I question consistently whether I’m living a worthy life. Hence the reference to that ending scene where Private Ryan, now an old man kneeling at the grave of the Captain who saved his life, turns to his wife and pleads “Tell me I have led a good life. Tell me I’m a good man.” … Indeed, I find [the question of whether am a walking dead man] terrifying. Perhaps it’s my Catholic upbringing with its focus on guilt. Perhaps it’s my exposure later in life to evangelical Christianity and it’s focus on being saved. Or perhaps it’s simply something I focus on in case this whole notion of God’s mercy and grace, where I live and hope today, are in error.
Its funny how these things seem to drop in on you when you’re thrashing about mentally on the very same topic — one might almost think it was more than just coincidence.
At the heart of Rick’s post lies the question, “Does life — my life — have meaning?” This is one of those questions which never seems to go away, no matter how much we try to drown it out. We hear, day after day, about how we are cosmic accidents, amino acids and random chance tossed into the whirling blender of evolution to produce a highly sophisticated human Margarita. In such a world, ruled by the cruel logic of cosmic chance, questions of meaning and purpose would appear frivolous and irrational. But nevertheless, they just keep popping up, like moles in the movie Caddy Shack. Even the fundamentalist secularists, the Dawsons and Hawkins and Hitchens of the world, can’t seem to tear themselves away from the language of purpose and intent, as they speculate how random chance and natural selection “choose” to create us and “select” the “best” genetic mishaps to produce that animal which we call man.
Ask your average man on the street what his or her purpose in life is, and expect in response some snide comment, humorous retort, or — if they be halfway serious — something approaching a short-term goal. So their “purpose” might be to graduate from school, or pass their exams, or become an attorney, or get laid this weekend, or get a better job. But in fact, such responses reflect in their commonality a profound shallowness so typical of an age where we have everything but that for which our hollow hearts hunger.
For it seems we often confuse goals with the idea of purpose. For the concept of purpose or meaning in life presupposes something beyond ourselves. It implies that we are fitting into a larger picture, a grander scheme, some overarching game plan vaster than ourselves, yet capable of including us in the fullness of its accomplishment. The idea of purpose does not necessarily mandate believe in a deity — although it leads quite naturally in this direction.
Inherent in the idea of purpose is an innate sense that we are aligned in some way with a greater good, a larger existence than that which we may measure and perceive. It implies simply that we are not merely one small cog in a complex machine, but rather an integral part, even an indispensable one, without which the machine can not fully accomplish that for which it exists.
If we confuse our goals with our purpose, we will inevitably end up frustrated and unhappy. If your goal is to graduate from college, when you graduate, do you now have purpose? Hardly. Instead such accomplishments merely mark a signpost, an indicator pointing to yet another goal, larger and even farther out of reach. Having arrived at our destination, we immediately set out towards a new goal — be it becoming a professional, or a carpenter, or getting married, or making a boatload of money. By simply resetting our goals into the future we believe — or want to believe — that we are moving forward with purpose. But once these newer goals are reached — or equally so if we failed to reach them — there is an inevitable emptiness, a sense of, “Is this all there is to life?” When you are finally successful in that career you have been working toward for decades, why is it that you find yourself so unsatisfied with arriving at this long-sought destination? If your goal is raising children, what will you do when they grow up and leave the house? You have met your goals, but have yet to meet your purpose.
The result is too often seen: the divorce, the new marriage, the philandering, the drinking, the obsessive pursuit of money and prestige and power, and an unholy host of behaviors which are far more destructive than satisfying. Such may serve in the near term to fill the emptiness which comes when goals are substituted for purpose, but they do not fill that inner need for being part of the greater good and accomplishing something of lasting value in life.
In my own feeble experience, having made a myriad of such mistakes myself, I have, I believe, finally stumbled upon the paradox of purpose: I know that I have a purpose in life — and I don’t know exactly what that purpose is. Nor, I suspect, will I ever know it fully this side of the undertaker’s icy slab. This, I suspect, is life in the realm of faith: that mysterious, almost intangible sense that you are on the right road, while being able to see neither your feet on the ground nor the path along which you’re headed.
So for now, my purpose is to serve those who have been put into my life as family, friends, and patients. I fulfill my purpose by being the best physician possible for my patients; by being a good husband and father; by being a loyal friend. It should go without saying that I meet these lofty ideals imperfectly and often poorly. But this is the standard against which I measure my conformity to purpose, a small shaft of light which casts just enough illumination to see where my next step should be.
Yet it is also apparent that my current striving to achieve such high ideals does not encompass a life purpose in its entirety. If I am a good physician, a good father, a loving husband, a loyal friend, I am following my life’s purpose as best I can discern. Yet if my purpose is comprised solely of being, say, a good physician, what then will my purpose be tomorrow should I be injured or incapacitated such that I can no longer practice my profession? My life may change enormously — yet my purpose will not. I will still have an ultimate purpose in life, but the vehicle through which I fulfill that purpose may change radically and wrenchingly, with agonizing violence.
It is here that I must rest almost entirely on the idea of grace — that there is a hand guiding me which does know the path and the purpose, and may in an instant radically change the rules of the game in order to more fully implement that larger purpose. To live in such a mindset requires a confidence in the existence and unfailing goodness of God — even while doubting that very existence and goodness more often than I care to share. Without grace, I am left to the ruthless serendipity of slavery: I am constantly wondering whether I am living up to a standard, or whether God is punishing me because of this change in course, or perhaps simply being capricious or vindictive for some past behavior. If my God is immutably good and gracious, my life’s purpose is will thereby be good by design — and will be — hard as it is to swallow — nearly invisible to my blinkered eyes.
To have purpose in life is to have confidence in the goodness of God, and a willingness to follow and trust in places I do not wish to go. To salve the fear inherent in such an unknown trust there comes a measure of inner peace that arises not from understanding, but from trusting. For is only when we walk by faith, not by sight, that our lives can truly begin to have that transcendent purpose which is the only worthwhile goal.