For thinking and speaking beings, the question about the purpose of life pops up often. The next time this question appears, take a slow look around and take note of the context and situation. Most of the time, the question is asked when a person is experiencing sorrow, defeat or anger. There is something about extreme emotion that triggers the mind to chew the cud over the objective of life. On a happy day or on a day full of achievement, this query never emerges. It appears in all its urgency for instance, when death is experienced in all its permanence. Perhaps we seek an answer because as contrary beings, we want a reply that grants immortality!
The answer may take different forms. One genre of answers is that of the doer which implores people to do great things and find purpose in them. Most great souls follow this dictum by going out in the world and looking for ways to reach the Summum Bonum, the highest or ultimate good, as Cicero worded it. Of course, over the years it has transmuted into the best good for the most, whatever can give best results for most humans. This kind of answer shines through the words of Steve Maraboli, “You were put on this earth to achieve your greatest self, to live out your purpose and to do it courageously”.
What is the purpose of life? Ask the existentialist and pat comes the answer: yes, life is meaningless, but the individual can make a choice and live on according to that choice. Here, the existential and the nihilist part ways because the nihilist upholds just the existence of self and not the reality of individual choice. Once the existential choice of living life has been made, the person conducts the process of life as per the decision taken. So, Sisyphus-like, one can live on, pushing the boulder up the hill every day and start afresh the next day when the Camus-boulder is back at the foot of the hill. In another avatar, the boulder is Maya, the illusion of the worldly life and each individual lives it out.
Most schools of philosophy intersect on this question at some point or the other. The literature that one can read is limitless; after all, man is blessed with language and thus is entitled to discuss, argue and debate to the heart’s content. The difference between the language of humans and the communication of animals is debated hotly and one feature of language that stands out is its trait of displacement. Humans can articulate on anything, even something that is not present before them, such as the past or the future or even the purpose of life, for that matter. For animals, the immediate present holds meaning, nothing else exists.
Eckhart Tolle writes in ‘The Power of Now’, “Time isn’t precious at all, because it is an illusion. What you perceive as precious is not time but the one point that is out of time: the Now. That is precious indeed. The more you are focused on time—past and future—the more you miss the Now, the most precious thing there is.” The purpose of life stands sorted in your actions, your selections. Think about this – just live in the present moment, mindfully and absolutely with no past or future! Sounds tempting?
The author is Professor in Department of English and Cultural Studies at Panjab University, Chandigarh.