The first time I considered the idea of a meaningful life without God was during my year abroad in the United States at the age of sixteen. It was a sunny mid-spring day and looking out of my dorm room window, over the balcony of our old wooden house, I was contemplating the consequences of God’s possible non-existence on the meaning of life. At the time, apart from God, I could only see an ultimately unsatisfying self-delusion. I saw the same infinite loop I was part of before I became a Christian, a loop from which I was able to break free only thanks to the contentment God brought to my heart. I saw the neverending pursuit of the next goal set forth by the mind, thought to bring the ultimate peace and to stop the ongoing search.
When I get to this school I will be satisfied, when I get this job I will be satisfied, when I buy this house I will be satisfied, when I write this book I will be satisfied, when I marry this woman I will be satisfied, when I bring up my children to be good and intelligent people I will be satisfied, and when I get Porsche 911 Turbo S I will surely be satisfied.
This type of pursuit of satisfaction or happiness if we use the common term, is never-ending because the feeling is temporary, and thus achieving the prize only gives us a momentary euphoria which then quickly fades. I was stuck in this outlook on meaning for several years, however, as time went I began to realize this way of pursuing satisfaction in life is far from being the only option. Apart from finding peace in God, which is very effective for millions of people and which brought the ultimate contentment to me before my faith began to crack, I now can see one can lead a life that is meaningful, joyful, mysterious, adventurous, loving and fulfilling even without God, or any other metaphysical reality.
In the words of Sartre, if there is no God, existence precedes essence, and thus defining who you are, becomes your responsibility. By defining who you are you also affirm what do you value, where should your life lead, what code will you adopt, it places the complete responsibility for your life into your hands.
However, knowing it is your responsibility to justify your existence to yourself still does no provide a clear answer to what you should do. Most of the self-help gurus will say: “Find your purpose and other things will fall into place.” Although they are correct, it is similar to telling a starving person to go find some food. You have barely helped.
When most of the gurus failed to provide real guidance, I decided to start my search and thus for the past four years, I was trying to answer the question of what do I want to do with my life, I was trying to find my purpose. The most important truth I learned is that you have to do the soul searching on your own. No one can and no one should tell you what is your purpose. You are the only one capable of answering the question.
However, along the way, I have found excellent guiding questions that brought partial clarity to my mission. An excellent question where you can start is to ask a seemingly basic question, what are the five things I value the most in life? The Artofmanliness has a great article that can guide you in answering the question for yourself. The first time I have done this exercise was when I was fifteen and I still have that strip of paper where I wrote my five values. Interestingly, my outlook has not changed much. However, what is even more important than the five values is the one value. What is the one thing you value the most? Gun to your head, what would you say is most important to you? It took me a while to find an answer to this question, however, when I looked at my daily life, there was a recurring pattern. I saw my daily tendency to analyze the hell out of everything. Every day I wanted to gain more understanding connected to the questions I had, primarily related to the metaphysical truths of the universe, such as God’s existence, human morality, freedom, even when I was told there are no clear answers. As I increasingly engaged my reoccurring thoughts and dedicated much of my spare time to the search for answers, I gradually gained a profound fondness for truth. The fondness grew in intensity after I gained an interest in philosophy, exploring its questions, and when my religious convictions began to crack. My love for truth grew to a point where today it is the most important thing in existence to me. Kowing my highest value, I was able to gain at least a vague idea of what I should and indeed what I want to dedicate my life to, the pursuit and spreading of truth, one of which is that you are capable of being the captain of your ship of life. You are more than able to take control of your life. You are not a victim.
Knowing your highest value does not detract from the importance of the other four, rather they should work in tandem, lead by the one at the top, taking the other four into account.
The basic idea about knowing what to do with your life, behind finding your purpose, is to know what you consider meaningful, what is important to you. A helpful question I found in Gary Keller’s book The One Thing is to ask yourself, what is the one thing that you want to do someday? What is the one thing that if you dedicated your entire life to it you would be able to look back and say it was worth my time on this planet?
Finding the answer can take some time. I encourage you to write down your thoughts, maybe even get out of your place, head out somewhere you can think, a forest, beach, mountains, a park and take your time.
In addition to these questions, a remarkably effective way to find your purpose is to realize that your actions matter. Your actions have the power to shape the future both for the better and worse. Hopefully, you desire to shape the future for the better. This places you close to finding the most accessible and yet extremely fulfilling purpose available to all people, which is to make the world a better place, to leave the world at least slightly better than it would have been without you. Making your life count, contributing at least slightly to the global well-being, can be an overarching goal for the entirety of one’s life, serving as a stable wave of meaning and fulfillment. (See my Surfing Waves, Bearing Life essay for an explanation of the concept of a “stable wave”.)
The generality of the goal of making the world a better place is its strength. One is free to define what it means from them. For one it can be bringing up responsible, intelligent, hard-working, and moral individuals who will be prepared to offer their gifts to humanity. For another person, it can be pushing the current boundaries of understanding in different areas of science, and yet for another, it can be being an investor who accumulates wealth for their entire life, without enjoying the fruits of their labor, intending to give away all the fortune to people in need, through diverse means, after their death. This is where your values come in useful.
From a group of less grandiose goals, one can desire to be a friend who was always there to encourage, to help, to tell the truth, when it was needed, or to be a spouse that supported, encouraged, loved. Going to Somalia, with billions in funding, is not necessary to make a difference. There is much work to be done in our families, neighborhoods, in our towns, cities, in our countries. The simple act of talking to a homeless person on the street can achieve your goal of making the world at least a slightly better than if you had not been born.
Additionally, the overarching goal does not limit one to a single specific action. The overarching goal is a heuristic to be applied to all areas of one’s influence in order to discover, in the words of Garry Keller, what is the one thing I can do to achieve my overarching goal in this area? If all people adopted this attitude there would no longer be “grandiose goals”, only goals. A bricklayer could both care about the influence he has on his children, as well as to care about the damage being done to the environment, as well as to care about corruption in the political sphere in his country, and then commit himself to a course of action available to him in all areas of his influence.
It seems to me that a common overarching meaning could be the key to an enlightened society. However, that assumes we can overcome our ideological disagreements.
One thing I would like to note since I started with the comparison of secular and religious meaning, is that believers do not have a much easier situation when it comes to finding their purpose in life. Christianity does not offer a blueprint that provides predetermined answers to the question of what should I do with my life. Christianity indeed has several overarching principles that can and should be used as guidance when determining the course of one’s life. However, apart from the principle of making disciples of all nations baptizing them in the name … (Matthew 28:18-20), which naturally leads to becoming a missionary, the other principles, such as do everything to the glory of God, lack specificity. What should I do to the glory of God? Should I be a banker, a farmer, a ranger, a soldier, a botanist? All can be done to the glory of God. After taking into account all the Biblical principles, if you do not choose to be a missionary (which is not a full-time option to everyone because there would be no funding), you have to choose what you will dedicate your life to. In the same manner, as a secular person, you have to face the question of what should I do with my life, only with the advantage of having moderately helpful principles to guide you.
Purpose strikes me as the essential feature of a meaningful and fulfilling life. It is what gives life direction and flavor. It is what makes a person stay up all night working on a project and then wake up with the same fervor to get to work again. Purpose is also an elusive term. It is different from meaning in its consequences. Meaning is an all-encompassing positive sensation that permeates a purpose-driven life while purpose is at least a vague idea of what is one supposed to do. Purpose is one’s calling. Fulfilling your purpose equates to fulfilling the reason why you came to be. You can attach a grandious back story to it, of destiny brought about by the gods, or you can simply see it as a consequence of your environment and your agency that shaped your sense of what you are here to do. As I have discussed in this post, pointers and questions that can help you on this journey of discovery, such as knowing your values and your highest value, or knowing what is the one thing you are willing to dedicate your life to if you could choose only one, or taking on the task of leaving the world a better place then before you came in all spheres of your influence. I am well aware that all my advice might still be inadequate for you to gain a clear vision of your future, and I am well aware of how hard is it to find persuasive answers to these questions. However, to tap into an inexhaustible source of motivation and an all-encompassing sense of meaning it is imperative to have at least a murky idea of what are you to do with your life, and I hope this text has helped to kickstart that journey.