The Modern Survival Guide #92
This is the Modern Survival Guide, a guidebook I’m writing for things I think people need to know about living in the modern world. The views expressed here are mine, and mine alone. And I am concerned with existential questions. You should be too — they’re going to pop up, and if you’re not prepared for them, they can seriously screw with your mental state.
These are the big questions — why are we here, what does it all mean, does anything actually matter? If you think about it, these are the ultimate survival issues: not how we survive, but why. If you don’t have the “why,” the “how” can easily become irrelevant. Descartes famously defined consciousness as “I think, therefore I am,” but mere validation of existence isn’t enough for the average human being. People need the “why.”
Now, most of us get through this issue on a daily basis by wading through a river in Egypt, but from time to time denial isn’t a good enough response. From time to time, we actually need to have an idea to tell us why we’re here. From time to time, we need purpose.
The Idea of Purpose
Ok, so what is “purpose?” And how can we have any real purpose, in a life where we know that we are merely specks of dust on the surface of a ball of rock circling a mid-sized star that is but one of uncounted trillions, and when we know we’re all going to die someday? How do we have the gumption to get out of bed into a world where, arguably, most of our contributions have no cosmic impact, and will be almost instantly forgotten when we’re gone?
These are good, big, existential questions, and we have to get past them before “purpose” makes any sense. Fundamentally, my answer boils down to the following: stop thinking about legacies. Because that’s the kicker of existentialism, right? That idea that nothing we do matters because it’s impermanent. And that’s false logic because nothing is permanent, and we should all know that; it’s not how the universe is structured. So impermanence simply shouldn’t matter as a factor to judge a life.
There’s nothing we can do that will last forever; not even the universe will survive forever. If nothing lasts forever, then focusing on “forever” is already a losing bet. Our lives aren’t concerned with “forever,” they’re concerned with what happens to us and to our people in the now.
So don’t worry too much about the meaning of the universe — it’s all a big mystery totally incomprehensible to us and therefore, if you think about it, not your problem. The universe is not only stranger than we know, it’s stranger than we can know. A purposeful life has very little to do with worries about permanence or cosmic meaning; they just get in the way. You start wondering “Why do anything?” so you never do anything.
The concept of “forever” is a trap. It’s almost as bad as the concept of “perfect.” Stop falling into that trap.
Once you accept that permanence isn’t as much of an issue, there’s another trap to watch out for: the idea that there is only one kind of purposeful life. This doesn’t make sense if you think about it for minute or two. None of us are the same people; none of us have exactly the same problems, the same upbringings, or the same motivations. If we rule out the idea of cosmic meaning, we very quickly realize that we’re not all going to find purpose in the same things. What I think is super important might be dead boring to you, and vice versa. So let’s get away from this idea that there’s a one-size-fits-all solution to giving meaning to life.
If there are multiple kinds of purpose and permanence isn’t our goal, then what does purpose mean? My definition is simple: purpose is derived from meaningful actions. That’s it. That’s all. And that’s why we can have a purposeful life. We don’t have to worry about our impact on the universe, because the universe doesn’t matter.¹ Our lives are lived on a smaller scale. And you shouldn’t worry about satisfying other people’s ideas of purpose, because they don’t live your life.
Instead, look to your life and find what gives you meaning. Find what makes you tick. Find what you think is interesting. Find what makes you get out of bed in the morning. This will vary from person to person, but I find it helpful to break these types of things down into five general concepts that might help you pin down areas of interest:
Each of these represents a whole arena of concepts that might help you find meaning in this wild and crazy life. I’m not saying you have to find purpose in one, all, or any of these; I just think they help me, and might apply to you too. Let’s dive in.
I get out of bed in the morning because I’m curious. I want to see what the next gadget is going to be. I want to read about the next scientific discovery. I want to see another piece of the world. I want to unravel just a little bit more of the mysteries of the universe.
It’s an old trope that to live is to learn. I can think of no better application than in this instance. A purposeful life can be built around the desire to know more than we know when we wake up in the morning.
It might be argued that acquiring knowledge is the ultimate form of masturbation, since, again, we’re all going to die and our knowledge will be lost. But that’s losing sight of the point: yes, we’re all going to die. But in between then and now, we have the opportunity to do some stunning things. It’s hard to do anything, though, if you don’t know at least a little about it. So learning, for me, is usually the first step in deriving purpose.
I think, therefore I am; I learn, therefore I live.
I get out of bed in the morning to go places. More particularly, I get out of bed in the morning to go to new places and revisit old places. Not just physically, but also metaphorically: life, for me, gains purpose through motion, through walking different paths and thinking different thoughts.
Movement in this sense is about stepping out of my comfort zone (and then, from time to time, stepping back in). Movement is about trying new things, building new relationships, doing new work. It’s also about knowing when to stop, when to rest, and when to relax. It’s not necessarily about destinations, it’s about walking the path. I have very zen thoughts about motion in my life.
It might be argued that motion of this sort is simply wasted effort; if we’re all going to die in a geological blink, why bother leaving the house (so to speak)? And it’s true we’re all going to die, but between now and then we have the chance to cram out lives full of experiences and adventures. There is no such thing as wasted effort; there is only wasted potential.
I think, therefore I am; I move, therefore I experience.
I get out of bed in the morning because I have the opportunity to be a better me. Every day we each have the opportunity to look back on our lives and see where things went wrong and what went right. Sometimes that’s kind of a sobering look, but it does mean that we can choose to make changes. Making deliberate changes is one of the central things that happens when you grow as a person, and it’s I think it’s a big part of adulting.
I don’t have to keep making mistakes. I don’t have to keep feeling guilty about past mistakes. I don’t have to make poor choices. I don’t have to deal with toxic people. I don’t have to stay in bad situations. I can grow. I can change. I can adapt.
Now, it might be argued that growing and adapting is pretty pointless, because we’re all going to die etc, and therefore a poor situation is just the same as a positive situation from the perspective of the universe. And that’s true, but the universe doesn’t matter. Your life, and its quality, does. You experience the universe — you are self-aware; the universe does not experience you — it is not.² Your experience is therefore the important bit.
Nothing about being alive requires us to be awful people. Nothing about being alive requires us to be miserable people, or dumb people, or foolish people. We can be better. We are not fated into being our worst selves. Being our best selves is a worthwhile goal, if only because it makes our living experience more pleasant and interesting for us and for those around us.
I think, therefore I am; I grow, therefore I am something more.
I get out of bed in the morning because, at some point during the day, I will be able to help someone. And probably, in all likelihood, someone will be able to help me. Helping people is an intrinsically viable purpose — every helping hand makes our society better, and therefore makes our lives better as a whole.
Providing help is an opportunity — not everyone has it, and those of us who do should feel grateful for it. It is our chance to have an impact on someone else in a positive way. It’s our chance to reinforce the good parts of our society, to build bridges with our neighbors, and to create communities out of groups of strangers. It’s our chance to stop focusing on ourselves and focus on others. Providing help gives purpose to many, many lives — and it feels good too, so there’s a bonus!
But what about the existential angst? Does it matter if I help someone in the long term? What does it benefit anyone if I reach out a hand and pick someone up off the street, if I know they’re just going to get hit by a bus? Well, that’s the wrong way of looking at it, because if the choice is between getting out of the grit for a few minutes and then getting hit by a bus, vs. staying in the dirt the whole time and still getting hit by a bus, it’s still objectively better to not be lying in the street. Our experience between now and the bus matters to us; the bus doesn’t take that away from us, it just provides punctuation.
I think, therefore I am; I help others, therefore we are.
I get up in the morning to do stuff. I can’t do stuff if I stay in bed. I mean, I can do some stuff. Just not all the stuff. It’s really hard to go skydiving while in bed. And since a lot of my purpose in life is tied to the stuff that I do, taking action is kind of important.
Taking action is how we change the world.
If you don’t act, you can’t really do anything else. It’s the action — the moment of raw willpower — that gets us off the couch and out of bed, and into helping, into growing, into learning, into moving. And yet it’s distinct from all of these things; it’s in a category on its own because it’s so all-encompassing. We all derive at least some of our purpose in life from our actions. We all derive at least some of our purpose from the impact we make on the world around us.
But isn’t all action just building sandcastles below the tide mark? Yes. Yes it is. Everything that we do will be washed away, in time. That doesn’t mean we can’t or shouldn’t build some kick-ass sandcastles. Mine have conch-shell minarets. Building sandcastles is fun, and if fun is giving you meaning, have fun. Acting in the world is no different; you have to act to find what gives you meaning, and you have to act to create change.
I think, therefore I am; I act, therefore my existence has an impact.
A Purposeful Life is a Life Well-Lived
When I talk about a purposeful life, then, what I mean is that it was a life lived through meaningful action, in pursuit of something greater than mere existence. We are all, in a sense, involuntary participants in this world. None of us chose to be born; none of us chose our starting circumstances. We are born into the unknown and we live in the unknown, and accepting that is an important part of finding purpose in life.
Do not look for purpose in our biology; that’s just the mechanics of bodily survival and species perpetuation. Do not look for cosmic purpose; that’s a rabbit hole with no end. Do not look for purpose in the supernatural; that’s just asking for someone to sell you a bill of goods.
Nonetheless we can have a purposeful life by finding meaning. If I dedicate my life to rescuing stray dogs, or making art, or teaching, or even just being super good at my job… those are all meaningful pursuits. So long as I am learning, moving, growing, helping, acting — so long as I strive — I can find purpose.
And if you’re reading this and you say to yourself, “I’ve been striving, and I’ve got nothing,” I can only say two things: keep going, and when you find something, commit. Sometimes it takes us awhile to find a meaningful path, and sometimes when we do we’re too afraid to walk it.
To find a purpose, we first have to actively live our lives. A purposeful life doesn’t just happen. You’re not going to wake up tomorrow and be informed that you are the Chosen One. You, and I, and everyone else are going to have to search for meaning, search for those things that drive us, and then act on them. And then, maybe, one day we will wake up and see our path set out in front of us.
I think, therefore I am. I find meaning, therefore I have purpose.
¹Ok, what do I mean by this? It’s simple: none of us will ever interact with anything outside of our own solar system. Forget science fiction and science fantasy — there’s a reason they are called “fiction” and “fantasy.” In all probability none of us, in our lifetimes, will interact with anything outside of our solar system. Maybe future generations will. But we won’t. The vast majority of us will never get off of this planet. So nothing else in the universe affects you that doesn’t affect this planet. And you can’t affect anything else in the universe. The universe’s impact on you, and your impact on it, are basically nil. So quit worrying about cosmic purpose; it’s outside our lane.
²As far as we know, anyway, and until proven otherwise that means that the universe is functionally not self-aware from a human perspective and therefore, metaphorically, doesn’t get a vote.