality and possible detrimental consequences.
People may have all the worldly things their heart desires, but they still don’t have inner peace, contentment and joy. They say to themselves “perhaps if I make even more money or if I achieve the next “goal/trophy”, I will be satisfied and happy. However, when it is achieved, the same feelings of hollowness and unfulfillment remain and enough is never enough – it is a “mirage” – “perhaps when I get to the next milestone, I will find what I am looking for,” – but alas, as you get there, you remain empty and unfulfilled.
Many eventually start realising that “I have now achieved everything that I have set out to achieve and I have everything that anyone could ever wish for, but so what – what is next? I have all the worldly desires of my heart, but remain unfulfilled – is this what life is all about?”.
We are all aware of the large number of people in the world who have an abundance of financial wealth, fame, status and popularity, but their lives are a mess. No amount of money can ever buy happiness, inner joy, peace and contentment.
Let us look at some of the things that have been written and said about this reality of life.
The Author Frank Powell states that “Soap operas continue for decades. Something happens, but nothing meaningful ever happens. There is drama of epic proportions. People betray one another, plot and scheme, fight, and tear down, but nothing ever happens. The shows have no theme of any meaning. The characters are superficial and miserable. Soap operas aren’t going anywhere. Just one entertaining episode after another.
Unfortunately, many of us settle for a soap opera life. Every day we wake up and begin our hectic lives. We don’t stop all day. Our pace is full-throttle. Our minds never rest, and our hearts are never content. Much like a soap opera, something happens every day. But nothing meaningful ever happens.”
“When our lives become a recurring episode, with no theme or direction, disillusionment, discontent, stress, burnout, and depression consume us. Without a clear understanding of our identity, purpose, and assignment, emptiness plagues our souls. We can’t function with empty souls. So, we fill the void with anything we can find. Work. Sex. Drugs. Alcohol. Shopping sprees. Large homes and trinkets.”
He also says “We live in an age of purposelessness. And where purposelessness is present, addictions are rampant. Few things are more miserable than settling for average or mediocre. There is a void created by purposelessness, and something must fill it. So, if your job sucks or if your life is void of quality relationships, you run home to alcohol, pornography, medication, or drugs.”
Purpose Gives Life Meaning
Viktor Frankl the Austrian neurologist, psychiatrist, philosopher, author, and Holocaust survivor, authored the Book entitled “Man’s Search for Meaning”. Frankl describes a search for a life meaning as the central human motivational force. He developed the Logo Theory which says that meaning and purpose is the key to personal happiness and well-being. He also describes how to find inner freedom irrespective of one’s circumstances – those who have a “why” to live for, can bear almost any “how”.
Rose PhD, a sociologist and counsellor, states that “humans are driven by the necessity to seek meaning in their lives by committing to a cause or purpose outside and beyond themselves.
If an individual is unable to find a meaningful commitment, the suffering they experience leads to despair. On the other hand, If they are able to find a meaningful commitment, any suffering they experience will be met with resilience and the strength to persevere toward their goals.”
Frankl is a living example of this philosophy, since he survived two concentration camps in Nazi Germany through his commitment to the goal of rewriting and publishing his book “Man’s Search for Meaning”. His book was not only about his personal experience, but also his observations of the approach and mindset of other concentration camp inmates who had hope and a purpose compared to those who had lost hope and felt that they had no purpose.
According to Frankl, since this drive to find meaning is essential for human beings, a lack of meaning leaves an “existential vacuum” whereby one is susceptible to a state of despair. Steve Rose states that “we often cope ineffectively with this form of suffering by conforming to others, seeking simple fleeting pleasures, or by demonstrating superiority over others. All of these routes lead to unconscious suffering since they simply repress the existential vacuum produced by the lack of meaning. They do not actually fill the vacuum by creating meaning.
In other words, rather than feeling the pain, it is numbed by the temporary pleasure of stimulants, depressants, or the feeling of superiority. This is the root of addiction. Working toward a meaningful goal is replaced by drugs, alcohol, excessive television-watching, internet games, or on the other hand, an obsession focused on success or acquiring power over others.”
Purpose Gives You Direction
Rose states that when baby-boomers grew up, life was simpler and finding purpose was probably easier. Young people today, such as the millennials, are now tasked with navigating a highly fluid, highly complex social milieu where there are fewer clear signposts directing them along their life-course.
Today’s younger generation see a multitude of paths, but don’t know which way to go. There has been an explosion of both opportunity and uncertainty. Rose also states that in his opinion, today’s youth are not lazier than the last generations, they are just more lost.
David Brooks says “Many young people are graduating into limbo. Floating and plagued by uncertainty, they want to know what specifically they should do with their lives. So we hand them a great box of freedom! “The purpose of life is freedom”. Freedom leads to happiness! We’re not going to impose anything on you or tell you what to do. We give you your liberated self to explore. Enjoy your freedom!
The reality is that a lot of young people are drowning in freedom. WHAT THEY’RE LOOKING FOR IS DIRECTION. So we hand them another box of nothing – the big box of possibility! Your future is limitless! The world is your oyster! You can do anything you set your mind to! The journey is your destination! Take risks! Be audacious! Dream big!”
I fully support the notion that human beings function best with a clear sense of direction and purpose, especially if one’s purpose is coupled with a clear set of appropriate personal values and principles serving as a compass how to live our daily lives.
I believe that this dilemma does not only apply to millennials. I know several people in their fifties and even sixties who openly confess that they do not have purpose or do not have sufficient purpose. Many of them have had highly successful professional or business careers which became their all-consuming purpose for most of their life. Now that their career has ended, they have no idea where and how to find a new meaningful purpose for their lives.
The same often happens to successful professional sportsmen and women whose sports careers come to an end at a relatively young age and then struggling to find purpose thereafter. There are numerous examples of ex sportsmen and women whose lives descended into a mess, mainly because they had lost their identity and the sense of a meaningful purpose.
What is the Meaning of Life Purpose?
Steve Rose says that “A sense of purpose is key to living a meaningful life. It is the heart of passion and it can bring us to deeper levels of long-term happiness, providing resilience even amidst great hardships. When you lack a sense of purpose, you feel lost, unmotivated, and have difficulty finding meaning in life.”
The Life Coach and Author, Barrie Davenport, says that “To live happily, our views of success should align with a sense of purpose. There are many different kinds of purposes of life to pursue, but it’s essential to find something that brings joy and fulfilment to your life.”
According to Rose, a sense of purpose is something we often talk about wanting, seeking, or having, but it is somewhat elusive in our world of ongoing life-projects, characterized by multiple careers in a highly fluid world.
Wayne Dyer, Author and Motivational Speaker said “When I chased after money, I never had enough. When I got my life on purpose and focused on giving of myself and everything that arrived into my life, then I was prosperous.”
The ideal for all of us is to have a clear sense of purpose which means dedicating yourself to a cause(s) outside and beyond yourself. It’s a goal that fuels your motivation in life, giving your life meaning and direction, inspiring you to make a significant contribution to the world.
Part 2 and 3 (to be posted on the Website on 16 April and 23 April respectively)
Part 2 will deal with “How to Discover Meaning and Purpose for your life”.
Part 3 will deal with “How to Implement in practice, your personal conclusions about your life’s Purpose”.
Some of the content of this Article was derived from the following sources:
- Article entitled “Who Am I? Why Am I Here? Where Am I Going? Answering Three Questions The Whole World Is Asking” authored by Frank Powell https://frankpowell.me/about
- Article entitled “What Does It Mean to Have a Purpose?” authored by Steve Rose PhD, a sociologist and counsellor https://steverosephd.com/what-does-it-mean-to-have-a-purpose/#:~:text=A%20sense%20of%20purpose%20means,significant%20contribution%20to%20the%20world.
- Article entitled “15 Life Purpose Examples To Help You Write Yours” by Barrie Davenport – Life Coach and Author – July 6, 2020 https://liveboldandbloom.com/07/self-improvement/life-purpose-examples
- Book entitled “The Second Mountain” by David Brooks
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