‘The purpose of life is a life of purpose’ is a classic quote that most of us take for granted. But I must admit that I have more than once dared to venture further, into not accepting it at face value. This is not anywhere near the first couple of times that I ask myself this question. It started with the belief that we are here on Earth with a predestined purpose and we need to find and fulfill it. This thought later paved way for the notion that we need to attribute our own purpose to life, as we live it. Most of us fall into either of the above two categories. But what if there is no real purpose to life and we are just stuck here with life in our bodies, to live till we get to die? That would be a very pessimistic take on life. Nevertheless, the truth is perhaps not concerned with what names or shades we attribute to it.
I happened to notice a poor family living in a one room house. As I observed them for a few days, it was clear that they based their livelihood on doing house chores and other similar jobs. Their typical day goes something like this: They wake up every morning, wash their clothes, utensils and themselves and cook food. Then they set out to other people’s homes to wash clothes, utensils and cook food for them. For this, they are paid and at the end of the day, they return back home, and sleep. They use the money to buy food and other necessities to keep themselves alive. (So that they can go to work and clean utensils again!?).
What can be their purpose of life? Are they even aware of such a purpose if it exists? We may say that the purpose of our life lies in being happy or in achieving goals which we set for ourselves. But what happiness can there be in their lives is a question that has haunted me. And are not goals merely imaginary checkpoints we set for ourselves? For if they are, then the purpose that we attribute to achieving them is also imaginary! Most people say that the meaning of their own life lies in their family and its well being. But there are many people without a family as well. The kind of meanings we attribute to our lives are many. But are these purposes real? Or are they mere delusions serving to fulfill our craving for the belief in a purpose to live in this world? We can believe anything we want – even that mobile phones are made to be thrown at walls whenever we feel frustrated! But that doesn’t make the belief true. We may argue that the truth doesn’t matter as long as the belief helps us lead a better life. But if that is the case, then no one can probably tell that any belief is wrong either, even if it might have bad implications.
All this propels us from moving away from Essentialism to Existentialism and then towards Nihilism – The ultimate meaninglessness of life! Maybe we are searching for answers in an answerless world, which is Absurd. Maybe the literal meaning of life is ‘whatever you are doing which prevents you from killing yourself’, as Albert Camus put it. All this means that there might not be a singular purpose but our job is to just be complacent with whichever explanation satisfies us.
Recently, I came across a passage in War and Peace where towards the end of the book, Tolstoy beautifully explores the subject: ” As the sun and each atom of ether is a sphere complete in itself, and yet at the same time only a part of a whole too immense for man to comprehend, so each individual has within himself his own aims and yet has them to serve a general purpose incomprehensible to man. A bee settling on a flower has stung a child. And the child is afraid of bees and declares that bees exist to sting people. A poet admires the bee sucking from the chalice of a flower and says it exists to suck the fragrance of flowers. A beekeeper, seeing the bee collect pollen from flowers and carry it to the hive, says that it exists to gather honey. Another beekeeper who studies the life of the hive more closely says that the bee gathers pollen dust to feed the young bees and rear a queen, and that it exists to perpetuate its race. A botanist notices that the bee flying with the pollen of a male flower to a pistil fertilizes the latter, and sees in this the purpose of the bee’s existence. Another, observing the migration of plants, notices that the bee helps in this work, and may say that in this lies the purpose of the bee. But the ultimate purpose of the bee is not exhausted by the first, the second, or any of the processes the human mind can discern. The higher the human intellect rises in the discovery of these purposes, the more obvious it becomes that the ultimate purpose is beyond our comprehension. All that is accessible to man is the relation of the life of the bee to other manifestations of life.”