You know, there are many ways that I am here to help you. If you have a problem you need to talk about with someone, call on me. If you want some guidance about finding a religious path, call on me. If you want an explanation of something in biochemistry or molecular biology, I’ll be glad to help. Even on business topics, I can be pretty useful.
But there is one type of question you must never ask me. Never, never, never, ask me for directions. If I do answer, I might send you north when you’re trying to go south or east when you’re meant to be heading west.
I am probably one of the most directionally impaired people you will ever meet. In this very building – this simple building – I have actually got lost.
When I get to an intersection that I don’t know really, really well, I am as likely to turn the wrong way as the right way. I can read a map just fine, but I seem to lack some sense of which way is which… I’m missing some kind of inner compass that helps other people turn around and say ‘oh, we need to go in this direction.’
And more important than knowing which street is the best, is knowing which way you need to head. The streets are details, the overall direction is of the essence. If you know the general direction, you’ll find your way eventually.
This is not only true for travel, of course. It is true for life. We need to know where we’re headed if we are going to have a chance of making the right decision at the next intersection.
Given my particular challenge with directions, I like these words from Soren Kierkegaard:
Where am I? Who am I?
How did I come to be here?
What is this thing called the world?
How did I come into the world?
Why was I not consulted?
And If I am compelled to take part in it,
Where is the director?
I want to see him.
Where am I? Who am I? What am I doing here? These are some of ‘the big questions’ of life. One way to get into the edges of these big questions is to think about purpose: what purpose guides my life?
This question is a bit different from the giant question of ‘what is our purpose for living?’ That question – which asks why we are here at all and suggests that there might be a cosmic reason for our existence - is a theological, philosophical, biological, psychological question that has occupied humankind for millennia.
As Sigmund Freud said of this question“it has never received a satisfactory answer and perhaps does not admit of one.”
On the other hand, some would claim these two questions are closely related. Robert Byrne suggests that ‘The purpose of life is a life of purpose.’
In other words, he claims that the reason we are here is to find something to do that seems meaningful to us. I won’t argue with that, but I just want to tell you about Robert Byrne. His life seems to revolve around billiards. He is a world billiards champion. He was inducted into the Billiard Congress of America’s Hall of Fame in 2001. He has produced six popular videos on billiards. He has written seven novels, five collections of humorous quotations, seven books on billiards, two anthologies, and an expose of frauds in the literary world. Mr Byrne, it seems, has found quite a lot of purpose in his life.
A Chinese warrior devoted a half of his life to learning how to fight dragons, learning many techniques of deception and daring that would allow him past the sharp claws of these fearsome beasts.
Once day, his master declared that he had become adequately sophisticated in this art and sent him out into the world to slay dragons. He wandered for many years all across the country, looking for a dragon to slay. But no matter where he looked, he could not find a single one. He heard many stories, but they were all about dragons in distant provinces, and when he reached those places the stories sent him ever on to more remote lands. Decades passed, but he did not meet a single dragon.
And so, as he grew older, he became more and more discouraged, realizing that he wasted his life for nothing. But then he remembered all his training, his knowledge, his expertise in everything about dragons, and how he had perfected his brilliant dragon-fighting skills.
And so he began to teach young men to fight dragons.
A purpose in life is more than something to occupy our time. For better or for worse, it becomes part of our very identity. To be a trained dragon slayer with no dragons to slay calls into question your purpose. For the dragon slayer in the story, a new purpose was needed to make life once again meaningful and worthwhile.
In my own life, the times I have most despaired are the times when I have been without purpose. When I completed University and did not know where to go next, I despaired. I struggled to drag myself out of bed. When I knew that business no longer served as a sufficient purpose, I despaired. Each time, finding purpose for my life was what refreshed me and brought me back to life.
We have heard so many times of people whose lives have been shattered finding a new purpose and meaning in their lives through that tragedy.
A grieving mother dedicates herself to fighting the disease that took her child. A breast cancer survivor begins a charity to provide better prostheses to women who have had mastectomies. A man begins a huge campaign to combat drink driving after his wife is killed in a road accident where drinking is involved.
In every case – and you have probably heard many more – desperate heartbroken people have found a way out of their misery through living with a new purpose.
These are not just anecdotes. Having purpose extends your life. In a study of more than a thousand elderly people – averaging 78 years old – the people who reported having a greater sense of purpose were half as likely to die over the next three years as the others.
“A group of refugees was about to flee a war zone by hiking over some of the most rugged terrain in the country. As they were about to leave, they were approached by a frail, old man and a younger woman who carried an infant. The leaders of the group agreed to take them along with them. It was made clear that the man would have to make it on his own—they would not help him.”
“Several days into the journey the old man fell to the ground, saying he was too exhausted to continue. He pleaded to the group to be left behind to die. Facing the harsh reality of the situation, the leader of the group reluctantly decided to do just that and started off on their way.”
“Suddenly the young mother placed her baby in the old man’s arms and told him that it was his turn to carry the child and walked away with the group. It was several minutes before the woman looked back, but when she did, she saw the old man stumbling along the trail with the child in his arms.”
“They all made it across the mountains.”
Hannah Senesh was a woman of extraordinary courage. A Hungarian Jew living in Palestine during the second world war, she parachuted into Yugoslavia to try to cross the Hungarian border and help the Jews there, who were to be sent to the Auschwitz death camp. This was a mission so risky that her male team members eventually withdrew. Senesh was captured and tortured, but she never revealed the details of her mission – details that would have endangered her comrades. She was executed by firing squad.
What gives a person this kind of courage and determination?
Her own words:
“One needs something to believe in, something for which one can have whole-hearted enthusiasm. One needs to feel that one's life has meaning, that one is needed in this world.”
Victor Frankl, who survived internment in a Nazi concentration camp to become an author and psychologist has a similar message:
“What man actually needs is not a tensionless state but rather the striving and struggling for some goal worthy of him. What he needs is not the discharge of tension at any cost, but the call of a potential meaning waiting to be fulfilled by him.”
The compass of purpose gives meaning to our lives and somehow energizes and invigorates us toward that end. It not only shows the way, but having that way in mind opens up all manner of opportunities to make progress.
It seems there can be little question that life’s purpose is good, but what is a good life purpose?
This is the part of the sermon where a Unitarian approach diverges from others. I’m not going to answer the question. I won’t say that your purpose should be to follow Jesus, to seek enlightenment, or to submit to the will of Allah.
In fact, I don’t think there is one answer – there are many good purposes to live by.
To be practical though, any good compass must give you guidance you can use – that you can act on. It’s not enough for the compass to tell you ‘make a difference’. To be useful, it has to be more specific.
Now – ‘be the best billiards player you can’, on the other hand – that’s a purpose that you can really follow!
It is not for me to say what a good purpose is. I can only say that I personally want my purpose to be one that enriches the world – a purpose that leads to more kindness, peace, and love.
What would happen if at every choice, I consulted that compass to ask which course of action will create the greatest understanding among people? What if I asked which course of action will create the most freedom? The most love? Any of these would be a purpose I would be proud of.
Where do we begin? Well, we will all be off to a good start if we can begin to discard the false purposes that popular culture encourages us to adopt. We can start out with seeking personal wealth, which impoverishes other and doesn’t even make us happier. Physical perfection, fame, power, possessions… none of these will ultimately lead to personal or community happiness.
A purpose will only be a powerful guide to your life if it is meaningful and worthy to you. Design your compass. Ensure that it points toward a direction that will stand the test of time. Keep your compass by your side. Use it. Trust it.
May you find your way.
May we all find our way.