Thursday, September 29, 2016

The Purpose of Life

Funny the things you think about when you're up super early for a run and have some quiet time alone. In the quiet hour between the end of last Thursday's morning run and my commute to work, I was thinking about...life.

I don't often get too contemplative these days - I think I left a lot of that navel-gazing behind with my teens - but I had read this comic from The Oatmeal recently and I think it was lodged in my head:
This is just an incomplete snapshot of the entire thing. He goes on to write that the things he loves don't often bring him joy - sometimes they make him suffer but they are compelling. That's how I often feel about writing and running!
I hate the two ends of the "meaning of life" spectrum: the positive side that thinks life is meant to bring you happiness and that you should feel fulfilled always, and the nihilistic side that thinks we're all just existing and there's nothing more to it, and that life owes us nothing so if we're not happy who cares?
Although I do find the Nihilist Memes page on Facebook pretty damn funny if you're into dark humor.
Side note: There are a million articles online about how to find happiness in life, and I feel like if you're reading those articles trying to pick up tips, you're going about it the wrong way.

Then I was thinking, really, what do I think the meaning or purpose of life is? Because when I'm just living it, I'm not enjoying it, and when I'm enjoying it, it may all still be meaningless, but at least I'm not miserable. I came up with three things that, to me, speak to the purpose of life:
The reality of the world we live in is that we won't enjoy every minute of every day. We need to do some things we don't love or aren't passionate about in order to survive, and I think anyone who says differently has more privilege than I've ever known. But we do need to enjoy life if we want to thrive, and there's a difference between surviving and thriving.

When I'm satisfying my curiosity, learning new things, exploring, and experiencing the world around me, life feels a lot richer.

We need to seek out things that engross us and prioritize them in a way that makes them part of our lives on a regular basis. If you don't know what that thing is for you, it's time to explore. Take a class. Volunteer. Learn to cook. Read more. Take a day trip. Go to a museum. Try your hand at drawing. Go camping. Whatever. For me, obviously, one of those things is running. It doesn't always make me happy, but it compels me.
Life itself may not have a definite purpose (to paraphrase the Oatmeal: that's okay) but it feels better when we're engaged with living. It's like I used to tell my students: you have to be here, so you may as well make the most of it!

How's that for a marriage between blind optimism and nihilism?

Do you think there's a purpose or meaning to life?
What enriches your life?

ABK

15 comments:

  1. I tried to be a positive person in all aspects of life and just savor every moment. I certainly am happy in my life but I do ponder the thought of "what's the point" and "does it matter if I'm happy or I have this experience vs that experience"? I could go on and on about this..lol. So yes, I've thought about this. I believe as a middle aged adult this is a common think to think about. Think Levinson's Theory.

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    1. I had to look up Levinson's Theory. It's really interesting that this is something so many people wonder and deal with, particularly adults.

      It's odd, because I think it doesn't particularly MATTER if we're not happy, but being happy does make life a better ride!

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  2. I tend to be in the camp that thinks we, like the rest of nature, are all just here, there is no rhyme or reason or grand meaning. But just because my life has no grand purpose doesn't mean I shouldn't make the most of it. I mean, why not? I only get one. So like you I'd say I employ a mix of nihilism and optimism.

    On your points about happiness and fulfillment and savoring life...lately I've been thinking a lot about how we live in the most privileged society in the world and in history, and yet those of us that have the most in life are often the most unsatisfied and unhappy. There's a lot going on there, but I think what it ultimately ties back to is that one of the big keys to a meaningful life is grit. Going through tough and uncomfortable shit and overcoming it so you appreciate the good stuff more. I think the reason we are so unsatisfied with all of the options and conveniences available to us is because it comes too easily and we don't really appreciate it. Based purely on my own observation in 30 short years, it seems that at the end of the day, the people with the richest and most meaningful lives aren't the ones who lived a certain way, did certain things, or had a certain amount of money - they're the ones who've really rode out the peaks and valleys of the roller coaster of life, who've gone through some hard, uncomfortable stuff that made them want to quit - the stuff that ultimately made them really see how precious it is to have family, friends, health and yes, happiness.

    We can't control what life throws our way but like you said - go out and experience it. Have fun but challenge the way you see the world, too. Volunteer and spend time with people who don't have the privileges you have. Listen to other people's stories, ideas and opinions. Read books and watch films that open you up to new perspectives. Learn a new skill. Anything we can do to get out of our own heads and comfort zones will enrich our lives.

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    1. Interesting take on the need for obstacles and difficult times to help us appreciate life. I don't know if I totally agree. I was born into an easy life and I've struggled in small ways but not in any major way, and I think I appreciate what I have. At the same time, I'm annoyed with what I have because sometimes I think life would be easier if I had less. I feel like I've been successfully trapped by society's expectations in a way - the consumer culture, and all that. But it's hard not to give in to that in America.

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  3. Wow!! This is such a beautiful review of the meaning of life!

    I think life and happiness is about key moments, moments that if we are too busy trying to find meaning and happiness, we will miss. Back in the summer, we were at a local fair, my son has won a small ball that blinked when hit, and he had two of them. He gave one of my niece, who is 1.5. They spent 5 minutes just throwing the ball around, laughing and running around. My sisters and I just stood there watching them and enjoying that moment. It as then that I realized this was such a precious moment, I felt so happy and content to have been given this moment and remember thinking at the time, "this is what life is all about!"

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    1. Don't you wish we could bottle those memories and relive them, like in the Pensieve in HP? I definitely think you're onto something here - those precious memories and those moments that fill us with joy and love are what life is all about!

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  4. I definitely fall into the camp that we are just HERE and there is no meaning or purpose to our lives... but that we can MAKE our lives meaningful and have a purpose! That nihilism meme is hilarious. I wish I were that funny and smart!

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    1. I second Megan here...I also fall into the camp that we are just here and there is no meaning or purpose to our lives... but that we can MAKE our lives meaningful and have a purpose!
      For me it mostly comes down to the people that we share our lives with. They would be what I would really miss.

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    2. Agreed, Megan and Sandra! I think it's part of the human condition to assume we're meant for more and that life has meaning, but we're really just like any other animals on the planet! We're just lucky enough to have the thought processes to MAKE something of life.

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  5. This is a tough one- very deep!
    I can fall on both sides. As a Mom I felt I had a purpose for many years when my son was young. As an adult Mom and watching him struggle with depression issues and such, I've felt like a failure and so even more the nature aspect and running became my saving grace. I think I decided that enjoying moments was the most valuable thing to me and even when I am having a rough time I can still have good moments and running helps that.
    I always feel like a good hike enriches me- I love visiting the mountains...
    I guess as I age I try to pick the experiences I will enjoy the most and avoid what doesn't make me feel good.
    I do feel some people seem to be have a big reach and influence on others that seems to be their purpose, and I do know that I am not that LOL

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    1. You are absolutely not a failure. Depression is an illness like any other - you wouldn't blame yourself if your son was struggling with eczema or something like that! I'm glad running and nature help when you're feeling guilty, but as someone who struggled (and sometimes still does) with depression, I want you to know that you're not a failure and you've done nothing wrong.

      I told a student of mine recently that none of us matter in a BIG way, and yet we all matter in some way. If you impact even one person, you have no idea how many other lives you touch through that one person. So I'd say we all have big reach and influence, even if it's more hidden than the reach and influence of those on TV!

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  6. Absolutely there is a purpose to life. I heard a quote once that said the architect of the universe didn't design a staircase that leads to nowhere. Each of us has a purpose and we owe it to ourselves to figure out what it is - what our gifts and talents led us to - and develop ourselves so we can fulfill that purpose.
    I loved your post and that Oatmeal cartoon is awesome. I like to think I was reading the Oatmeal before he hit it big and his brand of comedy still appeals to me.
    I found you via the TOL linkup and i'd like to keep reading more.
    Check out my post at https://runwright.net/2016/09/29/6-steps-to-failure/

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    1. I guess that comes down to whether or not you believe there's an architect of the universe. For those of us who don't, the idea that we have an inherent purpose, more than any other animal in nature, is unrealistic.

      I'm glad you like the Oatmeal! He's great!

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  7. I definitely think there is a purpose to life. Everyone touches someone in one way or another, and it is those types of relationships or experiences that shape who we are. I am a dietitian in a hospital and being able to talk to people who are sick and hopefully help them really gives me meaning to my life. There are patients who have come back later and said that something I told them really helped them.

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    1. I totally agree that we all touch and influence people around us, and that influence then extends to the others that they encounter, too. I'm not sure if I think that's necessary a purpose, but I do think it gives life a little more meaning!

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