When Elementary School was the horizon at which my daily sun would rise and set behind, it seemed as though games always cemented the spaces between class and lunch. While I don’t remember every game and every face who participated, for some odd reason, I am blessed or cursed with a strong familiarity of one game that would fill the few minutes as we bounced around in our seats, impatiently waiting for the teacher to begin. The name escapes me, but the premise was simple: One brave soul would be selected to be on the spot, and the others would ping questions, like rubber bands being shot across the room. The goal was to prove how smart we were, or essentially, how much we knew.
Now, as elementary aged youth are, we were mischievous. Once a person seemed to be doing well (answering a lot of questions correctly, that is). Someone would begin throwing out a wrench in the cog, such as “What is my Mom’s name?”, or “What is my birthday?” Then, when the audience was feeling particularly pesky, the end all question of “What is the purpose of life?” would always get asked, bringing with it a salute of chuckles, and ceasing the game. Obviously, we were too young, and mentally undeveloped to grasp such a abstract concept, and to process it in a way to provide an answer suitable to win the game, but we thought it was funny to ask anyways.
As the years passed, it seemed that the purpose of life was a consistent re-run throughout movies and stories, where the character would have some sort of crisis, and ask a higher power what the purpose is. Obviously, things always seem more prevalent as we look back on them, but it seemed as though the question of “What am I supposed to do with my life?” was everywhere. Then I aged, and the questioned seemed to escape out of the days of young, along with Dinosaur pajamas, Disney Channel, and my prized Scooby Doo Trapper Keeper. I never questioned it, or even noticed, but it seemed as though the more that my feet pounded the pavement of a high-school walkway, the less prominent that question was in our lives.
Maybe this is because my mind began to focus on an influx of other things, or maybe because my mind at that age could only focus on one thing…. Maybe, we time passed, we as a people became more ‘in-the-moment” oriented, and ceased looking towards the unrelenting, yet always awaiting vastness of the future. Maybe we grew disillusioned, and vanity took the place of curiousness and wonder, or maybe we just felt that that particular question brought with it more questions, more hopelessness, and more of a sense of solitude than it was worth, so we let it go.
I’d say it is about time that we bring it back. Before we get to that though, and before we get to this essay as a whole, there are three understandings that I will be presenting and explaining at the core of this writing. I will explain them in detail as we chronologically get to them, but for the sake of mental processing time, I will present them upfront first. In order to follow along in this essay we must accept, or at the minimum, acknowledge three understandings: first, we are teleological creatures, as the greeks told us. The sum of two words, Telos meaning end, goal, or purpose, and Logos, meaning reason, teleological creatures need targets to aim at. Second, all life is a flowing state of suffering. The third and final understanding is that we as individuals must live with a moral compass, or as Dr. Jordan Peterson tells us, it is a necessity that we live with virtue.
Seneca, the ancient Stoic philosopher, tells us, “If a man knows not to which port he sails, no wind is favorable.” There are many fields that profusely sell the difference and understanding of a lack of equality between goals. Science tells us that extrinsic goals, such as achieving fame, money, or appearance, develop less “psychologically stable” human beings than intrinsic goals, such as growing as an individual. Philosophy tells us that the only thing in the universe that is in our control is yourself, and aiming goals on something that we do not control puts us on a slippery slope to allowing the world a free pass to dictate our feelings and self worth. While this is truth, this essay is purely focusing on the necessity of goals as guiding points in our lives, not the substantial difference between goals.
On a daily basis, we need goals to aim at. Without them, we wake up, wander through our day aimlessly, and go to bed no closer to anything substantial than when we awoke. This is the beauty of goals; this is why we are teleological creatures: because we need things to aim at. That is a goal’s purpose, to guide us, like a North Star through the sorrows and trenches of the warfare that is everyday. It is not in the achievement that we need goals, but in the journey. A focus on the achievement will lead us to an unrelenting path where more is always needed. This is known as Hedonistic Adaptation, which was modified by Michael Eysenck and is the knowledge that humans have a tendency to quickly return to baseline despite a “huge” positive or negative event. This is why that new car, new house, or new spouse never seems to make you feel as great as when it was first achieved.
We need goals to enjoy the process of achieving them, like climbing a mountain and enjoying the view. Yes, the peak is fantastic, but the climb of the mountain is what brings the joys (or pains) of achievement. Therefore, with something to set our sights on, we have a destination, and a knowledge that whatever enjoyment we believe will be brought from this goal will be while it is in progress, trumping any belief that we will only begin enjoying once it is achieved. The first understanding, is that we as human beings, need a purpose, a target to strive for, because, “without a ruler to do it against you won’t make crooked straight.” (Seneca).
There are Four Noble Truths of Buddhism. The first of these truths is that life is suffering (or Dukkha) (for sake of length and simplicity, this essay will only cover the first truth, but as an interesting tidbit: The second Noble Truth of Buddhism is that the cause of suffering is greed or desire. This is echoed in many schools of thought, not the least of the which being Stoicism. To cease desires, would be to reach a state of “Nirvana”, or to achieve a sufferless life. This idea holds true in every situation, if we stop focusing on what we want to occur, we stop suffering when we are inevitably let down).
This isn’t a pessimistic, existentialist crisis that we should all find demoralizing or undercutting. Quite the opposite actually. This knowledge that life is tragedy is all around us, in every form. As Dr. Jordan Peterson tells us, the symbol of Christianity is a crucifix, which is literally a physical representation of suffering. Knowing this, we then can acknowledge that every single day we see hundreds of people with necklaces, bracelets, clothing, or tattoos of reminders that life is suffering, whether they know that that is what they are doing, or not. This is not a new revelation.
But, as I said, this belief is not as pessimistic as it initially seems. Understanding this, understanding that there will be points in life where we fail, where we feel pain, lose loved ones, and suffer unimaginable setbacks helps us break out of the vicious cycle of happiness that the world fools us into believing is a standard. It shows us that perhaps the baseline of our day is suffering (unless we can break the cycle of desire), and the goal to reach up to is happiness, which is momentary. Therefore, every moment, every second, there is a goal to strive for. Believing that the baseline should be happiness is essentially a recipe for disaster, along with a few pinches of poor self esteem, and a slew of mental illness diagnoses.
We will not always be happy, in fact, often times it seems that moment to moment we choose other emotions more than we choose happiness, which occurs to everyone. Therefore, accepting the second understanding ensures that we understand that normality is not consistent happiness, and allows us to not only live, but excel in long periods where happiness is void. It is possible to find little moments of happiness or gratefulness while trudging through. You can learn to “love the fire”, but the belief that happiness is an eternal state holds no weight. Then we can see that there is nothing wrong with us if we aren’t consistently happy, that maybe we are being lied to when we are told that we are depressed, or that there is something wrong with us.
It is this idea that a lack of happiness, or a lack of pleasure at every moment of life is wrong that prevents us from overcoming the obstacles, or extending periods of suffering that we are placed into. This is seen in countless examples. From heroes, such as James Stockdale, who told himself that he will be in prison for “5 years” at a minimum, but despite that was still able to boost morale in the POW camps, to Viktor Frankl, who, after losing his family, and suffering in an Nazi Internment Camp, was still able to maintain a positive psychology and write one of the best books of all time: “Man’s Search For Meaning”. Even everyday occurrences, such as working on a college degree, or working through an apprenticeship accepts that understanding that now, in this moment, and for the foreseeable future, we will suffer (or work really hard), but maybe, if you’re lucky, this suffering will pause momentarily in the future.
Accepting that a baseline of life is tragedy, that everything we have that we treasure will be taken away at some point not only allows us to understand that this moment now is all we truly have, but it also allows us to take the most advantage of it.
Knowing this, knowing that there is never a ledge to the uphill climb that is life, we have two choices (because we always have choices): We can either fight it, and wallow in the unfortunateness that is, or we can accept it, and live a life of virtue, a life that gives us momentary flashes of joy despite it. While choice one may seem favorable to some, and in fact is used widely by teenagers and young adults everywhere, living with virtue is not only the better choice, but it is a necessary choice. This is understanding three: the “Necessity of Virtue”, as coined by Dr. Jordan Peterson lecture titled the same.
Without virtue, without a guiding star of moral niceties, we have no way to attain the goal we set in understanding one. Without an overarching command of how we will behave, and how we will interact with each other, we are just a floating pile of atoms reacting to every impulse that happens to interact with us. (As the lecture tells us) We must follow our sense of meaning in order to find our pockets of joy throughout life. This sense of meaning is fascinating, and will lead us to overwhelming positive emotions and situations, such as love, the birth of a child, etc. But, and this is a big but, if we are not virtuous, if we lie to others, and most importantly ourselves, we will corrupt our own sense of meaning until it is leading us down a one way road for enjoyment. We do this by behaving in ways we know are bad for us, by ignoring our conscience, or by feeling justified in our mistreatment of others. Before we know it, our mind will begin to find meaning in harmful acts (drugs, unloving sex, etc).
So why life live with virtue? If life is tragedy, why does it matter how we interact with it? Why be virtuous? “It is so that you can bear the suffering of life without becoming corrupt. This is practical, unless you want to be miserable (which some people do).” We all know what happens when someone becomes corrupt, and where they go (Jordan Peterson says that Hell is a physical place, and when you are unable to look at a person, you know where they are). This is why we must be virtuous, so that no matter how much suffering occurs to us in life, we can bear it, we can continue, and we can encounter more tragedy with virtue.
To summarize, with these three understands, we see that we as humans are teleological creatures, and need goals, or a purpose, or as Simon Sinek calls it, a “Why”. We see that life is a system of sufferings. And, along that, we see that we as humans must life with virtue, in order to avoid corruption and survive the tragedy that life throws at us.
Therefore, with the three understandings, we can reasonably conclude that our purpose in life would be to ease other’s suffering as much as possible as they trudge along their path of tragedy.
Why ease other’s suffering? Why spend our days focused on lightening other’s? There are two reasons. First, the self focused reason: helping others makes us feel better. The warm feeling you get when someone opens a gift you got them is the same feeling you get when you make someone’s day a little better. These feelings, they are breaks in the suffering. Helping others helps us momentarily escape the overwhelming pressure of life. It also trains our minds to find meaning in this pleasure, thus instilling a sense of virtuous discipline in us. Second, because we know that if we are suffering, then everyone else is suffering too, in their own right. Accepting this, and focusing on other’s well being instead of our’s gives us a break from the pessimistic cycle of self-betrayal and self-harm (in a mental sense) that we push ourselves through. Acknowledging that everyone lives in tragedy (and most are worse than yours) allows you to put your life in perspective, and be grateful for what is going well. Since our own sense of suffering clouds our perception, it is this crucial idea that Gandhi is talking about when he says that, “The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.”
How do we ease sufferings of others? This can be done in up to a million of ways. First is to remember that there is nothing we can do to end the tragedy for someone permanently (studies show that people who win the lottery and believe that their suffering is over end up less happy than before they won the lottery.) All we can do is attempt to provide them with breaths of fresh air, with little momentary glimpse of joy. This can be done in ways that are small, such as a smile, or a welcoming gesture, or large ways, such as serving your community in a volunteer position, or providing food to a homeless shelter.
To close, let's reflect on passage in the bible (Matthew 23:11-12):
“The greatest among you will be your servant.”
Expanding on this, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr gave a sermon stating:
“If you want to be important — wonderful. If you want to be recognized — wonderful. If you want to be great — wonderful. But recognize that he who is greatest among you shall be your servant. That’s a new definition of greatness. … By giving that definition of greatness, it means that everybody can be great … by giving that definition of greatness, it means that everybody can be great. … You don’t have to know about Plato and Aristotle to serve. You don’t have to know [Einstein’s] theory of relativity to serve. You don’t have to know the second theory of thermodynamics in physics to serve. You only need a heart full of grace, a soul generated by love. And you can be that servant.”
We should live our life in the service of others. We should make this our goal, to temporarily escape the suffering of life by easing the tragedy placed on our fellow human beings in a virtuous way. This means forgetting our biases, our fears of judgement or rejection, our worries or reciprocation, and anything else that holds us back. This means accepting that by putting others first, we are putting our own wellbeing as a priority. This means accepting that service, that joy, and that peace, not money, not fame, not attractiveness, but a desire to momentarily enhance other’s lives, is greatness.