Category Archives: purpose

What Is Your Purpose?

Many people believe they have a purpose. “What is the meaning of life?” They’ll ask. “It is finding your true purpose. The reason you exist. This all has to be for something. Everything happens for a reason.”

I find it interesting that many humans, myself included, find the need to see themselves as tools. If your life has a purpose it means that it is not a goal in itself, but that it happens for some ulterior motive. Your life, then, is a means to an end. And this makes you a tool.

The idea of purpose is of course very human. There is probably an evolutionary incentive to think in terms of purpose. Good things are those conductive to survival and propagation of one’s genes; bad things are the opposite. Things can then be seen as conductive to either. It makes sense, then, to attach a purpose to each object or act one encounters: things will either help to achieve gene propagation or they won’t. The fact that we use this label for ourselves and our own lives can, then, only be seen as an unintended consequence of this otherwise very helpful drive to classify things as useful or useless.

This image makes my point completely.

This image makes my point completely.

Finding the meaning of life through purpose seems to miss the mark, then. First, it uses a human concept which has nothing to do with the way the universe works. Second, it assumes some other entity for which we have a purpose: the purpose of that other entity is left undetermined, thus begging the question. Finally, it takes value from our life and puts it somewhere else, in the future. Why we would bother to go through our whole, value-less life to reach that future state, when that entity could have just created the final state directly, is unclear.

The obvious reaction to this is to take purpose out of the quest for meaning and return the value to the present moment, to the individual’s life. If life has a value on its own, it is its own meaning. There is no need for a purpose: life should be lived for its own sake. Every moment is as good as any other and placing our hopes in the future seems like a futile, life-denying exercise.

Speaking of futile exercises, what I am going to attempt now will probably end up in disaster, so I apologize in advance. See the end for more details.

Once one realizes the pointlessness of purpose and the importance of the present moment, there are two different, extreme routes one can take. Nietzsche would call them “life-affirming” and “life-denying.” Since that terminology is loaded, I will use instead “self-affirming” and “self-denying.”

I know, not very intellectual. I just had to add it. I just had to.

I know, not very intellectual. I just had to add it. I just had to.

The self-denying route would go like this. First, one must realize most experiences in life involve suffering of some kind. Even happy moments are filled with fear: the fear which stems from attachment to that happiness and the possibility of losing it. Humans constantly strive for pleasure and run away from pain and thus are never content. The only way to place value in the moment is to stop the strife: to stop chasing the good and fleeing the bad. We can do this by training ourselves to observe our feelings without judging them: to observe them and watch their course without getting involved. This way, feelings lose their meaning, becoming just sensations, perceptions, which in themselves are meaningless. When the strife ends, we can just concentrate on the present moment, free from desire and free of suffering.

Even though the self-affirming and self-denying routes share the same starting point, the self-affirming route takes the opposite path. Instead of advocating distance, it advocates the opposite: taking a full dive on those emotions, embracing both the good and the bad ones, taking life in without discriminating, saying “yes” to experience. This may look similar to the self-denying route: after all, aren’t we accepting both pain and pleasure too? However, the similarity is only superficial. Whereas the self-denying view advocates distancing oneself from these emotions and watching them as one watches something external, the self-affirming view does exactly the opposite. If we watch our emotions from afar, we take the meaning away from them. When they stop being “good” or “bad” and start being a collection of events, their emotional content is lost. But living is precisely that emotional content: denying that is denying life. And life, argues the self-affirming view, is the ultimate value.

Now, the self-denying may not agree. Life is not the ultimate value. The concept of “value” itself holds no water. The only worthwhile struggle is being free from pain. Also, one may argue that what the self-affirming people are suggesting is impossible: if you embrace the good and the bad, you take the meaning away from them. The bad is precisely that which you run away from: if you stop running away from it, it stops being bad. In this sense, the self-affirming view is self-contradictory. To that, the self-affirmers may reply that, likewise, the self-denying philosophy is contradictory: a complete annihilation of the self would lead to the ceasing of all desire, which in turn would irremediable lead to the death of the individual. Both goals are unachievable, but seen as worth striving for.

Hamlet with Yorick's skull

Hamlet with Yorick’s skull (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Another key difference between these views is their attitude towards the world. In the self-affirming view, the individual has one drive: to impose their will on the world, which includes both their external and internal reality. It is this struggle between self and world which defines the individual and makes it grow. In the self-denying view, happiness is achieved when the struggle ceases. And, when it does, there ceases to be a difference between individual and world: those are then in total harmony and are thus indisti

nguishable. That is why I call this view self-denying: its goal is to erase the self. Once the self is erased, the will disappears; once the will is erased, the self disappears. The struggle against the world and the self are one and the same thing: the cause of our suffering.

Of course, the self-affirming would then claim that there are simpler methods for erasing the self, such as putting a bullet in your brain. If one is alive, one should embrace life and not run away from it, aiming to become like a stone. Why live, while trying to be like something that’s not alive? Why try to remove the borders between the self and the world, when it is precisely those borders which define the self? Why try to get rid of the self, if it is precisely the self who creates value? Remove the self and remove all value; remove all value and remove all meaning; remove all meaning and remove all life.

This was an attempt to summarize my doubts about both the Buddhist and the Nietzschean approach to life. For obvious space and talent reasons, I haven’t done justice to either point of view. In fact, I believe there are two bloggers who would do a much better job than I, each in their own niche: bloggingisaresponsibility and Tongue Sandwich. Since I’m still waiting to see a good discussion between them on this topic (I think I would honestly pay a substantial amount of money just to be able to read that exchange) I did the next best thing and started the ball rolling.

I am still trying to make up my mind (or even build a middle way, though honestly I wouldn’t know where to start) so any further thoughts will be greatly appreciated.

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On Acceptance and Desire

In the last few months I feel as if I have experienced more personal growth than in the last two years. The reason for that, believe it or not, has been the constant exchange of opinions between myself and some enlightened bloggers, who have forced me to revise much of what I believe or to devise new, creative ways of answering their objections. I am extremely grateful for that and I have decided I will include a “recommendations” page, with the aim of starting to build a little community. It will be a “top of my head” list, so please don’t be upset if your blog isn’t there yet.

This blog post comes from one of these exchanges. In fact, I see it as an extended comment on this post, which has forced me to rethink my reasons for getting angry and to explore my hidden motivations.

English: Beijing CBD 2008-6-9 Jianwai SOHO, Yi...

English: Beijing CBD 2008-6-9 Jianwai SOHO, Yitai Center, CCTV ‪中文(简体)‬: 北京中央商务区夜景(可见央视新址、建外SOHO等) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The whole discussion started when I mentioned I hate living in China. I have many powerful reasons for that, which you can read about in the comments section of the post I link to above. Suffice it to say Beijing is not a pleasant place to live, which happens because of the extreme dehumanization of Chinese society. It is this dehumanization that really, really, really pisses me off.

Now, after reading my comment, bloggingisaresponsibility replied: “What happens if you try to accept that this simply the way things are?”

This made me think.

The answer is, of course, that if I just accepted this is the way things are, I would be happier. I wouldn’t get as upset. It would probably improve my global well-being.

But then I thought more. Since my thoughts revolved around the notions of “acceptance” and “desire,” I will try to define them here and draw some implications. I must also point out I owe most of these definitions to the aforementioned blog. Just saying.

Desire means that an individual wants to change their state (whatever that is). I would argue that an individual with no desire has no motivation to act. Desires necessarily stem from a certain dissatisfaction: if we were satisfied, we would have no need to act.

Acceptance means acknowledging a certain state of affairs and assuming it is pointless to try to change it or have any emotional involvement in it. I will argue that acceptance, just as desire, involves inaction. If we are accepting of a situation, we have no reason to change it. If we are trying to change it, it means we don’t accept it.

An individual without desires will be necessarily accepting, but not necessarily the other way round. For example, an individual may not like a situation, but accept it nonetheless.


Acceptance (Photo credit: 1Sock)

Now I wish to contrast the happiness of an individual with the happiness of a society. For example, let’s focus on 18th century France. At that time, there were a great number of people who were unaccepting of the current state of affairs. That lack of acceptance and their desire for change led them to storm the royal palace and chop the king’s head off. That, in turn, lead to democracy, which we all enjoy today in some form or another (unless you’re reading this from China, of course).

In that case, those people who were unaccepting and desireful (if that’s a word) were probably much unhappier than they would have been if they had been accepting and desireless. However, the result of their actions is that, today, we are probably happier than we would be if they hadn’t performed them. That leads to a dilemma: is the happiness of one individual (you) preferable to the happiness of other individuals in the future? Doesn’t the world change precisely because of the actions of those who are not accepting?

Let’s focus on another example which may hit closer to home. Suppose I am gay and I have a partner. My partner and I are in love and would like to get married. Unfortunately, we live in a state where that is still not possible and may not be for the foreseeable future.

Now, we can choose to accept this is just the way things are and we will probably be happier than if we spend every waking hour complaining about it. But it is also true that it is precisely because thousands of people have been unaccepting and complaining for years that gay marriage has been approved in some countries or states.

My main point is that desire and the inability to accept the status quo is precisely what drives change and, arguably, progress. It is also what hinders our happiness and prevents us from reaching inner peace.

After analyzing my emotions for long enough, I have concluded that my writing this blog stems from a desire to be recognized and to meet new and interesting people. This must mean I am not satisfied with my current level of recognition and the amount of interesting people I know. If I could bring myself to accept my situation and not desire more, I would probably be happier. I would also probably stop writing.

What should I do?

What would you do?

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David Yerle Writes about Purpose

David Yerle writes about purpose. He thinks purpose is an inherently human concept and that, maybe because of that, all humans seem to need one. The complaint that someone’s life has no purpose is usually followed by existential moaning and a general feeling of lowness. David Yerle wonders if the word “lowness” exists or makes any sense.

David Yerle knows many people whose lives have purpose. It is a self-assigned purpose, sometimes. Some people want to know the “what” of the universe, some others want to start the greatest band ever made, some want to write a book and most settle with being good parents or friends. In some other cases, purpose comes from outside. It is the case of self-immolating religious fanatics and people who go to church on regular basis. David Yerle would like to point out he is by no means making a comparison between people who blow themselves up and people who gow to church. He is merely stating that both their lives’ purpose comes from some external entity, in this case their God. And that is fine with him.

David Yerle didn’t enter the blogging business to judge anyone.

David Yerle’s life has no purpose that he’s aware of. That is, he has no self-assigned purpose and, to his knowledge, no externally assigned one. In the latter case he could be wrong, since he is by definition unaware of the designs superior being may have for him. He actually wishes he is wrong and that there’s great plan with his name on it.

David Yerle wonders if having a purpose would make him happy and he concludes that it probably would, even though he’s aware there is nothing in the notion of purpose that he should welcome, objectively speaking. But he cannot speak objectively since, fortunately or not, he’s just a human being and thus subject to the inevitable thirst for purpose.

David Yerle imagines one day he will be able to shed all of this human baggage by meditating for a month under a tree and emerging victorious against his own nature, proclaiming his detachment from the world and his newly found freedom from human ordeals.

David Yerle mumbles he should stop kidding himself and assume there’s no escape from the cage of humanness.

David Yerle decides he’s thought enough and serves himself a glass of wine.