Purpose and Meaning

The Buddhist tradition says that all life is suffering. 

Another, more modern way to put it might be "life sucks and then you die."

As positive as we Unitarians want to be, there are some things that we must recognise and acknowledge.


Firstly - we will never get everything we want. If we're lucky, will get some of what we want. I will never be tall. It's just not going to happen - hope as I may.


Secondly - It's going to get bad. Truth is that - in the best case! -we are going to get old, we are going to get tired, have increasing aches and pains, get sick... We may lose our hair. Life has a very pronounced tendency to go down downhill.


And finally, we're going to die. There's not really much we can do about it either. Some people have themselves frozen in the hope that they can someday find immortality. So far though, no one lives much more than 100 years and most of us considerably less.


So everything we get and do and strive for and achieve in this life is fleeting. Even if some things continue on, we surely won't be there to enjoy them. Life is suffering.

So, that's the bleak beginning to this message. This life is not going to end well.


Now, living well with this reality is what religion and spirituality are largely about. It is the great challenge of our lives.

The question is this: If life is so crummy so much of the time, why bother? Why go on? 


The way we address this is the perennial topic of "meaning." It gets expressed in the almost comically clichéd "what is the meaning of life?" or "what is the purpose of life?"


As Russian author Dostoyevsky succinctly captured this challenge "Without some goal and some effort to reach it, no one can live."


You may remember that In Douglas Adams' Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, a computer called Deep Thought was created and charged with determining the "Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, The Universe, and Everything." There was considerable consternation when, after waiting seven and a half million years, the answer emerged. 42. Rather disappointing.

We do need meaning.


Victor Frankl was a German Jew who survived the Nazi concentration camps and lived to write about it and extract lessons about human needs from that experience. If life is suffering, life in the camps was more than suffering. It was hell on earth and Frankl's insights tell us something very important indeed about ourselves.


"What man actually needs" he writes "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."


It is not relief of suffering or relief of stress that we need, according to Frankl. It is not to wake up to butterflies, puppies, flowers, unicorns, and spa music every morning. It is rather that we need to understand our lives to have significant and worthwhile purpose and meaning. Having such goals and aspirations in our lives makes all the difference. Knowing you are going somewhere makes the hardships of the journey bearable. It gives your trials meaning.


Some will claim that there are people who don't want purpose and meaning - people who are happiest doing nothing at all.


The accusations they make usually include the word "lazy."

These accusations are usually lodged by parents against children and by the well-off against the poor.


I question that accusation. I challenge the notion that there is anyone who actually and sincerely wants to do nothing with their lives.


There can be no doubt, of course, that many people spend much of their time doing unproductive things, but although we are called human beings, we are almost always doing something.


Can you imagine a state of being alive and yet doing nothing? "You are lazy" means "you are not doing what I think you should be doing."


For me, lazy actually means not having a purpose to live for or the ability to live into that purpose. Laziness is not a blissful state. It is a state of paralysis - of inability to move forward. It is a painful, frustrated way to go through life.


What then is this purpose and meaning that we need so very desperately? 


Religion has been a source of meaning and purpose for many.


In general, religions provide two paths. One is about belief and worship. The other is about action. The first says to love God. The second says to love your neighbour. It is not, of course, impossible to do both, but religious practitioners tend to do much more of either one or the other.


Meaning and purpose comes from the belief path when we believe that there is a divine plan. "Don't worry" says this vertically oriented approach "everything is as it is meant to be. If you are suffering, it is for a good reason. Believe and don't worry. God will provide for you in the end if you worship and believe."


The second religious approach is about what we do rather than what we believe. It is horizontally focused. It is about how we treat one another. The purpose and meaning of life are about how we impact upon the world around us rather than leaving it to the wisdom of the divine.


Unitarians tend to be more the horizontal sort of religious people. We aim to make a difference rather than to have faith that it's already OK somehow.

Of course, the religious approach is not the only one and, today, the religious perspective is decreasingly present in our human discourse.


Philosophy has wrestled with this question throughout the ages. Today, motivational speakers, a wide variety of spiritual practitioners, and just about every retailer on the planet aim to provide answers too.


Aside from 42, this question has been answered in many ways at many time by many people much wiser than I.


There is an interesting divergence in their responses which I'll now hugely oversimplify. For some, the purpose of life is about being happy and about individual growth. For others, our purpose and meaning are in what we do for others.


I believe that the best answer to this great question, however, is effectively to say it is both.


William Gladstone, the nineteenth century British Prime Minister offered these words, which I have adapted to include the female half of humankind:

"Never forget" he said "that the purpose for which a [person] lives is the improvement of the [self], so that [each one] may go out of this world having, in [the] great sphere or [the] small one, done some little good for [...] fellow creatures and laboured a little to diminish the sin and sorrow that are in the world."


In very different words but with essentially the same meaning, the 14th Dalai Lama put it this way " What is the meaning of life? To be happy and useful."


David Viscott - an American psychiatrist and author also echoed this same theme: "The purpose of life is to discover your gift. The meaning of life is to give your gift away."

Improve yourself, these three sages say, so that you can improve the lives of others. For me, at least, this is the essence of finding meaning and purpose in life.

But I also want to add that purpose and meaning is very much about how we are wired - about our nature as human beings.  

Ultimately, as one wise person put it "The purpose of life is a life of purpose."


Purpose is not something out there to be discovered. It is something that we create for ourselves. Your purpose may be to bring joy to the world through wonderful fairy cakes or to solve the problem of world hunger - to bring delight through street art or to stop the scourge of malaria.


Whatever your purpose, if you can dedicate yourself to it and feel its value, it is purpose enough and life is worth living. Your purpose may change once, twice, or a thousand times throughout your life. It doesn't matter. As long as you create purpose and meaning, you will know that your life is of value.