The purpose of my life – (sort of) part two

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Previous part: The purpose of my life – part one (e)

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The search for answers to the questions that have haunted people since the awakening of intellectual curiosity usually produces several possibilities. But just when you start getting confident about your philosophical abilities, you realize that you never managed to properly formulate the question. What is it that we want to know? Do we want to know why we were born? Do we want to know whether or not we have a purpose we must fulfil? Do we want to be convinced that our lives have meaning and value? Do we want to know what we should do to live happy and fulfilling lives? Why do we want to live happy and fulfilling lives?

Most of us have certain expectations of ourselves, things we would like to achieve. Growing up we look at what other people do, and we identify – consciously or not – certain individuals as examples. We imagine what it would be like to do the same things these people do or have done, and to achieve similar results. But why do we want to pursue these goals? Why do we want to realize our expectations? Why do we have expectations of ourselves to begin with?

The Greek philosopher Plato argued that because we fear to disappear into the nothingness, we want to achieve immortality. We look at the animal kingdom, and we hope that our lives are more valuable than that of a rat or a giraffe. We are aware of how fragile our own lives can be, but we are also aware of some unique qualities and abilities that other animals do not possess.

The notion that we should achieve more in our lifetime than a wild beast would achieve in his seems to be a natural result of our superior intellectual abilities. If we do not need to do more with our lives than the average animal, then why do we possess abilities that are much more advanced than our primate cousins to whom we are most closely related? We start formulating questions that can bring us closer to what it means to be “human”. We start wondering about the “meaning of life”, whether or not there’s a specific reason why we were born, whether or not there’s a purpose to our existence.

I suspect that these questions are not merely different versions of the same basic inquiry, and it is therefore necessary to consider different answers to each question. I would also suggest that one initially focuses on one question, namely the one about what makes you happy. (Many will protest that personal happiness is selfish. “Should we not strive for something nobler?” they would ask. The latter is an issue that will be raised again later; the reader will also find that a nobler pursuit is not inconsistent with the primary emotion we call “happiness”. The possibility of happiness also plays a key role in the conviction that life is worth the effort, however people choose to define what makes them happy – whether it is endless entertainment, or commitment to a good cause.)

Is there an answer to what makes a person happy that, if not universal, can be applied to a majority of people? I believe there is.

Now, at this point, some readers might expect a life-changing revelation. They may see in their mind’s eye how I clear my throat, take hold of the microphone and start speaking, slowly, carefully weighing my words. After hearing my magical utterances, they may imagine pulling back and muttering in awe: “Wow! So that’s what a man comes up if he spends years in solitary isolation in an attempt to find an answer! I am so relieved that you have given me these magnificent words! It’s now clear that I would never have been able to work it out on my own …”

The truth is, fortunately for all of us, much less dramatic (even though it did take me years of possibly unnecessary semi-solitary confinement to work it out). What you need is the three things that have already been extensively discussed. For those who didn’t quite notice the pattern, here it is again: You need love, and you need money, and then you need something you enjoy doing – on your own, it might be wise to add. (Good health can be added to the mix, now that I think of it). If these elements are part of your life to a satisfactory degree, you are at least on your way to a state of existence that can be called “personal happiness”, and you might just be convinced that life is worth the pain and disappointment that are sometimes unavoidable ingredients of our existence.

An extra word of advice here would not be inappropriate: Balance must be maintained. If the balance is disturbed, it will be like a magic formula that doesn’t work because the words were uttered in the wrong order, or because you have left something out. If you spend too much time making money, and you harm your relationship with the person (or people) you love, it will break the spell. On the other hand, if you warm up the bed all day with your lover, it won’t do if you tell the bank manager that love is more important than money when he wants to know where the mortgage payment is. The third thing is also essential to complete the first two and balance the whole story out. Relationships are not always simple, and sometimes a colleague or superior at work makes your attempts at earning an income even more gut-wrenching than it’s supposed to be. At such times, it helps if you know you can go fishing later, or spend a few hours plucking away at your guitar strings on the back porch.

There you have it, as you surely have always suspected: love, money, and something you do for pure enjoyment. It’s up to you to decide which one is more important, or which one is most deserved of your time. Personally, I think we can all do with a guitar, but not even Jimi Hendrix could survive without love or money. And remember, the thought that bread can quiet your hunger pains is not sufficient to fill your belly. You have to go out and find what you need; otherwise you’ll end up a lonely and hungry fool, no matter how much you know or understand.

This brings us to the end of this part of the discussion. If, however, you find yourself among a small group of people who are not satisfied with enough money, true love and a decent hobby, I encourage you to continue reading the third and final part of this piece.

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Next part: The purpose of my life – third and final part

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The purpose of my life – part one (e)

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Previous part: The purpose of my life – part one (d)

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Have I solved the One Finger Thing? Is love, as many suspect, the answer? Do “romance, companionship and devotion” give meaning to our lives, and a reason to live? It may sound cynical, but I’m not entirely satisfied.

It is true that we need love, and that it enables us to answer the Big Question to a satisfactory degree. However, I have come to the conclusion that we need at least two other things to complete the puzzle. First, we must find a way to ensure the continuous satisfaction of our material needs – including food on a daily basis and protection from the elements (already touched upon a few paragraphs back). In the language of modern times, this means one thing: money. Unless we’ve won some kind of lottery, it also implies that we need to work to obtain this money on a regular basis. In the second place – or besides love and money, the third piece of the puzzle – we need something we enjoy doing. Some call this activity a hobby; I prefer to call it the Third Thing.

Allow me to explain the significant impact the Third Thing has on the possibility of happiness and fulfilment in our lives. This thing – whether an activity, or the mastery of any ability, or simply just to collect things – is what many of us would have spent most of our time on if we did not need to spend it earning a monthly salary. The reasons why we pursue these Third Things range from recreation to the challenge they present to the sense of self-worth that results from it. The underlying principle is that we enjoy doing these things.

Some would argue that they enjoy collecting stamps, but they don’t necessarily want to busy themselves with it full time. They may argue further that they enjoy doing what they have chosen to make money with (if it’s not collecting rare stamps to sell at a profit). This, in a sense, confirms the principle that we need something that some call a hobby – what matters is that it is something we enjoy.

Realistically speaking, the work we choose to earn our proverbial bread and butter with should be something we’re more or less interested in, something we enjoy doing to a reasonable degree. A professional photographer is a good example of someone who generates an income in an area he or she is interested in. It might even lessen the need for a Third Thing because the way they earn money already provides the necessary fulfilment for which the third part of the formula is normally needed. If you haven’t been so blessed with the ability to make smart career choices, or if you don’t enjoy your salaried position because of other reasons, you need a separate interest or activity for the formula to work.

Balance is another factor that should be taken into consideration. A partner fulfils a whole range of needs, just as you (hopefully) do the same for him or her. But everyone knows that love does not pay the rent (if a character in a movie hasn’t mentioned it, I bet your mother has). You or your partner, or both of you, need an income with which the rent or mortgage can be paid, with which food and clothing can be purchased, and like most people in the developed world have discovered since the Industrial Revolution, to acquire many more items than you can truly afford and/or need. If the work you do for an income provides you with a degree of pleasure and satisfaction, you will already have started to satisfy the need normally covered by “what people do in their spare time for fun” (as the dictionary defines “hobby”).

So now you have enough food in your stomach to keep you for a few hours, and your imperfect nakedness is protected from the weather. You have a decent roof over your head, a reasonably solid understanding of the universe, romance and intimacy are part of your daily life, and you mow the lawn every second Saturday for fun and entertainment while you think about your stamp collection. But still you feel a gnawing discomfort in your belly. And no matter how hard you try, you can not remember the question we contemplated when this whole discussion started.

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Next part: The purpose of my life – (sort of) part two

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The purpose of my life – part one (d)

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Previous part: The purpose of my life – part one (c)

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Universal phenomenon, wisdom from Africa and North America, the prison boss in the movie, and my mother, all confirm the same thing: I need a dog. Is that not one of the main reasons why people keep pets? To compensate themselves for the lack of human companionship! Or if they’re lucky enough to share their daily life with others, to have something to talk to when the usual party is not in the mood, or temporarily unavailable.

But a pet has more value than to merely have something bark back when you speak, and has a more significant effect on the human psyche than the little entertainment it provides when it performs a well-practiced trick. Having a pet is to experience how it feels when another creature needs you – when something or someone else needs you to be alive. It gives us a sense of value. It makes us feel like there’s a purpose in life, a reason for our existence. (The idea that you must stay alive to give Bruno that bowl of kibble twice daily will undoubtedly be put in a new perspective the moment you remind yourself that he will probably trot down the street to find food elsewhere if you continue to talk philosophy with him.)

We need other people – as I’ve already pointed out, and even more than we need pets – for obvious reasons: We need to feel we belong somewhere, we need companionship, and in the case of usually more intimate relationships, we feel the need to reproduce. In a recent movie about a wedding singer, the main character comes to a point where he says to his friend, from that moment on both of them are going to be “free and happy”. His friend empties his shot of whiskey in one gulp and replies, “I’m not happy. I’m miserable.” He continues to explain that, despite his reputation as a single roving male, he just needs someone to hold him, someone who can comfort him by saying that everything is going to be all right. Throw in the concept of “us” that defines a relationship, and you become increasingly convinced of the fact that you belong somewhere if you’re in a meaningful relationship with another person. A French madam who made comfort (and sometimes love) her business in another movie, summarizes the reasons for an intimate relationship between two people as “romance, companionship, and devotion”. A relationship of this nature has the added benefit that you have someone to talk to if your pet is busy elsewhere. And to add a little spice to the brew, you’ll have someone with whom you can refine the art of reproduction.

To be important to someone else, to have someone in your life who regard you as an indispensable part of his or her life, gives meaning to your existence. It’s a simple agreement, but it works: I will give meaning to your life if you give meaning to mine.

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Next part: The purpose of my life – part one (e)

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The purpose of my life – part one (c)

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Previous part: The purpose of my life – part one (b)

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“Masters of simplicity,” is what the historian Alan Bullock called two of the bloodiest dictators of the twentieth century. According to him, Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin refused to be overwhelmed by the complexity of problems they faced. I tend to be exactly the opposite. Not only do I feel overwhelmed by questions about the purpose and meaning of life, at times I suffer acute anxiety about it! The reason is the large number of possible answers to the questions. During the last few decades, many established religions have had to compete for fans (and monetary donations) with hundreds of sects, movements and quasi-religions. Ministers, high priests, low priests, popes, rabbis, holy men, ungodly men, holy women, even the local bartender, all have their answers to the questions we ask. To this list you can add ancient philosophers, pseudo-philosophers, psychologists, self-improvement gurus, actors-turned writers, authors-turned-singers. The list is endless. If you add friends and family as well, you’ll start to feel like a toy robot whose wires have become crossed. You even start running into the furniture, and you hit your head against the walls. And it’s not even always intentional.

A few weeks ago, my mother added another ingredient to the simmering brew. She thought it would be prudent to share with me one of the basic facts of the real (read: middle class) life, namely that a man must have made his mark by the 35th anniversary of his arrival on this planet. He must, to be sure, already start kicking in his heels by his mid-twenties, but if he’s at least heading in the right direction by the age of thirty he can still put in the final push by his mid-thirties. After 35, according to my mother, it becomes increasingly difficult for a man to find his place in the world. (This of course can be applied to women, as well. I have two sisters, and I was never raised to believe that just because I was a boy, I needed to feel inferior to the girls in the family. Or the other way around, as I later discovered the tendency to be in the broader community.)

I thanked my mother wholeheartedly for her advice (which to some extent does make sense). The idea is to focus on something for a number of years, to master some skill or ability, or to obtain a qualification in order to pursue a specific career. I also realized that the motivation behind this advice as well as the age to which it is linked, possibly has something to do with the fact that one’s parents don’t want you to move in with them again at a point in their lives when they’re not too enthusiastic about staring you in the face every morning – even more so if you’re unemployed.

The other reason why it makes sense for you to be financially comfortable at 35 is because you might consider producing some offspring. We all know the associations: more mouths to feed, more groceries, new shoes and clothing, school fees, bigger house, a bigger car, more expensive mortgage, 35 going on 60. I could see where this was going. The ideal of a typical middle-class life has never been my main motivation for getting up in the morning (or in the early afternoon, as the case is nowadays). But to offer that as a reason not to do what people have been doing from long before the most ancient philosopher formulated the first “Why?” theory is not good enough.

Why does it seem that (almost) everyone (almost) always tend to do the same thing, in good times and bad, whether they’re beautiful or ugly, rich or poor, idiot or genius? A person reaches a certain age, he or she starts acting differently than before, and when they open their eyes one morning they are not eating breakfast alone anymore. This same tendency repeats itself through every era of world history, through every generation across all boundaries – regardless of race, religion, ideology, education, background, class or status. Why does it seem that people are always drifting towards each other – with two happily walking into the sunset every now and then? Why does it seem to make people happy to interact with individuals with whom they have something in common?

It’s simple, you might answer: People need each other. Like animals, we have a need for the protection and support of a group. We are also born with a strong desire to reproduce, thus the intimate contact between (usually) two people at a time.

A further explanation for this tendency among humans can be found in a superficial consideration of the opposite to relationships and association, namely the phenomenon of loneliness – to be on your own when you don’t necessarily want to be. A character in another movie once mentioned that according to Native American folklore, the worst punishment that can be imposed on a man is to force him to roam the earth alone. It is also incidentally the worst (official) punishment a prisoner can be imposed in a prison. “Throw him in the hole for two weeks,” a prison chief often hollers in a movie, and then the other prisoners stare at the floor in a mild panic. It’s not just the absence of sunlight that will bring the man to the verge of a nervous breakdown – people need other people. Wisdom from Africa complements that of the Native Americans with the concept of “ubuntu” – a person is a person through other people.

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Next part: The purpose of my life – part one (d)

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The purpose of my life – part one (b)

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Previous part: The purpose of my life – part one (a)

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The next day (or later the same day) I awoke with a slight suspicion of a point that had recently been reached. The moment I remembered what it was, it was as if someone had knocked me on the head. A shop?! Me, a store owner? How on earth did I stumble on that as a reason for my existence?

The light of a new afternoon had indeed brought clarity. I had to start from scratch.

In a systematic fashion, I decided to look at the possible reasons why I had initially regarded the idea as worthy of consideration, in order to proceed with the next step in the process. People find satisfaction in their jobs, right? And not everyone has a job that others envy! I know people who are happy in jobs others will find incredibly dull. On the other hand, should salaried work necessarily get the credit for happiness in one’s life? Put differently, must you necessarily find a job that makes you happy?

But I’m trying to smuggle in an idea that is entitled to at least a provisional theory: happiness, and why it is so interwoven in our quest to find purpose and meaning in our lives (at least at this time of world history, if not necessarily always the case in bygone eras).

Elementary psychology and common sense teach us that we have certain basic needs. Whether or not the satisfaction of these needs occurs in hierarchical order, we know that they must be satisfied to a reasonable extent to ensure physical survival and to more or less keep your sanity. It also follows from common sense more than anything else, that if our needs are met, we experience a sensation that we usually call “happiness”. If we have enough to eat, we’re relatively healthy, we get six to eight hours of decent sleep every night, we have a suitable hiding place (either in a rented room or a mansion), we love and are loved (in both physical and emotional terms), we have a reasonable understanding of how everything fits together, and we give expression to our creative needs, then we usually feel that life is all right, to say the least.

If any of our basic needs – physical or otherwise – is not met, we experience a sensation of a different nature. Depending on the degree of want and the type of need, we usually announce that we are “unhappy”, or “not feeling well”. In the case of serious emergency or deprivation – or just to be more specific – we give the unpleasant sensations names like “hunger”, “cold”, “fear” or “loneliness”.

But how does the fulfilment of needs fit in our discussion of employment (or unemployment, whatever the case may be)? It works as follows: the paid labour we provide, determines the extent to which most of our needs are met. Enough money means enough food (unless the money is blown on other needs that are less important in relation to the needs that must be met to ensure our physical survival). Heaps of money, again in theory, can provide a million dollar shelter for you and your intimate circle, and first class satisfaction of your other needs. Alternatively: no money, no food; no food, poor health and eventual death due to complications caused by inadequate satisfaction of basic needs. Between these two extremes lies a spectrum with a thousand points of difference in degree of need fulfilment. All this confirms the basic truth that the income you earn stands in direct relation to the extent to which your needs are met as well as the quality of need satisfaction.

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Next part: The purpose of my life – part one (c)

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