Why are we here?
I don’t mean what got you hear this morning, but why are we here? Why do we exist at all?
This is one of those ultimate questions that humankind struggles with. What is the meaning of our lives? What is the purpose of this existence?
Of course, the question contains the assumption that we have a purpose. Do we? Is there a purpose for human existence? It implies some sort of an order and a plan to creation. Often, that order is something mystical or supernatural.
The Abrahamic faiths – Judaism, Islam and Christianity – understand the purpose of human existence in relation to God. Humankind exists to serve and glorify God. In a sense, God needs us to glorify and love him. We are part of the divine plan.
The Christian Westminster confession of faith asks the question: What is Man's main purpose? The correct answer is: Man's chief end is to glorify God, and enjoy him forever.
But of course, not all ways of looking at the world include the notion that we are part of the plan of any plan-making entity.
The scientific outlook tells us we are here by the luck of the draw. A few differences in chemical reactions a couple of billion years ago and – poof – no life at all. Or, a change here and there and we might be sitting on our heads or walking on all fours – or sixes…
The scientific work view would have little room for the sense of purpose in the way the question is usually asked. We were shaped by evolution and evolution rewarded one thing only – reproduction. Those variations in every generation that successfully passed on their genes to the next generations won. So, the purpose of life in that sense is just that we make more beings that carry our genetic code.
But there are other ways of thinking about purpose in life that are neither centred on a personal God or focused solely on reproduction.
Hinduism emphasizes the growth of Atman – the individual’s sacredness or fragment of the divine – or Brahman. In Hinduism’s cycles of death and rebirth, right living leads to more advantageous rebirths and eventually liberation from the cycle altogether.
This is a purpose that doesn’t say ‘we are here because’, but rather says ‘we are here, and as long as we are here, we should…’ And the Eastern religions and secular philosophies take this approach. There may not be a purpose that explains why we’re here, but there is a best way of being given that we are here!
Buddhism, which grew out of Hinduism, takes a related approach. We are here and life involves suffering and there’s a way to escape suffering and here’s how to do it… Some of the schools of Buddhism do, however, move more toward a purpose in life as they teach that the ideal is to help bring about a universal liberation from suffering – a more communally-minded purpose for humankind.
Taoism, Platonism, Aristotelian philosophy, Utilitarianism, and the rest try to identify a good way of living, rather than the purpose for living.
Ultimately, looking at all of these more philosophical approaches, we find that we are working with variations on a theme: happiness or, more communally, improving the common good.
And there’s another way to think about purpose. Rather than there being a purpose, we might each think of our own purpose – that there is a purpose for each of us and our lives.
This has a mystical, supernatural element to it as well – it begs the question ‘who set that purpose?’ But let’s put that aside for the moment.
There is something very compelling about this way of thinking. Don’t we all have a feeling that we are in the right place doing the right thing sometimes? We feel an energy that we can’t completely explain. We wake up with determination and full of new approaches and plans. Maybe you were put here to heal the sick. Maybe you were put here to create beauty. Maybe you were put here to write words that inspire and create meaning in people everywhere.
And I imagine we’ve all felt the opposite – where we feel that what we are doing is draining the very life out of us. It’s a struggle simply to put one foot in front of the other. I know that I have felt that way and I know that I finally found something that made my heart sing.
So, maybe, there is a purpose for human life. Maybe there is not. Maybe there is a best way to live and it is defined by some religion or philosophy. Maybe not. Maybe each of us has a purpose for living and we simply need to discover it to live our life to the fullest. Maybe not.
But, didn’t I suggest in the title of this service that the meaning of life would be revealed? What’s with the maybe this and maybe that?
I want to make four points.
First, I want to turn to a quotation from Robert Byrne – author and championship billiard player. Byrne says: “The purpose of life is a life of purpose.”
He doesn’t mean this in the planned sort of way, but rather that we as beings need to find a purpose. And whether that purpose is to serve God, to grow our spirits, to end suffering, to teach, to create, beauty, or to inspire – or any of a million other purposes – we need to find purpose in life.
So, point number one is you need a purpose.
Point number two brings us back to the notion of whether there is one purpose or many. You know that the purpose that puts fire in your belly is not the same one that works for everyone else. We are all very different and, if Unitarianism would have a creed at all, it would have to say ‘thou shalt find and follow the path that fits thyself’. So, point number two, find a purpose that fits you – the unique and sacred person that you are.
Point number three may be the hardest. Find a purpose that will give your life meaning.
I have talked before about my first career in the business world. When I have, I’ve usually described how it was a cynical, soul-draining experience for me. I need to expand on that a bit. It wasn’t always so. In fact, there were times when I was just thrilled about what I was doing – when I could barely sleep because of my excitement – and when I could think of nothing else.
I had found a purpose and it fit me. Two boxes ticked successfully! The problem was that – in the long run – it did not give my life meaning. It took me reaching midlife and getting knocked about a bit to recognize something important – when I looked back at the end of my life on the purpose I had dedicated myself to, I could not find meaning in it. I could not look back with joy and satisfaction and a glow of fulfilment and say ‘yes, I sure did a good job making some rich people richer!’
And that’s the test. Will you be able to look back on your life and pronounce it fulfilling. If not, you need a different purpose.
In the words of George Bernard Shaw:
“This is the true joy in life, the being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one; the being thoroughly worn out before you are thrown on the scrap heap; the being a force of nature instead of a feverish selfish little clod of ailments and grievances complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy.”
The fourth point is to throw yourself into your purpose fully. Don’t hold back.
I’d like to share a few lines from a poem by Miguel De Unamuno. I learned about this poem while preparing for one of our Wednesday evening poetry and stillness sessions, and I fell in love with it as we talked that evening. De Unamuno was a prominent Spanish writer and academic in the first half of the 20th century. He was courageous and insisted on being true to himself – defying fascists and dictators to remain authentic to his convictions.
That nobility of character appears in the words of the poem too…
[…]to live is to work, and the only thing which lasts
is the work; start then, turn to the work […]
Throw yourself like seed as you walk, and into your own field[…]
from your work you will be able one day to gather yourself.
Why are we here?
We can not know the answer, but we can find what makes our hearts sing. We can find what gives meaning and purpose to our lives. And having found it, we can become the seed of the tree of love and the eternally growing vine of connection. Throw yourself into the field. Something wonderful will grow of it.
May it be so