I used to go all-in for purpose, to think that the key to happiness was to live purposefully. So I spent time and energy looking for insight into the meaning of my own life, and I found some answers. One of which was that action precedes purpose, that you act first and find purpose later.
But I also found some things I wasn’t looking for. In the search for purpose I found some things that undermined the very idea of purpose and meaning. I learnt about psychology and narratives and perception, and how the human mind is basically a machine whose primary function is to tint reality with whatever colour we find most useful at the time.
Now, after several years of sincere seeking, I no longer believe in purpose. Or, at the very least, it holds much less weight in my calculations and contemplation. Now, I constantly tell myself that life itself is purposeless. And I don’t mean that in a nihilistic “Nothing matters so why bother?” kinda way. I’ve simply begun to accept that purpose is an illusion, that meaning is a narrative we impose upon the blank canvas of events, that “the reason we’re here” is a compelling story that fixes upon an arbitrary pattern and loads it with greater significance.
For example, take my own life. I could argue that this is what I was meant to do. That I was put here to see, write, create and imagine. To back that claim up I could point to numerous episodes in my life, to countless forks in the road, and argue that fate or some higher power guided me down this particular path. But that would be false.
The truth is that most of the decisions we make and the actions we take aren’t directed by purpose. No. They’re driven by emotion, by feeling, by principles, by priorities, by pain, by pleasure, by values, by past experience, by the constraints of the present and by the visions of the future we imagine for ourselves and others. By temporary, transient things.
Once you see this, that purpose is a human construct, something we allocate ourselves to help soothe some deep anxiety or terror, a weight is lifted. You can look at the emptiness of life and feel empowered by the possibilities, rather than petrified by the absence of purpose. Once you stop waiting for meaning to arrive and clinging to it for salvation, life opens up in all it’s terrifying beauty. You realise that life is whatever you make of it, like a block of marble waiting to be sculpted.
And perhaps that’s what we truly fear when we look past purpose? It is not the emptiness and the absence of a higher power or guiding ideal that scares us, but the responsibility that comes from having to choose what to make of our existence.