May 11, 2012 ~ Why are we here? What is the meaning of life? These are questions we have all spent some time wondering about — some of us more than others. Even the most nihilistic of atheists have considered these questions, though ultimately rejecting them as meaningless. For agnostics, those who neither believe in a god or gods or a higher power, nor reject the possibility of such, the answer is complicated. They will say, “It depends.” For those of us who believe in a god or higher power, however, the answer is quite simple. But to tell you the answer now would obviate your reason for reading the rest of this.
Whether we are believers or non-believers, we are all tempted to answer these questions the same way. This is because we all want the same things in life: success, happiness and well-being for ourselves and for our loved ones. If we achieve these things, many would say that they have discovered and achieved their purpose – that life is simply a matter of satisfying Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. But is it really? And, if it’s not, how do we discover our real purpose in life?
No, I’m not talking about our jobs, our daily responsibilities, or even our long-term goals. I mean the real reason why we’re here at all — the very reason that we exist.
Consider the possibility that you are satisfying all of your earthly goals, that you have secured for yourself and your loved ones all of Maslow’s needs. You believe yourself to be secure and you have all you could want or ever need, materially as well as emotionally. You find yourself at Maslow’s self-actualization level. You are a good, moral person, not impinging on others’ rights, not directly anyway. You are involved in a hobby or a sport that you love and you are actively involved in civic activities – helping your community to grow. Then you get sick or have a terrible accident, or you lose your whole family. Worst case situation: the reason you lost your family happens to be your fault. You have lost your self-esteem; you have lost your confidence; you have lost the respect of others. Your achievements now are history.
Now what’s your purpose? What reason do you have to go on living? If you decide to end it all, you wouldn’t be the first.
My wife and I once knew and were close to a couple who seemed to have it all together. The husband, Ronny, and the wife, Harriet, were both reasonably successful professionally. They had two boys about the same age as our two boys. Ronnie and Harriet were fun to be around. We did things together, as couples sometimes, at other times, including all the boys. They were Christians but infrequent church goers; neither seemed to be particularly spiritual. But from all outward appearances, they had satisfied most of Maslow’s needs. But something was wrong, something insidious. Ronny had an addiction; he liked to gamble. Harriet, deciding that life with the father of her sons would always be one of disappointment and marginal security at best, started seeing another man, a married physician whose wife was an invalid.
The story ended in tragedy with Harriet dying in a stupid traffic accident hurrying home from a liaison with her lover. Ronny then, some months later, killed himself leaving a suicide note behind for his sons saying that he was sorry for gambling away all their school money.
What was the purpose in all that? Only God knows.
My wife and I have known another couple, Jerry and Debbie. Their situation stands out in stark contrast to the first couple’s. They were members of our same congregation in the United Methodist Church for several years. They, following our two-year tenure as lay leaders, served the church tirelessly in this capacity for the same amount of time. They worked together in harmony running a small business, a business that satisfied many of their secular needs. Like us, they had family members with issues, serious issues. We often prayed together about our loved-ones.
Together, Jerry and Debbie loved horses. They kept and cared for several on their property. We sometimes joined them for what Debbie called, barn dates.
We did not know it when we first knew them, but Debbie suffered from two serious physical ailments, cirrhosis of the liver caused by hepatitis-C and pulmonary hypertension. She never let on until she became too weak from her conditions to hide it from us any longer. Doctors tried interferon treatments, but these only made Debbie sicker. She was on the list for a liver transplant, the only thing that might make her well, for something like eight years. She wasn’t sick enough yet to be moved to the top of the list.
During this whole time, Jerry was her devoted, loving, and almost constant companion. He left her bedside during the day only to tend to their business and to care for their horses. At night he left only when Debbie sent him away so that he could get the rest he needed to sustain him in his devotion.
When an appropriate liver was finally made available, surgery was made problematic because of high pressure in the arteries of her lungs. Though the surgery was a success, the anti-rejection medication Debbie had to take caused breathing issues. She could keep no solid food down after she came home from the hospital and grew weaker and weaker.
Skipping the details here, Debbie finally had to return to the hospital. After weeks in intensive care, she lapsed into a coma, her devoted husband at her side. When the decision had to be made whether to keep her alive artificially or to let her go, Jerry made the decision by himself choosing to spare their children from having to be a party to it.
What was the purpose in this? God knows, and so do we who trust in Him. Debbie’s suffering and ultimate death was not without purpose. It caused us all to come closer to Him, and Jerry to blossom into a more powerful man of God, a man now free and inspired to spread far and wide the great love that he once gave in focused devotion to Debbie. I see Jerry often these days and can assure you that he is living with renewed passion his purpose in life.
Do you yet not know that which is your purpose for living?
No? Okay, if you are Christian, consider the book of Isaiah, chapter 45, verse 18, “The Lord created the heavens — He is the one who is God! He formed and made the earth — He made it firm and lasting. He did not make it a desolate waste, but a place for people to live. It is He who says, I am the Lord and there is no other god.”
Consider also Psalms 100:3, “Acknowledge that the Lord is God! He made us, and we are his. We are his people, the sheep of his pasture.”
What do these passages of scripture mean? I think it is clear, they mean that God created us so that we might know and acknowledge Him, that we might worship Him. And how do we do that? By keeping His commandments, the first of which being, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind.” The second is like the first, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Luke 10:27.
If you are Jewish or Muslim, you know that these same Old Testament passages are found in the Torah and the Quran, and Muslim’s accept Jesus as a great prophet and teacher, His gospel to be holy. If you are Hindu or Buddhist, similar concepts are incorporated in your beliefs.
If you are a non-believer, consider that all great religions of the world have this in-common: some version of the Golden Rule – Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. I know, I know: they could all be wrong. But there is a secular version of this, “You scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours.” Notice, however, rather than being the first to give as in the faith-based version, the secular version expects the other guy to give first. Self-interest is the motivation in the secular version. Yes, the faith-based version tells us how God wants us to behave. This then, is our purpose because it was first His purpose; He loved us first and longs for our love in return. No matter what else might befall us, if we adopt His purpose as our own, we will never be without.
With due consideration and prayer, here is my purpose statement: to love God, seeking His Will by living consciously and courageously, to resonate with love and compassion for everyone, to stir the hearts and minds of others per-chance to awaken the spirit within them, and to someday leave this world in peace.
If you are a non-believer, good luck, my friend, in discovering your own true purpose in life, should you ever go looking for it. If you never do, I’m quite sure that God will find one for you.