Growing up, I was often told that I was “meant for great things,” or that I “had a great purpose set out” for me. I was told that I was special, that I was unique. That somewhere in my future there was a BIG THING™ somewhere in my future that would validate my existence and make me feel fulfilled.
I’m not sure that’s really the case.
I’m probably not the only one that was told these things growing up. It seems to be a common thing for people of my generation (“Gen Y” or “Millenials,”they’re apparently called) to have heard growing up. It’s the belief that every person is an individual, unique snowflake that has a certain unique set of skills. Add on top of that the fact that when growing up we were told we could do anything we put our minds to, and you can start to see how some of our outlook might start to get skewed away from the harshness of day-to-day reality.
But I digress a bit. I want to talk today about the idea that everyone has an inherent “purpose,” something to do with their lives that they are uniquely qualified for above all else.
Like I said, this is something I heard a lot growing up. But the more I think about it, the more discouraging this idea becomes. After all, there’s an expectation that we are just supposed to “know” what our purpose is. Do you know what I “knew” when I graduated high school? I knew that I wanted to dual major in biology and physics, setting the stage for a graduate degree in astrobiology. I knew that was my purpose. I could feel it in my bones.
Unsurprisingly, like most things we know as teenagers, that didn’t end up being the case. I ended up majoring in French, working for a couple years as an A/V technician, getting a master’s degree in architecture, then falling into a retail job. Little bit different than what I “knew” I was meant to do with my life, eh?
And that to me is the big problem with the idea that everyone has an inherent purpose: it sets up the possibility of failure. If you never “find your purpose,” if you don’t end up doing what you were “meant to do,” clearly that’s a violation of some overarching plan, right? If you don’t follow the plan, then you’ve done it wrong. If you’ve done it wrong, then you’re a failure. And the last thing I need is one more excuse to feel bad about myself.
“You just haven’t found you purpose yet,” you may say. But I say that doesn’t solve the issue. Because if there exists an inherent purpose to my life, there exists the chance that I will never find it. “But chase your dreams,” you may say. I counter that it’s still necessary to pay the bills. “You were meant for such great things,” you may say. Does that mean that custodians were “meant” to spend their lives toiling away at a never-ending sea of filth?
Do I think my life has an inherent purpose, something that I’m meant to do with my short time on this planet? Put simply, no. I believe that there is no inherent meaning to the chemical reactions that keep us breathing and thinking. If there is any meaning to life, it is only there because we have added it ourselves.
And I find that wonderfully freeing.