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Meaning And Purpose In Life

September 1, 2007

I had a long conversation the other night with my friend Len about God, meaning, and life in general.  The question arose as to whether God has a purpose and a plan for each of us.  Here are my thoughts.

Len told me he believed sincerely that God has a plan for each man and woman.  I told him I wasn’t one to claim if God did so or not.  Maybe, maybe not.

After our conversation that night, I worked on my mathematics studies, then I went to bed.  After waking up I went for a long walk and decided to think on what I had discussed with Len.

Did God have a purpose for me?  If so, how was I to find it?  If not, what grounds could I have to deny belief in such a thing?  Can such a question ever be answered?

I used to ponder on this subject and found it very frustrating.  Sure, God may have a plan for each of us, but he sure was elusive about it.  If good things happened, God was the source of the blessing.  If bad things happened, it was either our own “sin” which caused it, or God was letting these evils happen to us to teach us to trust in Him.

It’s always been strange to me to see horrible events happen to people, and then they excuse them almost as if it was good that they happened, because God taught them important life lessons.  After all, God works in mysterious ways, and no matter what difficult situation you may be going through, God’s trying to teach you something.  As they say, everything happens for a reason.

Besides this point, however, I’ve always wondered about the entire concept of meaning in life.  What was it?  What is purpose?  What is this meaning?  Is it a good thing?

I took a long walk and thought on the issue the entire time, and found the answer.  Meaning is the chains and shackles of the mind.  To search for it focuses your mind in the wrong direction, and only ensnares you. I’ll need to clarify what I mean.

People oftentimes feel that we’re all in possession of “God-given” gifts, such as intelligence, and other abilities.  Because of these gifts which each one of us have, intrinsic to the very nature of who we are, there is a certain life which is more suited to us than others.  God will lead us to this life, if we’re open to the spiritual side of things.

My mom continually tells me to be praying for God to show me where to take my life.  My father says the same thing.  I slowly came to wonder about this, and eventually found it an evil pursuit.

My own search to find God, and to understand him is a long one which is too long to discuss here.  What I would like to discuss is something of an entirely different nature: the search for meaning.  (Though this does tie in with God)

Meaning is a denial of our own freedom, and the more meaning we think our life has, the more of our freedom we end up denying.  This is the point which I’d like to elaborate upon.

I was watching Rambo III the other day, and found one scene which would illustrate my point perfectly.  As we all know, Rambo is a super specialist commando, who is the best at what he does.  He is a kiling machine.  He is the best there is with guns, knives, and other weapons.  After his last mission in Vietnam, Rambo decides he no longer wishes to be a commando.  He no longer wants war or violence.  He wants to live peacefully, and to spend his time building instead of destroying.

He joins a Buddhist monastery and is feeling like he finally belongs to something he would like to stay with.  Now in comes Colonel Troutman, who tells him they have a mission which desperately requires his aid.  Rambo says he wants no part of it.  War and violence have to end for him at some time.

Troutman then gives him a lecture that he’s running from who he really is.  He says that the special forces didn’t make him into the killing machine that he is, they only chipped away the rough edges.  Troutman futhur gives a story of a sculptor who finds a rock.  After he finishes his creation his friends tell him it’s the most beautiful work of art he’d ever created.  Then the artist replies that he found the rock just as it is, and that he only chipped away the rough edges.

Now Troutman leaves, and Rambo stays at the monastery, thinking about this.  The music kicks in, and we’re all so happy to see Rambo come to grips with “who he really is.”  He quit lying to himself.  After all, he’s a commando.  Who is he kidding wanting to be a Buddhist monk, live peacefully, and build a monastery?  The world needed his God-given abilities to fight.

I’d like to pose a question though.  Does this imply that a person can never change who they are, even when they don’t like it?  Are we stuck with our intrinsic nature?  Stuck with “who we are”, and confined to play a certain role in this world, and only that role?  If we can change, how much can we change?  Are we limited to change within the bounds of the meaning and purpose which God, or nature, has endowed upon us?

I think this is a question worthy of serious discussion.  From this example we can see how ‘meaning’ and ‘purpose’ have enslaved Rambo.  He doesn’t want to keep doing what he does, but he doesn’t think he can change.  He thinks that whatever he is, he’s stuck to stay that way.

Also, strangely, we glorify him (or at least the movie does) for being sincere.  For being truthful to himself.  For denying his own freedom in this area, we’re praising him.  Are we telling him, “Way to go Rambo, you can’t change who you are!  You can’t change this world!  We’re glad you finally came to grips with this truth!”  This sounds pretty nasty to me.  It seems people are going to use this ‘meaning’ and ‘purpose’ to control you.  It seems Troutman is using this confused guilt trip to control Rambo, and get him back into battle.

You may say, “You’re right Jason, in Rambo’s case, he is being manipulated.  He’s not meant to be a fighter.  He hasn’t found his true calling in life, because he is unhappy.  He needs to find his true purpose in life.”  I’d like to show a point however, which I feel dismisses all searches for meaning and purpose in life as slavery.  I think it’s this very pursuit which is what’s deadly.

When it comes to meaning and purpose, some call it God’s plan for your life. Some consider it respect for God and the supernatural realm.  Some call it the only way to happiness.  It’s amazing how many dresses and ways we package up fear and slavery, and tell everyone how wonderful it is.

The more you believe there is some meaning for your life, which was assigned by someone or something other than you, the more you shackle your own freedom.  If you take it to the full extreme, where you believe God, or some organization, or some person, or whoever, has a purpose and meaning for everything in your life, you’ve denied your own freedom completely.  The more you submit to this meaning, the more you yourself die.

You never assert your free will, you only do so within the bounds of this ‘meaning.’  You won’t try to go outside of it.  You believe you’re bound to be unhappy if you do.  It seems the more this ‘life purpose’ or ‘meaning’ defines your life, the more your own freedom to change is confined.

Christians oftentimes believe that this is the key to life.  To submit to God’s plan entirely.  This, they say, is the meaning of “taking up your cross.”  But there are curious Biblical passages which seem to say otherwise.

Jesus says, “All things are possible to him that believes.”  Odd thing to say.  You can do anything you set your mind to, but you’ll never utilize this because you’re going to be my puppet.  You must only follow my ‘Holy Spirit’ which I’m going to send you.  He will command you like a robot, and never let you choose anything on your own.  When you fully give in, and do only what I tell you to do, then I’ll finally be pleased with you.

Devout Christians seem to think people who pursue “their way” are less spiritual than people who submit themselves fully to God’s plan for their life.  They think that God will LET you do “your thing”, but that you’ll never feel that true joy and happiness until you submit to his purpose and plan for your life.

This seems hard to believe, even if you’re a Christian.  Even if we search the Bible to settle this matter, we find Jesus telling us this,  in the Gospel of Matthew, Chapter 7:

“Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; he who seeks finds; and to him who knocks, the door will be opened.

“Which of you, if his son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him! So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.”

I think any honest reader, not coming into this issue with prejudices beforehand, will easily see that Jesus is telling people to ask God for what you want out of life, and he will help you achieve what you desire.

Jesus doesn’t say ask me first, then if I approve, pursue it.  He says ask, and it will be given unto you.  It seems he gives a general framework for the rules of love and morality, and within those bounds, pursue your dreams.  That certainly would be my interpretation of this passage.  He ends the discussion  with, “And do to others as you would do unto them.  This sums up morality.”  In other words, you can pursue what you like, but remember, don’t hurt other people in the process.

It seems if you want to be a painter, and are going to paint things which do not inflict injury on your neighbor, or country, etc, that he is fine with this.  He tells you to seek this out, and he’ll be with you in this endeavor.  If you want to be a physicist, and will use this for good, to help advance technology, God will also be in your pursuit.

Notice though, that seems contradictory to what was said earlier.  If you have some sort of “God-given purpose”, then you don’t have a choice whether you’re to be a painter, or a writer of literature, or a historian.  You have to be what God planned for you to be.  You can’t be happy pursuing your way, it has to be God’s way.

Well what is it?  Can I choose?  Or does God have to dictate everything?

I highly respect the teachings of Jesus, but I do not agree with how most people interpret what he says.  Jesus obviously isn’t telling us to be his slave.  He gives us morality for our own good, and then seems pleased to watch us do what we want to do.

But what does Jesus mean when he says, “Take up your cross, and die daily.”  Isn’t this referring to the death of the self?  The death of your own desires, to follow the will of God?  To rid yourself of those awful passions of the body.  To deny all pleasures, all passions, and everything you want.

As we just saw, it can’t.  Jesus’ teachings would be contradictory.  He didn’t say, “You CAN ask what you want, but I really don’t want you to ask what you want.  I want you to ask me what I want, and to only do that.”   Does he or does he not want us to ask what we want?  He tells us to look at this world, and claim whatever life we want out of it.  He blantantly tells us to do this.  Why would God tell us to pursue ANYTHING that we want out of life if this was bad advice?  He himself said he wouldn’t give a bad gift to his children.  If his advice to ask the world what you want out of it was bad, then he wouldn’t have told us this.

I could see my Uncle Richard hearing this, who is a pastor, and he’d tell me, “You ask God to guide you because he’ll show you what you REALLY want.  Those things which will make you happy, and not leave you empty.  Trying to go your way, you leave your life up to chance.  Why not take God’s advice?”

Once again, the whole idea of what you “really” want, as opposed to what you think you want, is just another way of stating this same dilemma.  What you “really” want is the same thing as meaning and purpose.  If you can find your purpose in life you’ll be happy.  If you can find what you “really” want you’ll be happy.  It’s the same dilemma.  Same logic applies to all of it.

I only went into this digression because I know a lot of people pursue purpose by praying to God to tell them what he wants for their life.  God’s not going to give you a purpose.  He told you define your own life.  He gave you free will.  Why would he give you that, then not want you to use it?

I know some of you may read what I write in these journal entries, and see at times that I’m so fiery passionate about some of these things.  To me, I was taught all of these teachings in church, but since I did not fully understand things, I was kept in these chains.  I firmly believed in these chains, and it was a painful experience.  They tormented me for years. It feels so good to have them off.  Oh, how I hate those chains!  They were an illusion, and they no longer keep me bound. I get excited as I move about freely, leaving slavery behind.

I showed philosophically that the search for meaning is a veil of slavery, and the more of this meaning you impose on yourself, the more you limit your own freedom.  Jesus teaches to ask what we want out of life, and by this very concept of asking, we see it contradictory to the concept of meaning and purpose coming from God in this life.

You may be thinking that I haven’t taken on the main issue, however.  Sure I can do anything I choose, but isn’t the main issue whether or not the things I choose to do will leave me happy?

That would be a difficult psychological discussion into the nature of the emotions, but the main point I wanted to make is this:  Your emotions are dictated by your mindset, which is yours to choose.  I simply don’t want people to think they’re stuck in some hole of ‘meaning’ and ‘purpose’ which they can’t climb out of.

Meaning and purpose are actually masks for fate.  Most people frown on those who believe in fate, but then advocate that God has ordained meaning and purpose for our lives.  If you believe fully in a purpose for your life, and that ultimately you can only achieve full happiness by living that purpose which was ordained, how is that any different than fate?  It’s certainly very similar.

The only chains that can ever exist on a person is chains you put on yourself.  Physically a person can be bound, but only you can bind yourself up mentally.  What’s interesting about mental binds, however, is that most people don’t even know they’re bound.  Like I said earlier, this slavery is masked as something glorious, such as humility before God, finding your purpose, or being sincere about “who you really are.”

As for “take up your cross, and die daily,” we need to go over what this really means.  I never realized what this meant until I studied Buddhism.  When I was reading H.G. Wells Outline of History, for the first time, I heard what Siddhattha Gautama actually taught.

Wells put it so clear.  I’ll simply quote from Outline of History, pg 315:

“The fundamental teaching of Gautama, as it is now being made plain to us by the study of original sources, is clear and simple and in the clearest harmony with modern ideas.  It is beyond all dispute the achievement of one of the most penetrating intelligences the world has ever known.
We have what are almost certainly the authentic heads of his discourse to the five disciples which embodies his essential doctrine.  All the miseries and discontents of life he traces to insatiable selfishness.  Suffering, he teaches, is due to the craving individuality, to the torment of greedy desire.  Until a man has overcome every sort of personal craving his life is trouble and his end sorrow.  There are three principal forms the craving of life takes, and all are evil.  The first is the desire to gratify the senses, senusousness.  The second is the desire for personal immortality.  The third is the desire for prosperity, worldliness.  All these must be overcome–that is to say, a man must no longer be living for himself — before life can become serene.  But when they are indeed overcome and no longer rule a man’s life, when the first-personal pronoun has vanished from his private thoughts, then he has reached the higher wisdom, Nirvana, serenity of soul.  For Nirvana does not mean, as many people wrongly believe, extinction, but the extinction of the futile personal aims that necessarily make life base or pitiful or dreadful.
Now here, surely, we have the completest analysis of the problems of the soul’s peace.  Every religion that is worth the name, every philosophy, warns us to lose ourselves in something greater than ourselves.  “Whosoever would save his life, shall lose it”: there is exactly the same lesson.”

Individuality is the chains.  The quest to define the self, through meaning, is slavery.  Jean-Paul Sartre’s book Being and Nothingness was the first book to really teach me this principle.  Buddha saw this as well.

To completely rid your mind of the first person pronoun “I”, Buddha defined as Nirvana.  This, he says, is the greatest thing a person can achieve. What a strange concept.  What is he talking about?

Everytime you say to yourself, “I am this”, or “I am that”, you deny your own freedom in the area in question.  You limit your own life.   You lay down in a corner and shackle yourself there to the wall.  It’s our own minds which enslave us, and this enslavement is defining ourselves!

Rambo believed he’s a commando, and therefore he limited himself.  He was not able to change, not because he was incapable of doing so, but because he believed he could not.

Sartre told us that we must not confuse PLAYING the role with BEING the role.  Rambo was PLAYING the role of being a commando, but he was never a commando.  If he chose he no longer wanted to be a commando, no one could force him to get back out there on the battlefield.  (I can imagine someone trying to force Rambo to do something.  That’s not going to happen.)

I ask the reader to remember your childhood.  I can remember mine.  I never would think about purpose, or meaning, or some great calling in life.  I used to just live.  I woke up, and enjoyed myself.

But something happens when we get older.  We hit some age, and then all of the sudden we think we have to “grow up.”  We start trying to contemplate this meaning, and this purpose.

You see the 18~19 year old teenager, sitting on the front porch.  He wonders about life, and what he’s here for.  He creates a picture of God, and then shackles himself to this image.  He locks himself up hand and foot, and wonders why he’s miserable.

That’s exactly what I did.  I shackled myself up in religion.  I used to play basketball, hang out with my friends, play hockey, and video games. I had such a good time.  Then what happened?  For some reason I thought I was getting too old to keep “playing games.”  I needed to get serious about God.  All I did was make myself miserable.

I kept wondering about purpose and God.  I kept wondering if each action was the ‘right’ action.  All it did was paralyze me in fear.  I’ve always been one to cling devoutely to what I believe.  I don’t speak one thing, then live another.  I tried to live what I believed.  I took Christianity, and the teachings you normally hear seriously, and all it lead to was misery.

I noticed what religion does: it turns your eyes inside out.  Instead of looking outside of you, in the world full of possibilities, it turns your eyes back on you.  All you think about is YOUR purpose, YOUR relationship with God, YOUR state of righteousness.  It’s all about you.  The world disappears.  You become this self-centered entity, completely immersed in YOU.

That’s why nun and monks at monasteries can sit there and pray all day.  They don’t need anyone else.  All they need is themselves.  It’s a completely selfish affair.  It’s all about them.  They mask it as serving humanity, but it’s nothing of the sort.  If they wanted to serve humanity, they’d study physics, make technology, cure diseases, etc.  But that’s “selfish” and “carnal.”  That’s not “holy.”  That’s “secular” affairs.  Whatever.

I remember studying the works of Nobel laureate Albert Camus, and he advocated self-denial.  He said to get immersed in what’s outside of you, and forget about yourself.  In his book, The Stranger, he gives a story where the main character goes through life with no sense of self.  He simply exists, completely immersed in enjoying reality.  But then later, he starts to reflect on life, and defines a self, and becomes miserable.  It’s an interesting story.

Keeping our mental reflection outward on the world outside of us, and not on ourselves is what’s difficult.  I speak to a lot of girls, and not to pick on women in general, but they are almost always a ball of pure selfishness.  It’s all about them.  Their life is their emotions.  It’s all they talk about.  It’s all about defining themself, and finding the ‘right’ man for them, and some image that they’re trying to put off to so and so.  What direction their life is going.  Gossiping about what other people did to them.

I can see they’re far from what Buddha would consider Nirvana.  Their entire mental life is not outside of them, but completely pointed back toward the inside.  It’s quite sad.  I sit and listen to them, sometimes for considerable lengths of time.  I watch them continually trying to find themselves.  They take off one set of shackles, and put on another.  “I don’t think I’d be happy with a guy like this.  I need a guy who’ll treat me better.  I need a guy who is such and such… Blah blah.”  No sweetheart, you need to turn your eyes back outside, and quit thinking continually about yourself.

The denial of self is such a subtle issue that most do not understand it.  You can be looking at the mirror, styling your hair, and have no concept of self.  When your body is simply an object you perceive, you’re on the right track.

Individuality, or self-image, comes in when you believe someone else from the outside looks at you, and you form what you believe they think of you.  Instead of simply having no concept of this, you instead direct your mind completely on this image you’re “projecting.”  You deny your freedom, and you become defined by those around you.  Ex:  If someone doesn’t like your hair, you change your hairstyle.  If your body was simply an object you perceive when you saw it in the mirror, you would style your hair simply how you like it, and have no more thought of it after that.

In conclusion, remember that meaning and purpose are veils of slavery. If you don’t believe in fate, then don’t believe in purpose in life.  Do not let yourself become shackled in a search for individuality.  Remember, denial of self does not mean denial of what you want.  That’s why Jesus can teach to deny yourself, yet still tell you to pursue your dreams.  Pursue what you want, but get caught in something larger than yourself.  Forget about yourself, your legacy, your fame, your image in other people eyes, and get lost in that bliss of living in the world OUTSIDE of you.

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