Wednesday, May 20, 2009

The Purpose Driven Essay

The purpose of this essay is to discuss the purpose of life. I hope I'm not inflating weak ideas, obscuring poor reasoning or inhibiting clarity. If I have, I've been in academia too long.

At work, one of my co-workers put out a challenge: “Write an essay and/or poem on the Meaning of Life.” There would be incentive prizes given out to those who participate, and entries would be included in a booklet. Yes, I know, typically office coworkers talk about sports, current events and the like, but my department is special. And existential.

Today is the submission deadline, and I’m finally getting around to actually writing something. I mean how can I capture something so huge with a few words strung together in prosaic form? Forget a poem. I’ve written a few, but Maya Angelou I’m not. My best poetic attempt would be hackneyed. But even in an essay, discussing the meaning of life is daunting. I’ve read so many perspectives, opinions and beliefs as to why people are here. At my former church, the congregation went through Rick Warren’s famous book, “The Purpose Driven Life” together. The book covers why we are here- for service to God, our families and to the world. The time devoted to studying the book was called “The Forty Days of Purpose.” Believe me, I was pumped up throughout, devouring chapter by chapter. Then came day 41. I found myself asking “What now?”

In the Biblical book of Ecclessiastes, King Solomon seemed to keep coming to that “What now?” question. He begins with the depressing statement, “Everything is meaningless,” says the Teacher, “completely meaningless!”(1:2) Ouch. But King David’s boy explains his pessimism: “What do people get for all their hard work under the sun? 4 Generations come and generations go, but the earth never changes. 5 The sun rises and the sun sets, then hurries around to rise again…. 8 Everything is wearisome beyond description. No matter how much we see, we are never satisfied. No matter how much we hear, we are not content. 9History merely repeats itself. It has all been done before. Nothing under the sun is truly new. 10 Sometimes people say, “Here is something new!” But actually it is old; nothing is ever truly new. 11 We don’t remember what happened in the past, and in future generations, no one will remember what we are doing now.”(1:3-5, 8-11)

He then goes on to lament the futility of gaining knowledge and even wisdom. Next up, he takes aim at pleasure: “ 1 I said to myself, “Come on, let’s try pleasure. Let’s look for the ‘good things’ in life.” But I found that this, too, was meaningless.”(2:1) He doesn’t find fulfillment in work, either, and finds cruelty in the injustice of the world (I hear you!). Although he was a rich ruler, he also knew money can’t buy you happiness. “ 10 Those who love money will never have enough. How meaningless to think that wealth brings true happiness! 11 The more you have, the more people come to help you spend it. So what good is wealth—except perhaps to watch it slip through your fingers!” (5:10-11) To quote the late Notorious B.I.G. “Mo’ Money, Mo Problems.”

His life experiences taught him much, and he shares these nuggets of wisdom in chapter seven: “7 Extortion turns wise people into fools, and bribes corrupt the heart. 8 Finishing is better than starting. Patience is better than pride. 9 Control your temper, for anger labels you a fool. 10Don’t long for “the good old days.” This is not wise.” Aww, I know he’s very right on this last one, but really, high school was so much better! My pressing concerns were the SATs, Prom and pesky papers. Good times!... but moving on, what do we have in this life??? Solomon counsels in chapter 9 to “ …go ahead. Eat your food with joy, and drink your wine with a happy heart, for God approves of this! 8 Wear fine clothes, with a splash of cologne! 9 Live happily with the woman you love…10 Whatever you do, do well.”

So what’s the point of life? To LIVE! We will find meaning and purpose through our experiences- the actions we take and the memories made. Through our family, friends, co-workers, loves- all of the people who touch our lives and whose lives we touch. Our purpose can be found in this journey- a journey that is far more than the accumulation of knowledge or wealth. Life is not fair, and will force us to deal with injustice, hatred and loss. But even these hard things are for a reason, helping to mold us and prepare us to help others. Oh, and I would be remiss to not include King Solomon’s parting words of wisdom in the closing verses of Ecclesiastes: “Fear God and obey his commands, for this is everyone’s duty.”

So I think Rick Warren has pretty much gotten it right. I might have missed it at first, expecting some big, huge reason to answer my “What now?” question. When the answer is to simply live. Live, through the laughter, tears, fear, pain and love. And to do it well.


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