What is the Purpose of Life? Wisdom, Compassion, Creativity
By Jay McDaniel
Many years ago I was giving a talk at a university in China on Whitehead’s philosophy. At the end of my talk there was time for questions and a student from the school of business administration raised his hand and asked: “You have studied philosophy. I have a serious question for you. Do you think that life has a purpose?”
There was nothing cynical about his question. He was not challenging me to prove that life has a purpose. He was not trying to impress his peers. There was a purity in voice, a freshness. I asked him to explain to me what experiences gave rise to his question.
He explained to me that he had spent much of his life trying to pass examinations in order to get into a good college, and that his parents had worked very hard to help him succeed in this way. On weekends and weeknights he had tutors in English and mathematics. I asked him why this was so important to his parents, and he said that they wanted him to grow up and be successful. I asked him how his parents defined success and he said: “Making money.” I asked him why that was so important to them, and he said: “So that I can take care of them when they grow old.”
Of course this made sense to me. I understand that in China today many parents worry about what will happen when they grow old, and true to the Confucian tradition, they assume that their children will take care of them. I think there is something wise and beautiful about this tradition. I worry that in America we think that old people – even our own parents – should somehow “take care of themselves.” When they cannot do so, we put them in nursing homes. There is something tragic in this.
But I also understood the student’s point of view. He had sacrificed his entire childhood in order to prepare for exams. He never really got to play or to relax or to have fun. His only real entertainment was watching television and playing video games on weekends, after he had done his homework.
His parents were very good people, but they had never really talked about “purpose” in life. They assumed that life’s purpose is basically to make money, enjoy a decent standard of living, and when old, be taken care of. This left him without anything to believe in. I don't have any faith, he said to me later. Not even faith in life. He was asking me if I thought there was any reason to have faith.
I knew that some in China would say there is something more: namely serving society and helping China become a great nation. Nationalism looms large in China. There is something noble about this, too. It would be very good if China becomes a great nation, and in so many ways it already is. China has a wonderful history going back 5000 years and it has, I believe, a bright future ahead of it. If we measure things in economic terms, the 21st century belongs to China -- and India and Brazil and a few other nations, too.
But this student was asking if there is a way to measure things differently. Are there values in life, which give us a sense of meaning and purpose, which are not reducible to making money? That is what led me to write this short essay, which I have sent to him. I wanted to present, in straightforward fashion, one possibility for thinking constructively about life's purposes. I offer it to you, too, as food for thought. I will suggest that there are three of them: to live, to live with quality, and to enjoy a sense of adventure. And at the end I will say a word about how these three purposes might fit into the larger context of an evolving universe.
By “the purpose of life” let’s mean worthy goals by which to live. And by “worthy” goals” let’s mean goals that make sense given the nature of the universe. To use the language of East Asian traditions, these goals are in harmony with the universe.
Life's Three Purposes
From a Whiteheadian perspective life has many different purposes, relative to the person at issue and his or her circumstances. There are purposes in life for a young child at age three, for a teenager at age sixteen, for her mother at age thirty three, and for a grandmother at age eighty three. The different seasons of a person’s life have different purposes.
In the West sometimes people speak of these purposes as a person’s calling or vocation. The idea of having a calling comes from the Bible, where the calling is said to come from God; but it is also possible to speak of a person’s calling as coming from the universe, if the universe is understood as a beneficent power. And certainly this calling is felt within the depths of the person’s heart. The calling is not necessarily from “out there,” it can also be from “in here.” There is a western novelist, Frederick Buechner, who puts it this way: the calling within a person is where the gladness of your heart meets the hungers of the world.
Whitehead proposes further that, in general, people’s calling or purpose in life takes three forms: to live, to live well, and to live better. To live is to survive. Thus, for a person who is hungry and poor, the purpose of life is to have food, clothing, and shelter. These are worthwhile purposes. They bring obvious gladness to a person’s life, and they are his way of living harmony with the universe.
Once basic needs are met, though, the purpose is to live with some degree of quality or satisfaction in life. What is quality?
Whitehead offers several terms for it, but two of the most important, for him, are harmony and intensity, or, to put them together, harmonious intensity. They are the Whiteheadian equivalent of gladness.
Harmonious intensity is a quality of experience that a person can enjoy as he or she interacts with other people and the surrounding world. Whitehead speaks of it also as beauty. There are many worthwhile forms of beauty. One of the most beautiful forms of beauty is compassion or love, including forgiveness.
Compassion lies in taking on the perspectives of others, sharing in their lives and experiences, and acting on behalf of their well-being. When a mother cares for her teenage child, and a teenage child cares for her mother, each of them is experiencing this kind of beauty. The gladness of their hearts is meeting the hungers. This kind of gladness is part of what the Confucian tradition calls xiao or filial piety.
But of course this kind of beauty can also be experienced with regard to people outside one’s family, and when the beauty is expanded in this way, it is also increased. An increase in compassion is, from Whitehead’s perspective, an increase in the beauty that one knows and enjoys. Part of life’s beauty lies in a widening of the heart. When we meet people who are very generous and open-hearted, we see this beauty. They are living with a deeper harmony than are those who are mean-spirited and close-hearted.
Still another form of gladness or beauty which people enjoy is wisdom. Wisdom is more than intelligence, and, in truth, there are many forms of wisdom: verbal wisdom, musical wisdom, visual wisdom, emotional wisdom, bodily wisdom, and wisdom concerning the natural world. When a carpenter uses his hands to make a piece of furniture, and when a guitarist uses his hands to form a chord, there is also a kind of bodily wisdom. They may not be able to put into words the wisdom they enjoy, but they are wise nevertheless. The wisdom lies in their fingers. And there is also wisdom when a science student discovers and explores a formula for molecular interactions. The wisdom lies not only in what she discovers, but in her sense of discovery.
Thus we have two kinds of purposes – wisdom and compassion – which would exemplify life’s purposes from a Whiteheadian point of view. As it happens, these two goals are the primary goals of Buddhism. Buddhists often say that the goal of a healthy life is to become wise and compassionate, and then add that there is a deep form of wisdom is an intuitive sense of the interconnectedness of all things, an understanding that life is filled with change, and that we ourselves are part of a larger web of life. This is a kind of religious wisdom.
Indeed, at their best, the religions of the world are ways that people seek and often find wisdom by which to live in their daily lives. At their worst, of course, they are ways that people can hide from life’s challenges and fall into superstition and fear. In their ongoing histories, the world’s religions – Buddhism, Judaism, Hinduism, Christianity, Daoism, Islam, and many others – are sometimes constructive and sometimes destructive in their capacities to elicit wisdom and compassion in the human heart. But all things considered, the religions can be healthy ways of finding that place where the gladness of the heart meets the hungers of the world. And often people who are without religion end up without any kind of faith or hope by which to live. They lose gladness. Thus the religions of the world can be means by which people find and seek life’s second great goal: to live with quality.
The third goal, says Whitehead, is to live better. By this he does not mean that a person who has his or her basic needs met must word to accrue more and more material possessions. Those of us who are in the Whiteheadian tradition believe that, once basic needs are met, the need is not to own more possessions, but to grow in wisdom and compassion and help others. We also know that people who own too many possessions end up owning more than their fair share, given the limits of the earth’s resources, and that they end up being owned by their possessions. There is a value in living simply and frugally.
To live better, then, is to enjoy a sense of adventure, of openness to new experiences, new possibilities, and new ideas. This sense of adventure is seen, for example, in very young children who are naturally curious, and also in people who may struggle to survive, but who have a natural curiosity about the world. Thus “living better” – that is, living with a sense of adventure – does not need to come after living with satisfaction, and sometimes it can even come before. People who suffer greatly can sometimes enjoy spiritual adventures more deeply than people whose material needs are met. In any case goal of living better – of exploring new ideas and experiences – is itself a worthy goal by which to live. It, too, is part of life’s purpose.
All of this has implications for parenting and education. The appropriate goal of parenting is to avail children and students of opportunities to live, to live well, and to live better. It is give them roots and wings. When the wings of young children are clipped, when life becomes all work and no play, all duty and no adventure, they lose their gladness. And the parents lose their gladness, too.
How, then, does all of this fit into the larger scheme of things. From the perspective of Whitehead the impulse to live, to live well, and to live better is certainly seen in other animals. Dogs and cats, too, seek to live, to live well, and to live better. They, too, have their purposes. This is part of the wisdom of Taoism, with its invitation for us humans to relativize our own perspectives and realize that other living beings, too, have worlds and perspectives of their own. And this is one reason that other animals deserve our respect. We need to act in ways that help them, too, realize their purposes in life.
The Whiteheadian tradition notes that even the molecules and atoms, in their ways, seek to endure over time (to live) and to respond to their environments in satisfying ways (to live better). Who knows, they may even undertake their own adventures. Life’s three purposes are by no means limited to human beings.
And how about the universe as a whole? Is the universe itself goal-oriented? Does the universe as a whole seek beauty? Is there an eros – an impulse toward beauty – within the wider harmony of the stars and planets? Indeed, is there also a peace within this wider harmony? A peace which we humans might sometimes taste when, on a dark and starry night, we feel small but included in a larger whole? Whitehead believed there is. He spoke of this wider peace as Peace and also as the Adventure of the Universe as One.
Imagine that every star and planet, every hill and river, every dog and cat, every person, is a fish swimming in an ocean and that this ocean is the Adventure of the Universe as One. This ongoing Adventure is what some people mean by God and others mean by Heaven and still others mean by the Sacred Whole. Whitehead spoke of it as the Harmony of Harmonies, and he proposed that this Harmony also dwells within each person as a lure to realize life’s purposes. It is the caller within the calling; the ever-unfolding mandate of heaven within the human heart; the lure toward self-realization; the lure to live, to live well, and to live better; the impulse toward wisdom and compassion and creativity. In this way life’s three purposes are indeed ways of dwelling in harmony with the harmony of harmonies. They are not simply inventions of the private self; they are a human way of sharing in a wider adventure. It is this adventure for which my young friend in China was searching. And it is this adventure for which we are all searching all the time, and of which we are always already a part. It is this harmony in which we can place our faith, no matter what happens in life.