What does purpose look like outside of religion?

“Hi Jim, Can I ask you a question? I was wondering if you've ever tackled the subject of purpose. I get confused - is living a life of so-called significance a product of my religious conditioning? Why do I feel driven to "make a difference" in this world, but in the end find that I can make very little difference - I can only change myself really. So is this conditioning - the need to help others or to be of service in order to feel like I matter? What does purpose look like outside the walls of religion?”

Thanks for your question.

First let me say that there is much more that could be said about your question than I could answer in one blog post. This issue of negotiating one's mindset about "purpose" as part of the shedding religion process is something I often address with people in my spiritual direction practice. It is also a matter I deal with in my online Life After Religion Course.

Okay, let me map out some concepts here. Hang with me.

Depending on your background, your question relates to three notions that are common in Christianity: (1) God’s will; (2) God’s plan; (3) God purpose. All three of these have a macro and micro version. The macro version is that God is engineering his divine will, plan and purpose for all things – directing and guiding the saga of human history according to his intentions. The micro version is that God has a specific will, plan and purpose for each individual’s life. This is why you find many people who pray to know “God’s will” for their lives, or take comfort in the idea that whatever befalls them in life is “part of God’s plan,” or seek to discover their God-given purpose or fulfill “God’s Calling” for their life. People also fear missing God’s will, plan, purpose and calling for their lives, and can have great angst about it.

Keep in mind that the above notions are common of Monotheism such as Christianity – the belief in the existence of one God who created the world, is all powerful, intervenes in the world, and is achieving a grand plan. But even within this framework, there is more than one way to work out the idea of life’s purpose. In my second book, Wide Open Spaces, I wrote a chapter entitled, Spiritual Living: Do We Need a Purpose in Life to Live. In that chapter I wrote:

“My drive for determining a purpose in life was much ado about nothing… Purpose is not something you have – a specific skill, gift, interest, passion, endeavor, vocation, volunteer involvement, or grand achievement. Instead, your existence is one unifying purpose, and every facet of your life is part of it. That unifying purpose is this: knowing God… God’s purpose is not fulfilled by doing a lot of religious things you may or may not want to do. The things you love doing, what you are most passionate about, are the most significant avenues through which God wants to be known… My next email or phone call, the next person I encounter, the next place I go, the next set of circumstances in my life, what I see outside my living room window or rearview mirror, the next words spoken, the next song on my playlist… are all part of my life purpose of knowing God.”

There are other belief-systems about God in which the notion of purpose would be seen differently. Take Deism for example. Deism is a religious belief holding that God created the universe and established rationally comprehensible moral and natural laws but does not intervene in human affairs through miracles or supernatural revelation.

In his book The Age of Reason, Thomas Paine proposes a new religion/philosophy called Deism. In Deism he argued God could become known through reason, science and nature. There would be no need for faith or blind belief in revelatory religions. God could be known to the individual without the need for priests or prophets simply through the application of the individual's own reason and intelligence and the study of science and nature. Given this premise, by studying science and nature one might conclude that the purpose of life is to evolve.

Thinking as a Deist, evolution is Darwin’s great gift to theology. An evolutionary worldview sees the purpose of everything and everyone as part of the grand narrative of an evolving universe. The enticing elements of this view are: it’s a creation story not yet over; a planetary perspective that could be embraced by diverse cultures and open to multiple interpretations; it marries science and religion; it’s a perspective that could be embraced from any religious, spiritual or philosophical tradition. In terms of one’s “purpose” in life in this Deist framework, consider the possibility that each of us individually and collectively at every level consciously participate and influence the evolutionary trajectory of our universe. This evolution encompasses our own individual personal growth. Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs identifies “self-actualization” as the highest need and desire of the human being – to realize one’s fullest potential or to actualize oneself as fully as possible. A Deist point of view is that our purpose individually and collectively is to evolve, and we can consciously participate in this process. 

In your question, you wrote, “Why do I feel driven to "make a difference” in this world?” You put “make a difference” in quotes, which seems to imply that making a difference was some sort of burden or expectation placed on you through religion – you SHOULD make a difference in the world, you’re SUPPOSED to DO something GREAT, the significance of your life is measured by the impact you have. In my view, that entire mindset is problematic, and I understand why you would want to disentangle yourself from it.  

So let’s simplify this.

A couple questions I would ask you is: Do you genuinely WANT to make a difference in the world? If the answer is yes, the next question is: How do you want to make a difference in the world? In other words: In what specific way are you compelled to serve humankind, meet a need, alleviate hardship and suffering, address systemic injustice and oppression, and build a world that works for everyone? Whatever you come up with, do your investigation and homework, connect with like-minded people, and determine the best way for you to get involved and make your contribution.

People every day who hold no belief in God are actively engaged in doing this. Why? Because it’s a natural human thing to do. Caring about the plight of human beings and all living things is an integral aspect of what it means to be human. We don’t need God or guilt to prod us; these are natural impulses of our humanity.

The problem, however, is that religion made “making a difference” a burden to carry, and equated your worth, value and significance with what kind of “difference” you made. That’s the part you need to let go of. This is why you are so concerned with the outcomes of your efforts. You have observed that the best you can do seems imperceptible in the bigger scheme of things. So why try? Despite all your effort, it seems to not to add up to much.

Margaret Meade wrote, “A small group of thoughtful people could change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” Mother Theresa said, “Never worry about numbers. Help one person at a time and always start with the person nearest you. If I look at the mass, I will never act. If I look at the one, I will.” Gandhi said, “It's the action, not the fruit of the action, that's important.” He also said, “In a gentle way you can shake the world.” This is the part of my answer trying to refute your idea that what you do doesn’t really matter. In my view, anything and everything any individual does, matters, including your own personal growth and transformation. Every time a person turns away from just one false belief, mindset or mentality, it makes a difference in concentric circles in the world.

Every day there are countless people who feel they are not making a difference. They wake up with this burden and go looking for something to do or achieve to feel significant. People will go to great lengths to alleviate this burden. 

But consider this. Humankind is interconnected and interrelated in the same way as the cells of our human body. The cell is the basic structural and functional unit of all known living organisms. It is the smallest unit of life that is classified as a living thing, and is the building block of life. Humans contain about 100 trillion cells, but the condition of one individual cell has an effect on the wellness of the whole body. 

So it is with the body of humanity. Each of us are individual cells – 7 billion of them. The healing of the body of humanity can only occur in the measure of its single cells healing themselves. Each time a human being changes his or her mind from false perception to true perception, the effect on humanity is immeasurable. The effect of one individual releasing fear, the cause of all spiritual disease in the body of humanity, is beyond measure. The impact of one person being liberated from the illusion of separation is incalculable. 

By healing ourselves, we heal the world. 

If only we knew what absolutely extraordinary healing power we have as single individuals, we would not hesitate one second in wanting to transform our ways from fear to love, and the healing of one’s own separation.

We feel we are not making a difference in the world and then we run out the door, expending tremendous energy doing nothing more than addressing symptoms, and applying band-aids. We are also very good at pointing the finger and blaming others for the problems and conditions of our world. 

Look no further than yourself. Nothing will change in our world until we address the root problem. More specifically and importantly, nothing will change until you address the root problem within yourself. 

Do you want to change the world? Change yourself. Do your personal work. Address the root cause of suffering within yourself – there is no greater difference that one can make than this. Humanity is aching, needing your cooperation. When you awaken, the energy and reality of your awakening reverberates through all humankind like the concentric circles of a pebble tossed in a pond. 

That doesn't mean we don't take action in the world. I have written quite a bit about spirituality and social revolution. But we tend to want peace and harmony in the world but refuse to have them within ourselves. We are very aware of where peace and harmony are breaking down out there, but often unaware or dispassionate about the absence of peace and harmony within ourselves. We are embroiled in all kinds of thoughts, concerns and actions to solve the disharmony and suffering we see in the world, but leave our own disharmony and suffering unattended. We have failed to recognize the connection between our own disharmony and the disharmony that plays our everyday before our eyes. We want to remove the speck of discord and distress in the circumstances that surround us, but we are content to accept the log of discord and distress within ourselves. We want to make it about them and not about us, and fail to realize that there will be no peace and harmony in the world unless or until it is within us. How can there be a world of peace and harmony if that world is not real within ourselves? 

To summarize my answer: 

Religion burdened you with the idea that you should make a difference in the world, and that the significance of your life is measured by how big a difference you actually make. Forget this idea. Along with that idea, get rid of the notion that whatever you do doesn’t really make any difference. That’s not true either. You are a human being. Being human means caring. You get to decide what caring means for you. Whatever it means, do that and forget about the scope or size of your impact. 

©  2009 Jim Palmer Author. All Rights Reserved
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