Recently I drove by a sign in front of a church proclaiming, “What is your purpose on Earth? Come in and find out.” This goes against everything that existentialism teaches. Yet some people would love for someone to tell them the meaning of their life.
In a presentation I did recently on “Morals, Values, and Empowerment” (you can watch it here on YouTube) the discussion focused on the difference between accepting morals unquestionably, and determining your own values through thoughtful deliberation. Much of my writing focuses on questioning thinking, questioning where behavior and beliefs come from, and then determining what will be accepted and what will be changed. This is empowerment, this is creating oneself, and this is the core of existential behavior. It is also applicable to creating the purpose in life.
Viktor Frankl, who is identified as one of the early Existential practitioners, spent years in a concentration camp in Nazi Germany. In his book “Man’s Search For Meaning” he recounts the experience and extolls every person’s power to create his or her own meaning. He purported that, “the meaning of life, differ(s) from man to man, moment to moment.” (pg. 77). He goes on to say, “Ultimately, man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather must recognize that it is he who is asked. In a word, each man is questioned by life; and he can only answer to life by answering for his own life.”(pg. 109). Frankl understood that there is no general meaning of life, and that each person has the power to create it for him or her self.
Think of how much easier it is too let someone determine the purpose of life; there is no longer a struggle, no more wondering. The choice is made for you, eliminating the responsibility of making it yourself. You no longer have to take responsibility for your life; another has done that for you. It sounds better to some, but robs them of their power, and possibly of a truer meaning that could be created.
In developmental psychology there is a term for deciding on personalityprematurely, “identity foreclosure”. Theorists believe it is important to try on different roles, different personalities, experimenting with possibilities, as is normal in adolescence. This is highly relatable to determining what one’s purpose is. Perhaps adopting a purpose before exploring and trying on different possibilities could be called purpose foreclosure. A visitor to my home once asked, “Are you looking for the meaning of life?”. My response was a simple “yes.” But just as an institution cannot healthily determine the purpose of life for an individual, neither can a book. The answer does not lie outside of one, but within.
To continue reading the article on Psychology Today, click here.