In Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, a similar question was brought up, but stated as a search for our “proper function”. Aristotle said that our proper function was characteristic to man, and not universal for all forms of life. The function of vegetation and plants is to encourage growth and health in the world; the role of animals is to give back to the earth and collaborate with nature. But what is the proper function of man?
Well, Aristotle had his own notions about our life purpose, but this isn’t his essay. Perhaps he may be correct in his assumption that man’s life purpose is universal for all men, but I wouldn’t consider that a safe assumption. First of all, I can’t speak for all men, and frankly, I think one’s personal approach and outlook on life is more useful to the individual rather than a generalized view for all human life. Biologically, you could argue that our purpose is to reproduce, consume, and then die. But again, that conclusion doesn’t serve me much guidance. The only opinion that will always be relevant to someone is their own, so it makes logical sense to consider this question personally, emotionally, and intellectually to attain the greatest benefit.
To discover my life purpose, I first have to reject all societal definitions and standards. Life should be independent of the surrounding world. It will endure after I die, and has for millions of years. So why should its purpose be singly defined by values of our time? If I consult the modern interpretation of the term “success”, I might consider focusing my attention on money, fame, and status. But where exactly did we find this conception of “success”? We didn’t find it. We created it. Yes, I exist in a world of material possessions and inconsequential values, and though I won’t discard the fact that these components are fundamental to our culture, I can still skepticize their merit. My life is too precious to be sustained upon questionable virtues. Who said money can buy everything? Where can I find true beauty? What is the difference between love and infatuation? If I wanted to, I could find the correct answers to all these questions, but they would only be correct relative to our time. If there’s no evidence to show these are universal truths, they have no place in the purpose of my life.
What I can depend on to reveal my purpose are my ethics. They are the most fundamental aspect of my character, and I’m relying on the fact that they won’t change for the next seventy years or so. My morals are not what I want, they are why I want. Everything I do and every decision I make are based on my morals; they are essentially the explanation of my life. My ethics reflect why I endure pain and hardships for certain desires, and once I discover them, I can understand what their purpose is.
So let’s imagine an ideal set of ethics. The possessor of these qualities shows strength and determination towards their goals, respects and appreciates other people, and is willing to learn from and explore the world. They share their feelings honestly and openly, and attempt to change the negative features of their life rather than complain about them. Not a bad combination to have. And quite a job to develop these traits.
Wouldn’t this person, as the result of their virtuous character, be changing and enhancing the world around them constantly? If they encountered a flaw in their surroundings, would they not strive to improve it naturally? I think once a person has fulfilled the difficult task of perfecting their morality, they will already have acquired the integrity and character to act upon these qualities. An individual who care’s deeply enough about the environment will perhaps pursue a career in environmental science or raise money to support research for natural resources. But someone who is apathetic toward the environment will have to work a lot harder to acquire the motivation to improve it. It’s much easier for the involved person to change things than it is for someone who is indifferent to the world. By instilling passion in your life, you will inevitably live out that passion.
So this brings us back to that burning question: What is that passion I wish to instill in my life? Well, unfortunately I’m a jack of all trades and master of none, so narrowing it down to what I want to achieve in life would be torture; everything seems worthy of my time and effort. The “purpose” of my life seems so ambiguous, yet is such a crucial decision. Eventually I’ll have to encounter the choice, but when I do, will that limit my focus in life? One fear of mine is that by putting all of my attention into one matter, I’ll be neglecting other interests and aspirations I might have pursued. But another more startling fear is what will happen if I don’t realize what I want to accomplish.
The answer to that question is nothing. Look around the room, think about the people in your city, the country, the world: who says we have to accomplish anything? There is no obligation to change the world. If I were to live on a hill my entire life, survive off the land around me, and never make any money whatsoever, why would that be a worse life than someone who has saved an endangered species or volunteered with humanitarian efforts? I don’t mean to disrespect these undertakings at all, because they deserve as much praise as they get, but not all of us are expected to take these projects on. In fact, there aren’t any expectations for any of us, except maybe to live. So if someone decides to do just that, to live, what more should be asked of them?
I find that awareness almost comforting. Not because that realization leaves me free to squander away my life, but because it allows me to face the world not because I am compelled to, but because I decided to. And the best way to face the world at this point in my life would be morally. Related to what I mentioned before, the maturity of ones morals leads to the discovery of the individuals self. I don’t think I could make decisions now that I would agree with in the future because I still have a lot to learn about myself. So that’s what I can commit to. I want to constantly situate myself with new people to learn what love is. I want to travel to new places to find out where is home. I want to laugh always, and perhaps through laughing, I can find out what I’m afraid of. I want to play music, and appreciate the beauty of words, and express and feel emotion without reserve. Once I comprehend the true significance of these values and more, I can materialize them and bring them to life. Now, I could follow a million different avenues, but I don’t know if I’d regret following that path. And I could devote myself to a undeniably good cause, but I’ll never know what I was sacrificing. There are too many questions that are dependable on eachother to answer one, so I think I’ll just concentrate on preparing myself to maybe one day answer them with sensible logic. I’ve been tiptoeing around the initial question, so what is the purpose of my life, you ask? To live.