Choosing a good purpose in life

That is real freedom. That is being educated, and understanding how to think. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default setting, the rat race, the constant gnawing sense of having had, and lost, some infinite thing.

This last quote from the speech of David Foster Wallace, which we discussed in the article “Professional Success, a source of happiness?“, talks about the kind of freedom that’s worth being educated in — and how the (undesirable) alternative is the rat race. What was he talking about?

It’s all about making a choice: operating on our “default setting” or stopping to consider other possibilities, another way of looking at things. The first option is to have a self-centered view of the world; with the second option, we are open and ready for whatever and whoever comes our way.

We cited Wallace in discussing the difficulties that we run across in our day-to-day professional life, but his ideas also tie in with the main element of Seligman’s theory on personal “flourishing”: having a purpose in life, something that gives meaning to our existence. It is, so to speak, the spiritual component of this theory. And probably the most important part.

Indeed, as Wallace says in his speech, in real life there is no such thing as atheism: we all worship someone or something. The only variable is what we decide to worship. In the end, magnanimity and pettiness are two sides of the same coin. They are the two extremes of what we decide to worship. Perhaps this is why many choose something spiritual, because any other alternative is much worse in the long term. In Wallace’s own words:

If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally grieve you. On one level, we all know this stuff already. […] The whole trick is keeping the truth up front in daily consciousness.

This brings us back once again to the subject of consciousness: How many times have we told ourselves, fully convinced, that money does not bring us happiness… all the while constantly judging ourselves by our income level? Sometimes it is not enough to repeat something as a mantra if we want to live by that principle. But Wallace goes on:

Worship power, you will end up feeling weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to numb you to your own fear. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart, you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. But the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they’re evil or sinful, it’s that they’re unconscious. They are default settings.

“They’re the kind of worship you just gradually slip into, day after day, getting more and more selective about what you see and how you measure value without ever being fully aware that that’s what you’re doing.

Here’s the key: the need stressed by Seligman, that someone’s purpose in life is not simply a nice idea, an added bonus or the icing on the cake. It is the batter, the substance that shapes and gives meaning to the cake. Because having a purpose, a reason to live, is not an option: We will have one for sure. The question is whether we (consciously) decide what that is, or let it be decided by our “default setting,” which, as we have seen, tends to be a self-centered model of the world. It is not a good idea that the sociology in which one lives ends up determining the default setting for that purpose.

But can we be conscious of the purpose that drives us? How do we identify it, if we have operated up to now on the default setting? As Wallace himself says: by identifying what we worship. It’s what we seek above all else, often unconsciously worshiping it… but it also determines our entire reality.

Our interpretative key, the Rosetta stone we use to translate everything that happens around us, is shaped first and foremost by this aspect. Along with the other features whose development leads to the phenomenon of “flourishing” heralded by Seligman: positive emotions, relationships, a passion for something and professional success. If the purpose that guides us (consciously or unconsciously) is defective from the start, the rest of the elements will suffer.

According to the example given by Wallace: If we worship power above all else, we tend to feel weak; our relationships will be corrupted by our desire to ascend and conquer; we will seek success for the power it gives, and we will cease to enjoy even our most beloved pastimes. Because, at the end of the day, fear doesn’t allow us to enjoy anything.

A person like that is an unconscious prisoner. And even if they seek the aforementioned features (positive emotions, etc.), the only way change will happen is by becoming aware of what they love most, which shapes their behavior and determines the belief system they use to interpret reality. Only a healthy purpose can lead to a balance that enables the development of a full life, a life that not only flourishes but also helps and inspires others.

In case any clues were needed on how to recognize a healthy purpose, here are two: a healthy purpose is usually external to us and is more spiritual than material in nature. Nelson Mandela gave us a clear example. After years of incarceration, he rose to power, and showed that there are more noble causes to fight for. He could have let the power go to his head and worship it, but his heart was filled with much more than ambition.

With his passing, many of us watched the movie Invictus, which chronicles the vicissitudes of the South African national rugby team. Mandela is not the protagonist, but his presence is clearly felt in almost every scene. When it was announced that the Rugby World Cup would be held in South Africa, shortly after Mandela became president, the team captained by François Pienaar was getting manhandled on the playing fields, defeat after defeat. The plot mainly centers on the metamorphosis of the team into a champion. Initially driven to win only by the sweet taste of victory, Mandela’s vision inspires Pienaar to have a change of heart. The national team could be a catalyst for the dream of uniting the South African people, an aspiration that pervaded Mandela’s every move and, following their conversation, Pienaar’s also. And as the movie goes on, it also becomes the dream of not only the team but the whole country.

That is the power, the transformative capacity of having a greater purpose. It was enough to guide a man imprisoned on his journey to freedom, and that drive transformed the heart of an entire nation. Recognizing the greatness of his purpose is perhaps the best tribute we can pay to Nelson Mandela. Because although we do not all live under the same circumstances that he did, we can all live with a greater purpose, with an ideal that transcends our pettiness and opens us to the world.