Last week, I was told to “find my life’s purpose”. It was in a very well-meaning context, just a sort of generic bit of encouraging life advice. But it really struck me, because I’ve thought before about how the idea of life having a purpose at all is some real bullshit.
So, let’s get into it.
What is “purpose” in this context? It’s being useful, helpful in some way to others, and it is something you’re supposed to find. Not just your path through life, but your reason for being, the thing that explains why you exist and ties your whole life together in a neat little bow.
Often, in fantasy and sci-fi stories these anxieties over purpose are expressed through artificial creatures like robots or golems or what-have-you. That’s what really got me thinking about this, because often in those stories the artificial individuals become obsessed with discovering their purpose. This is because there’s often someone they can find and ask, and it often involves a lot of strife and conflict to get to them and find the answer.
But I sit there and think… why do you need that answer at all? What if it’s something really simple like “oh you were built to guard this door”. Then what? They’re not just simple automatons anymore if they are experiencing all this angst over their purpose. Why does something that feels and thinks even need a “purpose” at all? Just live your life!
So that’s the thing, nobody needs a reason to exist. The truth is that nothing exists for a reason, until someone comes along to assign it. And why should it? What’s so special about having a reason for being? It can help motivate you, push you through hard times, but it comes with insidious hidden costs.
It teaches you to treat yourself as a tool. An object. A commodity. Reducing the whole wide range of experiences of your life down into what you can do. And if you can’t find a thing you can do, then you may as well die. If you can’t be useful in some way.
Purpose is so easy to turn around and use as a weapon. To put yourself above others, to label whole populations as drains on society, to dehumanize. When you think that existence needs a purpose, a reason, then you’re saying it’s possible to not have one. And then what? Is it right to throw away people who are useless? Are there people who count, and people who don’t?
I don’t think so. That’s all a bunch of terrible bullshit. There doesn’t need to be a reason for you or anyone else to exist, to live in the world and participate in society. You don’t have to find some answer to every question, something that will tie it all together. There’s a lot of randomness and chaos in everyday life, but things go along just fine.
It can also be turned back on you by people who want to exploit you. Your purpose in life is to do this thing. Isn’t that reward enough, really? It doesn’t matter what the conditions are, if you’re being treated fairly, and so on. You’re getting to fulfill your life’s purpose, after all! Focus on the important things!
Not everything is about you, and it shouldn’t be. Life isn’t a Sherlock Holmes story with a definitive answer at the end. If you set yourself up on a pedestal, you’re just going to be exploited or torn down.
On that note, I’ll leave with this quote from one of my absolute favorite authors, now sadly passed.
“Samuel Vimes dreamed about Clues. He had a jaundiced view of Clues. He instinctively distrusted them. They got in the way. And he distrusted the kind of person who’d take one look at another man and say in a lordly voice to his companion, “Ah, my dear sir, I can tell you nothing except that he is a left-handed stonemason who has spent some years in the merchant navy and has recently fallen on hard times,” and then unroll a lot of supercilious commentary about calluses and stance and the state of a man’s boots, when exactly the same comments could apply to a man who was wearing his old clothes because he’d been doing a spot of home bricklaying for a new barbecue pit, and had been tattooed once when he was drunk and seventeen* and in fact got seasick on a wet pavement. What arrogance! What an insult to the rich and chaotic variety of the human experience!”
― Terry Pratchett, Feet of Clay