With, or Without Purpose, That Is the Question

“A man’s reach should exceed his grasp.” ~ Robert Browning

It turns out that life is a choose your own adventure. After you’ve answered Shakespeare’s critical question ‘to be, or not to be’, there is the vital question ‘with, or without purpose’.

‘Not to be’ is choosing suicide. ‘To be’ is choosing life. ‘Without purpose’ is choosing a life half-lived. ‘With purpose’ is choosing a life well-lived.

But do we want that life to be healthy and meaningful, or unhealthy and meaningless? That is the vital question.

Choose your own adventure, sure, but it’s incumbent upon you to choose wisely (with purpose). It just so happens that choosing wisely is synonymous with choosing to be healthy and choosing to inject meaning into an otherwise meaningless universe. It’s solely your responsibility to do so.

You’ll reap no Eudaimonia (human flourishing), if you don’t sow a little health and create a little meaning.

Without purpose (unhealthy and meaningless)

“The first principle is to not fool yourself. And you are the easiest person to fool.” ~ Richard Feynman

A purposeless life tends to be unhealthy because it usually comes with the heavy baggage of nihilism, boredom, and depression. These three can put you in a serious rut. Or worse, an angry abyss. From which some people never emerge.

Nihilism is unhealthy because your crippled with ennui and angst, unless you’re able to turn the tables and cultivate a good sense of humor about the inherent lack of meaning in the universe (see humorous nihilism).

Boredom is unhealthy because you become lazy and indifferent toward aesthetic and numinous experience. You become ignorant and stuck, laboring under the delusion that there’s nothing more. Having lost touch with both your Inner Child and Beginner’s Mind, you are no longer awake to novelty, astonishment and awe.

Depression is just plain unhealthy. A dark insidious cloud cast over all things. And for many of us, there is no choice in the matter. But to the extent that there is a choice, finding purpose despite depression can be deep, soul-feeding medicine that can, at the very least, soothe the ache.

When we have no purpose, we are floundering vessels cast aimlessly in a chaotic sea of meaninglessness, sail-less and precarious. When we have a purpose, on the other hand, the sea may still be chaotic and inherently meaningless, but we are robust vessels with a compass, with resolve, with passionate intent. Our sails are pitched full and heading True North. We are prepared for the worst, but there is fierce desire in our heart.

With purpose (healthy and meaningful)

“The powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.” ~ Walt Whitman

What will your verse be? Finding your purpose, and then being proactive about living it, is contributing a verse.

But then how do you find your purpose? As I explained in Three Steps to Self-purpose, finding your purpose is finding what you love to do, what you’re passionate about. It’s remaining open to discovery, which requires courage and vulnerability. But most of all it requires curiosity.

If, as Stephen Kotler said, “passion exists at the intersection of three or more things you’re really curious about,” then it stands to reason that whatever that curious intersection may be is your purpose.

Just ask yourself: where do the things that I’m curious about intersect? And then make that your purpose. Be proactive. Build your life around it. Make it your Immortality Project.

This is healthy. Even if everything around you is falling apart, when you have a purpose it’s all just water off a duck’s back. You’ve created meaning. You’ve established a bedrock, a foundation, an anchor for your hope. You’ve become the author of your own story. There are values to develop. There are morals to foster. There are people to share them with. There’s a reason to live.

Being-in-fate (embracing unexpected change)

“Fate leads the willing and drags along the reluctant.” ~ Seneca

Yes, life is a choose your own adventure, but with a twist. Fate (random and improbable) will have its say. There’s no avoiding this. Even the mighty Carl Jung attempted to write it off, saying, “Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.”

This is only half true. Making the unconscious conscious is vital, don’t get me wrong. It gets your head out of the sand. It gets your thoughts out of the box. It makes you independently interdependent and self-actualized so that you are not dragged by fate kicking and screaming.

Nevertheless, Fate (chance, randomness, serendipity, vicissitude, and unexpected change) will still have its say, even if you do make the unconscious conscious.

You’ll simply be more aware of it. You’ll be more likely to go with the flow. More likely to roll with the punches and learn from the bruises. More likely to adapt and overcome.

But Fate will always be there, rearing her terribly beautiful head. And that’s okay. Fate is randomness and probability, doing its thing regardless of our purpose. But at least it keeps things interesting. At least we’re not bored.

Ultimately, your purpose is your lifeblood. It’s the reason you wake up in the morning. Maybe your purpose is to travel. Maybe it’s to become a parent. Maybe it’s underwater basket weaving. Whatever. Your purpose is yours alone. Nobody else can take it from you. It’s your sacred artifact, your adventure, your unique journey, your special verse, and only you can contribute it, or not.

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Gary Z McGee
Gary Z McGee
Gary 'Z' McGee, a former Navy Intelligence Specialist turned philosopher, is the author of Birthday Suit of God and The Looking Glass Man. His works are inspired by the great philosophers of the ages and his wide awake view of the modern world.
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