Sometimes life presents opportunities for us to reflect upon purpose and meaning in our existences. The following piece is one such reflection. This post is dedicated to Alex Gustafson, and her incredible father, Tom Gustafson.
By definition, purpose is a relatively straightforward concept: it is the reason for which something is done. It is the “why” behind the “what.” It is the justification for an action, for a statement, or for an event. The reason for which something is done implies that this reason, and the action the followed it, was not arbitrary. Very rarely do we hear of purpose being ascribed to something that happened at random. Seemingly senseless things are not awarded the status of having “purpose,” presumably because they did not earn the distinction of being an intentional action or event. For the sake of this piece, from here forward, purpose will be exclusively tied to intentional action—to actions that are willingly chosen to be performed. Purpose, here, will be not be random. It will be human.
I’m so hung up on the idea of purpose as it relates to intentional action, because for many people—I would argue for most, on some level—day to day life is composed of one of three things pertaining to purpose:
- Choosing which purpose or purposes to act upon (I believe X, Y, and Z. I will act upon X, Y, or Z in my actions today)
- Acting upon some sort of purpose that we have already determined (I believe X, and my actions will reflect my belief of X.)
- Searching for any purpose at all (This happened. Why did it happen?)
One of the most romantic ideas is that we can strive to act and ultimately live as a product of some purpose that we have chosen, some reason or “why” that we have decided to be worthy of our limited and ultimately imperfect lives. While we have some semblance of control over our actions and whether or not they will be purposeful, we struggle with the things that we cannot control. We struggle because we try to assign purpose to that which does not seem to have any.
By nature, and by the functional definition of purpose in this piece, the things we cannot control do not have purpose in my life the way that my job has purpose, my relationships have purpose, or each of the actions I perform throughout the day have purpose.
It is exceedingly difficult to identify purpose in things that we do not have control over. It is even more difficult to try and identify purpose in the things that break us. As an example, it would not be logical for me to attempt to derive purpose from the car accident that caused a traffic jam downtown this morning. Unless I believe that it was divine intervention intended to teach me patience, it is impossible for me to derive a reason for which this happened. There is a “why” out there somewhere—faulty brake lights, hasty driving—but that is not what purpose is intended to name. Purpose is not necessarily causal. Rather, purpose is intended to name the thing for which something else occurred. Things like tragedy do not happen for something. They just happen. And that is the hard part.
Because purpose is exclusively tied to intentional human action, attempting to find purpose in the arbitrary and in the random is where we fall short. It is where we create an illusion for ourselves that there is meaning in events that do not have meaning. This definition of purpose is the antithesis of the phrase, “Everything happens for a reason.” It doesn’t.
One of the biggest challenges that we face as humans is not the fact that we face hardship, adversity, tragedy, or struggle to begin with. It is not the event that is solely responsible for the pain, but the fact that we the event is paired with an imperfect existence. Tragedy itself is not tragedy without the fragile human spirit to react to it. Loss is not loss without the person who had something to lose. The biggest challenge that we face as humans is that we are human—we naturally look for logic and reason behind actions, but when those actions are not intentional, we cannot find it. We are not comforted by a void that provides neither reason nor warmth.
The question, when we are confronted with something that appears to be purposeless, is whether we will attempt to assign purpose to that thing, or if we will choose to respond in a way that reflects our own purpose. It is a question of whether we will allow it to fester as an unwelcomed visitor that so easily breaks our spirits, something that happened for a reason we will never be sure of, or whether we will choose an intentional response.
While the hardest part of being human is simply being human, far and above the most beautiful thing about being human is that we have the ability to respond to any event with love. The question is never, “what was the purpose of this event?” It is always, “will I respond with love?” The most beautiful thing about being human is that as fragile as our spirits are, they are resilient. As breakable as they may seem, the stronger they are in number.
It is choosing that battle—choosing to respond with love even when the world gives us every reason not to—that casts an anchor into an anchorless world. In times of crisis, self-discovery, hardship, and pain—there are always things, always places that we return to. Those places are people, relationships, and memories. Those places are defined by and through love. The things we return to are not things, but reflections of love for the world, for ourselves, and for those people who we walk alongside in this world.
Our biggest battle as people has never been something external but always something within ourselves. It has always been the battle to live more intentionally, more presently, and in a way that inspires others to fight the same fight. The search to find reason or meaning in the world is never something that we undertake with a true conviction that we will find what we are looking for. The fact is that we will not. Rather, this search is intended as a process that we choose for the sake of learning about ourselves and about others along the way. I don’t believe that any of us ever embark on a journey for and with purpose fully understanding what the purpose is or ever will be. We never truly choose to grow. Where the choice comes is when the world throws what it has in our faces, and we respond with love—continuously, and always, with love.
Image courtesy of Nadia Minic, Flickr Creative Commons.