The Purpose of Service


My last post was about the idea of Being For The World, which boils down to living with the desire to be of service. That is, you have the intention of benefiting the world, in some way, through your life.

Service, in other words, becomes your purpose. It becomes central to your being, the thrust of your operating system.

I think the whole idea of purpose is one of the most important things we can consider, and one of the most overlooked in modern life. That’s why Unfolding Human is subtitled “On Human Purpose and Possibility” (both the blog and the book I plan to transform this into). Earlier posts on purpose are: Life as Purpose, The Question of Human Purpose, and On Purpose.

Two books I’ve mentioned in recent posts, talk about the importance of meaning in life, Flourish by Martin Seligman and Drive by Daniel Pink Pink says that the desire for meaning is one of our major intrinsic motivations. Seligman says that meaning is an essential ingredient for human flourishing.

Pink talks about meaning as having purpose beyond yourself. Seligman’s definition of meaning is “feeling that what I do in my life is valuable and worthwhile.” Neither, I feel goes into much depth about how one arrives at meaning or evaluates its worthiness. It doesn’t seem to matter too much as long as you feel good about it.

In Seligman’s extensive project for the U.S. Army, he actually creates an absurd “Spirtual Fitness” test. Beyond the matter of it violating soldier’s freedom of religion, it carries the godlike notion that meaning is something measurable on a psychological test. This whole academic approach of converting everything into scales and acronyms, is I think one of the weaknesses of Seligman’s approach, which I still find overall to have a lot of worth.

To be fair, Seligman does says that his own purpose is to promote human flourishing, so you might say that he regards that as a meta-purpose. But he doesn’t really talk about the quest for meaning, how and where meaning is to be pursued. Other than saying that meaning is something “outside oneself”, both Seligman and Pink leave it as strictly an individual matter.

However, in talking about meaning as being “outside oneself”, they are going in the same direction I’m trying to go. I think of purpose as being broader than meaning. Purpose, I think of as whatever we intend. Meaning does require going outside oneself, its about self in relation to the world.

Our individual purposes can either focused on taking (benefiting ourselves) or giving (benefiting others). We naturally need to take care of our own well-being. However, the idea that humans desire meaning in their lives is an ancient understanding. It’s not just a recent revelation of positive psychologists, although they may be helping to dust off some of its modern neglect.

The idea of a need for meaning expresses that internally, at our very core, we have a sense that our life is embedded in the world, that our existence isn’t bounded by our wrapping of skin. We feel that our life is fundamentally connected to the world in general, and to the world of other humans especially.

In order for this intrinsic wish for meaning to express itself as purpose, it needs to be grounded in some foundation of what constitutes meaning, an understanding of what to mean for. In today’s world, the majority of people continue to establish their basis of meaning through religious traditions. However, increasing numbers of people, like myself, are unaffiliated with any religious tradition.

A lot of the unaffiliated (a rather diverse crowd) believe that scientific understanding has made religion obsolete, at least in its pure form. This belief comes from having an empirical view of reality, an outlook that understanding must based only what can be observed in some way.

There is a strident contingent in the scientific community that portrays religion as virtually evil, led by Richard Dawkins of “Selfish Gene” fame. But I think that they oversimplify religion and don’t appreciate what a complex phenomenon it is and its positive dimension in creating ethical communities. Also, they often reduce empiricism to scientism and the belief that all of the world’s woes can be resolved by double-blind scientific studies and statistical analysis (a scientism that I also find Seligman to be guilty of).

Those who do identify with a religious tradition fall into 2 camps. The fundamenalists are those who try to base their lives on their religious beliefs, including large numbers in the Christian, Muslim, Hindu and Jewish traditions). The rest (which is likely a large majority) are secularized to some degree. They dance to the tune of the secular world and their beliefs are more of a background than a central force in their lives.

Looking at the world as it actually is and not as it professes to be, our postmodern world seems empty of inner purpose, it’s center doesn’t hold. Technology enables universal communication, universal information but for what purpose?

Creating the next generation computer, or smartphone, or internet connected television is hailed as a great thing. But there seems to be little discussion of what we use them for, what we look at on them, as if they were good in themselves.

Do we watch violent spectacles of special effects or programs that expand our minds or enhance our humanity? Do we use social media to attack others, gossip and blame or to support, inspire and enhance the lives of others?

I’m not saying that we do one or the other, or dismissing any of these out of hand. I am saying that we live in a world of form, a world where all content is equivalent, where all that really matters are hit rates, click throughs and market shares. A world where motion is purpose in and of itself.

I’m sympathetic to fundamentalists in that I appreciate the integrity they strive for in their lives (while being unsympathetic when they are intolerant of ways of life that differ from their own). The book, Why The Rest Hates The West. Author Marc Pearse says Pearse says that fundamentalists, “have the sensation that everything they hold dear and sacred is being rolled over by an economic and cultural juggernaut that doesn’t even know it’s doing it . . . and wouldn’t understand why what it’s destroying is important or of value.” In essence they feel that our modernity has stripped meaning from life, leading to the pursuit of selfishness, hedonism, triviality and greed.

In its defense, the Western tradition sees itself as enabling freedom, human rights, democracy, science and material progress. And I see all of these as great and admirable accomplisments of modernity. But I think we’ve really given insufficient attention to underlying purposes. That is freedom, rights and democracy for what end? Science and material progress in the name of what? These are all taken for granted as being inherently valuable in themselves and not as means to human purposes.

The demystification of the world by science forces us to confront human purpose, puts the responsiblity for it in our hands. We’ve stripped the world of transcendental purpose, but not tried to put anything in its place.

If we want, we can just accept the buzz and swirl of the world as sufficient reason. Or we can take under our own advisement the problem of what it is to be human in this unfolding universe.

Purpose is a question with no ultimate answer. Rather, it’s something that must be endlessly engaged, an ongoing effort of interpreting the universe. All answers are contingent and circumstances ceaselessly change. But all purposes are not equivalent, not all answers valid.

No single unitary human purpose is possible or desirable. But what we do need is an active competition of purposes, a free market of human possibilities. The striving for human flourishing should call us to a heartfelt and conscious engagement with the question of how to live as humans in this world.

Purposes are best conceived of not as fixed goals, but as vectors, as directions we wish to move towards. They are a pointing from the factuality of what is to the promise of what might be. Purposes work best when held without expectation, free from attachment to result. Our purposes always get feedback from the environment, the world pushes back against our best intentions.

Purposes (like all ideas) are inherently imperfect. But imperfect purposes are still valuable. A diversity of sincere purposes can only enrich the human world. An honest competition of purposes leads to the refinement of purpose, allows better and better visions of purpose to emerge.

I think in the pursuit of meaning we can find value in both the explorations of science and the reflections of the religious traditions. We can also look in the words of the poets, the stories of the novelists, the biographies of the famous, the infamous and the downtrodden, the analyses of the social sciences and the deliberations of philosophers.

Purpose isn’t a rational imperative, not a derivative of logic. It’s not a problem that can be solved by an equation. Purpose is something that must be formulated, by starting with the inner impulses that motivate it and shaping them with one’s best understanding of the world.

I think the starting point of purpose is our emotions, our feeling about the world. Emotions are our inner responses to the world, signals of how well our natural aspiration harmonizes with the here and now. As Stefan Klein says in The Science of Happiness: “We experience feelings when we perceive the involuntary reactions of our bodies”.

But for us humans, our minds are also key to what we are. We are sense making creatures, creatures who live by deciphering the world, interpreting it. An important reason we do this is because our brains stretch time. Out ability to code the past and imagine the future expands our horizons, enabling us to explore a wide range of alternative possibilities.

Underneath all of these there remains this need for meaning we experience. The urge for meaning inherently presupposes the purpose of service. It indicates that fulfillment involves more than one’s personal comforts and pleasures.

Meaning is something we aspire to because at some fundamental level we experience our life as  interbeing with the world (to borrow a term from the buddhist Thich Nhat Hanh). Our wish for meaning is, at heart, a wish to give back to the world that we flower within. It displays a natural gratitude for the world, an appreciation that life is two-way street, a giving as well as a taking.

Being for the world is a pursuit of enlightened other interest. It means adopting the purpose of acting for the world, seeing oneself as an agent of humanity.

Service is a very human purpose, a purpose that emerges from our being human, and allows our humanity to further expand. It flows from our hearts and our minds, from our caring about the world we live in. This being for the world comes from being tuned into the world.

The purpose of service weaves us into the world by answering its call. This wishing for the happiness of the world is an opening up to life, an unfolding of the self into the world.






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