She generally gave herself very good advice, (though she very seldom followed it).

- Alice in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll

Thursday, July 29, 2010

The Purpose of Life

I've been thinking tonight about the purpose of life. Mostly on someone else's behalf, which makes it tons easier to rationalize.

A lot of people want their lives to be meaningful and worry about whether their lives are meaningful, and as they get older that desire seems more insistent; though, I think it fluctuates a bit too. I think a lot of people worry about whether they've served a purpose, or whether they've lived life to the fullest, and worry about life passing them by. I think that's natural and probably a good thing to be concerned about. But maybe that concern shouldn't last too long.

I was re-reading the Screwtape Letters last month, and something Lewis (in the guise of Screwtape) wrote really caught my attention: "For the Present is the point at which time touches eternity."

In other words (and to give a bit more context), the Present moment is the only moment in which something is actually occurring and has no past or future (no beginning or end), therefore to be in the Present is to be touching eternity. Lewis is saying that God's desire for us is either to dwell on thoughts of future eternity (with Him), or to live fully in the present moment, living for Him. No dwelling on past wrongs, future insecurities, etc...

In Matthew 6:25, Jesus says, "For this reason I say to you, do not be worried about your life, as to what you will eat or what you will drink; nor for your body, as to what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?"

I think a lot of us have got the hang of this one. It's one of the first lessons we're usually taught: life is more than money, clothes, etc... Don't be materialistic. There are a lot of places to go from there. You can become the ultimate anti-materialist and give everything away, getting rid of all desires, until you achieve "excarnation"; or you can just be more concerned with something else that isn't a material good, such as family, significant other, business, art, humanity, justice, etc... Big concepts, or people. I think we get closer to a good answer when we start trying to find a purpose in other people.

In one of my favorite books, The Cider House Rules (John Irving), Dr. Larch tells the orphan Homer Wells to "Be useful." And he means with regards to other people. I think that holds a lot of what we're looking for in terms of purposefulness. Being useful to others. But that gets labeled "being an asset to society" and "society" is an empty word, so it's probably more personal than that. Be useful to your family, your significant other, your neighbor (the person who lives near to you), and anyone else you happen to meet.
And that keeps you in the Present, because other people, most likely, are in the present with you. You can't help past people, and you can't really help future people apart from a bit of planning, so the only people you can be useful to are the ones who are with you in the moment. This is simple enough.

I, of course, think there's more to it than even that. I think the purpose of life is experiencing God's love. Or just Love; that's another way to put it. Saint Therese of Lisieux (known as the Saint of the little way) says, "When we yield to discouragement it is usually because we give too much thought to the past or the future." When we're thinking of the past or the future, we're not living, but we're also not letting Love love us, thought I see nothing wrong with contemplating the past acts of His love for us, or looking forward to being with Him completely. But still, the thing I continue to come back to year after year is that contentment is the real opposite of the worry over our lives' purposes. Finding a purpose once and for all doesn't really work because we often don't find "it"; we find people, hopefully, and even then we can drive ourselves crazy if we aren't honest about being useful to those around us. (Every large cause: the environmental movement, Red Cross, Habitat for Humanity, Theater, even Art, generally has a person or group of people at its center.) 
I think being honestly invested in the moment as it comes, in the work of that moment, and the people of that moment, and, of course, God in that moment, probably leaves us the closest to fulfilled that we can be in this life, and the closest to being content with what we have. It was hard for me to accept that I didn't need to do anything more than love my family for my life to be meaningful. We're often taught in movies, books, and things that we have to do something really amazing in order to be remembered (because that's purposeful), or that we have to achieve some level of success in our fields and professions to be purposeful. But that's a lie, surely. All we have to do is love someone (as cheesy as that sounds) and our lives are immediately purposeful. And to not worry about whether our lives are purposeful, but rather just work now and find out later. If nothing else, it relieves a lot of stress over many things we could never control.
And I think, for Christians, it's when we set our sights on God and not on our own lives, that we
become useful to Him like we want to be, and our lives are never useless, no matter what. He keeps telling us not to worry about anything, "instead pray about everything" and to "cast [our] anxieties on Him because he cares for [us]" - We need so many reminders to stop worrying. It's probably because we need to stop worrying. 

 Of course, I write all of this, and I know tomorrow I'll be worrying again. But I hope I'll eventually get caught up in the present and forget to worry. Anyway, that's what I think and now I'm going to bed. :)

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