Meaning and Purpose

In sloppy everyday speech we sometimes use purpose and meaning interchangeably as if they meant the same. But remember how we go about a given purpose and how, in contrast, we experience meaning. The difference is striking. In order to achieve our purpose, whatever it may be, we must take hold of the situation, take matters in hand, take charge of things. We must be in control. Is this also true of a situation in which you experience deep meaning? You will find yourself saying that you were touched, moved, even carried away by the experience. That doesn’t sound as if you were in control of what happened. Rather, you gave yourself to the experience, it took hold of you and so you found meaning in it. Unless you take control, you won’t achieve your purpose; but unless you give yourself, you can’t experience meaning.”

The passive voice in the English language went out of style around the first half of the twentieth century and for some reason the perspective has stuck. George Orwell spoke out against it in the late 1940s. And now, in the most common word processor on the planet, if you write a sentence in the passive voice, a little green squiggly line will appear underneath with the bland suggestion: “consider revising.”

The sentiment behind such advice has some grounding, but why did it become such a hard and fast rule?

Language reflects life and sometimes life reflects back to language. Perhaps, in a time surrounded by two world wars, we eliminated the passive voice because we wanted to be more assertive, to take control, to name our subject and concretely know our position. The impulse hasn’t gone anywhere.

The Purpose Driven Life was a best-seller just over ten years ago and has sold over 30 million copies. It is the second most translated book in the world, after the Bible. We love purpose. We love doing things that make a difference. We are constantly trying to take hold of our lives. To not let it slip away too fast. To know that it will have been worthwhile. That it will have meant something.

You may have been engaged in pursuing a purpose for a long time, when suddenly you wake up to the question: What is the meaning of it all? Meaningless purpose is mere drudgery. Yet, the meaning you find in what you do will inevitably challenge you. It will make you responsible. You are no longer running in circles, but this new-found sense of direction makes new demands on you. To see a little more clearly what life is all about makes it more exciting, more worthwhile, but by no means easier. That may be the reason why there is something within us that would rather settle for drudgery than rise to the challenge of responsibility to go beyond ourselves.”

Thomas Merton wrote, “People may spend their whole lives climbing the ladder of success only to find, once they reach the top, that the ladder is leaning against the wrong wall.” And we must not be too narrow in our definition of “success.” It is easy to slap this quote onto the shallow millionaire who made his fortune at the expense of any meaningful relationships in his life. But we all have our different ideas of what success is. We all, if we take the time, may look back over a day and feel whether it was a good one or not. We all may consider what we want in life and make goals for the future in work and personal life.

Is the criteria the same? What we consider a good day or a good year looking back–do they match the goals we set for the future? Is success measured by the achievement of our goals? Is a “good” day one that was spent productively?

Goals are inherently related to purpose. They are an intentional and active way that we assert control over how we will spend our time, what we will give ourselves to. It’s good to set goals.

There is a tension between this giving and taking. It is the tension between meaning and purpose, between vision and action. If we let this tension snap, our life becomes polarized. But to maintain creative tension is demanding. Why difficult? Because it demands courage. As long as we are in control, we feel safe. But when we allow ourselves to be carried away, there is no telling where things will lead. All we know is that life gets adventuresome. But there is risk implied in adventure. Sometimes that risk frightens us so much that we’d rather keep things tightly under control, even though this means settling for boredom.”

This is not a dualistic either/or in which we are elevating meaning at the expense of purpose. No, that is not the creative tension. But most of us do not need to learn how to grip more tightly. Most of us need to learn how be carried away. This is the challenge of responsibility to go beyond ourselves, beyond our own hold on our lives. To seek to somehow remain in the liminal.

Meaning must be given. It must be found. Discovered. Sought. Received.

Passive and active.

Goals and graces.

Beyond the drudgery. Beyond the boredom. May we find ourselves being taken hold of.




Italic quotes from: Gratefulness, the Heart of Prayer by Brother David Steindl-Rast.


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