WHAT IS THE MEANING AND PURPOSE OF LIFE?
From: COCC's Good Works, September-October 2014 issue
Every person who has ever lived has had to deal with the question, “What is the meaning of life and what is the purpose of my life?” Whereas countless people have wrestled with this life-determining question at a fully conscious level, probably many others have not. However, we suggest that whether on a conscious or unconscious level, everyone inevitably must confront this issue, whether or not they are aware of it.
Perhaps this fundamental question is the number one human question, as well as the number one spiritual issue of life. How one answers this question shapes the whole life of each and every human being. Indeed, everyone wants to know why we are here on earth — in general, and why am I here, each one of us — in particular. Sometimes the community, group or society within which an individual is socialized provides an answer to this question so that the individual doesn’t consciously deal with the issue, although the answer may well not be valid. But people desperately need to have a reason to get out of bed in the morning, and if the reason and purpose of one’s life is not a given, people need to invent some reason and purpose. Getting married and having children frequently provides meaning and purpose. For others, one’s work provides meaning and purpose. For some, belonging to a particular group or fighting for some cause, be it social, political, humanitarian or religious provides the necessary feeling of meaning and purpose. Young people in their late teens and twenties are noted for wrestling with what the meaning of life is. And sometimes people who are 50-ish or older get depressed, despairing that their lives have not had any purpose, and that there is no reason anymore to get out of bed. This might be especially pronounced if a person has not been married and has not had any children, or if the children have grown and there is the “empty nest” void, or if their job doesn’t really offer a sense of fulfillment. Sometimes people say that their life has had a meaning and purpose if they have been able to help at least one person. People want to feel that their existence has made a difference, and major problems can arise when a person feels that his/her life is empty and meaningless, and has made no difference whatsoever. They will seek to fill the void, the emptiness, with something else, or even commit suicide in despair. Such people can be very vulnerable to being manipulated by religious, nationalistic or revolutionary leaders looking for empty and disillusioned people, especially youth, to enlist them as revolutionaries, terrorists, or suicide bombers.
Symptoms and consequences of lack of meaning and purpose in life
Let us briefly look past the individual’s personal search for meaning to a wider, more global view of society, and reflect about how most of the awful events that are reported in the daily news proceed directly from the sense of lack of meaning and purpose of life, even though many or even perhaps most, are not aware of it. Certainly, how can any of us know what is inside someone else’s head, and what their motivations are for doing atrocious things? However, we can look at their actions, which are the results of what is in people’s heads, and use logic to deduce the reason. (That is, as our Lord said, “by their fruits you will know them...”)
Indeed, if people knew the true meaning and purpose of life, there is no way that they could treat others —or themselves—in a vicious and violent way. They could not abuse people either emotionally, physically or sexually; they could not kill or attack others, especially their own children or parents; they could not murder someone who is knocking on their door to get help because their car broke down; there could not be children killing children or parents killing their children; there could not be any other kind of massacre of innocent people by those of any age, religion, or ethnic group. There could not be suicide bombers, nor governments bombing their own citizens; there could be no genocide or “ethnic cleansing,” nor butchering of people whose beliefs, customs, practices or appearances are different from one’s own, or because they are of a different ethic, religious or national group. Nonetheless, all the awful things that we see/read in the news that occur internationally, nationally and in our own communities are reflections and manifestations of what is going on in the heads of individual people, such as you and me, our families, and those whom each of us encounter every day in our own personal lives.
Furthermore, the reason for all these atrocities boils down to one thing: the lack of knowing the true reason and purpose of life, and these atrocities are ways of trying to cope with the emptiness of the perpetrator’s own life. Similarly, if one knew the meaning and purpose of life, individuals could not mutilate or attack their own bodies with self-destructive behavior, including such things as addictions to drugs, alcohol, sex, food, smoking, violence, gambling, having “fun,” buying things, engaging in “risky behavior,” to mention just a few of the most obvious addictions. Furthermore, we might also note that passions such as anger, hatred, jealousy, self-pity, envy, rage, bitterness, lying, deceitfulness and lust, can easily take root in the soul of a person who is in self-destruct mode, which inevitably is a consequence of despairing over the lack of meaning and purpose in the person’s life. Although there can be a variety of causes for why people have no sense of meaning and purpose in their lives, including self-hatred, self-pity, guilt, feeling like a victim or like a “piece of dirt,” (see our previous essay on “Self-Love” in the April-June 2014 issue of COCC’s Good Works: http://coccdetroit.com/ self_love_good_or_bad.html), inevitably, the one common denominator of all these types of atrocities towards others or oneself, all stem from a lack of meaning and purpose in life. When one sees the behavior, one knows the cause is there, like an axiom, “if A, then B,” or, if we see apples on the ground, we assume there is an apple tree nearby. Furthermore, one might indeed claim to know the meaning and purpose of life, but his/her behavior will reveal whether this is true, or whether the person is deluding him/herself. Also, one can know something intellectually, but not experientially, that is, one hasn’t implemented the concepts and experienced them in his/her own life, and thus the concepts remain as something foreign or “other” to them. (We usually call this hypocrisy — pretending to be one thing, but being and doing another, like a wolf in sheep’s clothing.) Of course, we must emphasize, that like most everything in the spiritual life, acquiring and bringing into our hearts, our inner-being, the meaning and purpose of our lives, is a life-long struggle and process of growth and development, and not something acquired instantaneously. Thus we are all actually functioning somewhere in the middle, not having yet fully acquired our goal of being completely imbued with the meaning and purpose of life.
Now that we have attempted to briefly point out and describe a few of the symptoms of this most horrific and devastating spiritual disease — the despair over the lack of meaning and purpose in life — of course we must now answer this most fundamental question of our lives: what really and truly is the meaning and purpose of life?
What is the meaning and purpose of life?
For the Orthodox Christian, there is one, and only one answer to this spiritual dilemma, and the answer is not open to debate or negotiation, although the answer can be expressed in different ways.
The one, single purpose of life is to know God, which means to be in ever-increasing communion with Him, ever growing closer to Him and becoming more and more like Him (theosis/deification). This is more-or-less the same as saying that the purpose of life is salvation (see our previous article “Are You Saved?” in the July-August 2014 issue of Good Works: http://coccdetroit.com/are_you_saved.html), which is to dwell with the Lord in eternal life, beginning now. St. John the Theologian defines salvation in his Gospel as “eternal life,”and what St. John calls “eternal life,” the synoptic Gospels call the “Kingdom of God.” Furthermore, St. John unequivocally defines “eternal life,” as “knowing God.” He says: “And this is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, Whom You have sent” (St. John 17:3, NKJV).
We now can make the logical transition from stating that all the atrocities that overwhelm us in the daily news, and in our personal lives, result from the lack of knowledge of the meaning and purpose of life, to the statement that they are the result of the lack of the knowledge of God — Father, Son and Holy Spirit. This is hardly a surprising claim for Orthodox Christians. But there are countless people actively engaged in atrocities who claim to “know God,” some of whom even call themselves Orthodox Christians. How do we account for this? There are 2 parts to the reply. First, there are numerous possible interpretations of what to “know God” can mean. What someone calls “god” can vary enormously, for we excel at the self-deception of installing various idols as our “gods.” At times we might even feel like saying, “will the real God please stand up.” The “god” referenced in “I kill you in the name of “god,” certainly bares no resemblance to the God of the Orthodox Faith. It is impossible to really know the One and True God and commit atrocities. And second, claiming to know something mentally and knowing it in our inner being, in our heart, are two very different things. Let us explore this last statement in order to consider the very personal search for meaning and purpose in our own individual lives.
Christians can acknowledge that life consists of knowing God, and seeking our salvation, but still be depressed and despairing about the lack of purpose in my life. How can we understand this, and what can be done to overcome it? To understand this, we must recognize that while we can confess something in words, it is a very different thing to experience it in our hearts, in our innermost being, and put it into practice in our lives. It is akin to confessing that Jesus is our Lord and Savior, but living it every moment of our lives as the content of our hearts is a very different thing, that takes a lifetime of struggle. Such a confession is just the first step on our spiritual journey. It is rather like if we are walking from New York to San Francisco, our journey starts with the first step, but we still have a long way to go. Similarly, we can truly believe mentally that the meaning of life can be found only in making God #1, of putting God ahead of everything else, but implementing that 100% in our lives is a very different thing — we still have a long way to go. Believing that to know God gives our lives meaning, is the first step on this journey, but it takes a lifetime of spiritual struggle to fully bring that belief into our hearts as our personal purpose of life. But this is precisely what the Orthodox Christian spiritual life is all about. We are created as creatures to worship, and we become what we worship. But we are also creatures born with free will, and so we must exercise that freedom wisely by choosing carefully what we will worship. Because we are born with the impulse to worship ingrained in us, everyone of us has a god or gods that we worship — but have we chosen idols or the True God to worship?
We are made to worship.
By virtue of being created in God’s image, we are called to choose and pursue eternal life, which means to know God — this is our vocation, our purpose. The hymn sung immediately after receiving Holy Communion is like an instructional manual of how to fulfill the purpose of life — knowing God: “We have seen the True Light! We have received the heavenly Spirit! We have found the True Faith! Worshiping the undivided Trinity, Who has saved us.” We have seen, we have received, we have found, we have been saved. And how do we respond? By worshiping! Worshiping God gives meaning and purpose to our lives! And to know God is to want to worship Him! And we continue: “Let our mouths be filled with Thy praise, O Lord, that we may sing of Thy Glory...Keep us in Thy holiness, that all the day we may meditate upon Thy righteousness.” The two parts of this magnificent hymn summarize succinctly what the Christian life is all about. By truly bringing into our hearts and experiencing in a personal way the awesomeness of having seen the True Light and having received the Holy Spirit in Holy Communion, realizing that we have indeed found the True Faith, then worshiping and praising God and striving to live in that holiness all day long, every day, letting our thoughts be about God’s righteousness — then we shall gradually deepen in the knowledge and communion with God and experience eternal life beginning right now. This is the long gradual process of salvation, of God living in one’s heart and filling it more and more every moment of every day. The consequence of this frequent experience of being united with Christ in Communion, is that God’s peace, love and joy fill our hearts and overflow to embrace all His creation and His creatures. Then there is no room for anger, bitterness, violence, greed, abuse, hatred, revenge, and all sorts of self-destructiveness and self-centeredness, but instead, one becomes fully God-centered or Christ–centered. Then we live at one with God and His Will, united and in union with Him. Then we can be content and peaceful with whatever the Lord delivers to our plate — we can be content whether we are rich or poor, in health or sickness, in good times or difficult times, with or without a spouse, children or grandchildren; and we can find meaning in our work, offering it as service to God, whether it is driving a cab, working as a janitor or on an assembly-line, as a housewife or house-husband, a clerk, or being a doctor, nurse, teacher, businessman. This contentment is based on a personal relationship of trust — trusting that God really knows what He is doing in whatever He brings to us, and that “all things [really do] work for good for those who love God” (Romans 8:28). Then we can focus on serving God and helping others, in whatever capacity He gives to us, and learning whatever lessons He gives to us to learn. As we grow gradually throughout our lives towards fulfilling our purpose in life, we can ever increasingly live according to the words of the prayer that is sung at THE holiest moment of the Divine Liturgy, when the Holy Spirit transforms the earthly bread and wine into the heavenly Body and Blood of Christ: “We praise Thee. We bless Thee. We give thanks unto Thee, O Lord, and we pray unto Thee, O our God.” The more we can do this every day, the more we fulfill the meaning and purpose of our life.
By Sister Ioanna
St. Innocent of Alaska Monastic Community