Life Without Purpose

In a NYTimes op ed, What is Your Purpose? just today, May 6, David Brooks writes:

I thought I’d do my part by asking readers to send me their answers to the following questions: Do you think you have found the purpose to your life, professional or otherwise? If so, how did you find it? Was there a person, experience or book or sermon that decisively helped you get there? If you have answers to these questions, go the website for my book, “The Road to Character,” click on First Steps and send in your response.

David’s query reminds me of an earlier post, where I cite The Huffington Post’s announcement that they (the publication’s editors, probably Arianna herself) have taken action to end injustice and inequality in the world. Well, really! The tag I used at the time was “silly.”

This piece by Mr. Brooks is also silly, at least his belief that some people will have found the purpose of their lives and if they have they ought to tell us about it. Not even “purposes,” but the purpose. And he asks those who have found it to tell him how they found it, and to send it to the website for his book and he will respond and perhaps even make use of it in a further op ed piece of his own.

If I ever do meet someone who has found the purpose of his life I will take pains to steer clear of him or her. Certainly not ask them to send their purposes to me for my enlightenment. Sure there are any number of purposes that may be beneficial, such as saving water, feeding the hungry, helping the illiterate to read. But again, these are the plural, purposes, those that we all have I trust in abundance.

The people whom I would steer clear of are those who seem to have found a single purpose to their lives, the ones that David Brooks wants to hear from. These are the very ones who have done the most harm to those about them. An abusive husband to a wife, a cruel tyrant to his own people, a megalomaniac such as Stalin, Hitler or Mao to tens of millions of the innocent. For they all had purposes, purposes mostly involving their own crazy ideas of what life, their own lives, and by projection the lives of us all, was all about.

David we just don’t know what life is all about. And we ought not to pretend that we do. We no more know the purpose of life than we know there is a God, let alone a beginning or an ending other than birth and death. We are mostly ignorant about most things, and when we act, and the best of us do act, it’s probably most often to shed some of our great ignorance, certainly not to impose what is still our very limited knowledge, or our own purposes you might say, onto others.

But let me take a stab at answering your question. My purpose in life? How about this, to step on as few toes as possible as I go about my own business. And that’s not even a purpose of helping others, because in most of what I do I’m really trying to help myself most often to become more knowledgeable. In fact, in most instances I have little idea at all how best to help someone else, other than as I say, not stepping on their toes and thereby permitting them, as much as I permit myself, the space to be themselves.

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