American Lives Without Purpose
You're meant to do more than consume products and amuse yourself
I once had an acquaintance that was an atheist ask me what it was like to believe in God. I thought about it for a moment and told him something like, “It gives a moral order to the universe.” That’s truer than most people realize because most Americans, even atheists, are essentially living according to a bastardized version of Christian morality. It’s almost like a kid’s game of telephone. It starts with what the Bible actually says. Then there’s the church’s ever-changing, continually softening interpretation of it. Next, there’s the individual who means well but doesn’t understand everything he hears in church, the ex-Christians, the children of the ex-Christians, and so on and so on and so on. Each of them changes things just a bit, usually in a way that makes life easier for them and caters to their own moral failings. By the time they get done with all of that, you end up with the fluffy, nearly meaningless “Be nice to people you agree with, don’t judge anyone, and try to show the right people you’re good” pseudo-morality that most people in the United States seem to have adopted. It’s little more than tribalism without the benefit of actually being part of a flesh and blood tribe that actually needs you to survive. There’s a purpose in living your life to try to please God, but none in trying to get some kind of pass/fail grade on a quasi-religious set of values you cribbed from more moral people.
Of course, living a life that pleases God is only one way to find a purpose. There are certainly others. The most obvious is having a family. Knowing you have a spouse and kids that need you gives you a reason to get out of bed in the morning. Unfortunately, the number of Americans that are married has dropped significantly over the last few decades while divorce has moved from a rarity to something that’s commonplace:
As the nation’s household and family structure continues to change and the median age at first marriage rises, the proportion of young adults who are married has decreased. In 2018, 29 percent of young adults ages 18 to 34 were married, a decrease of 30 percentage points when compared to 59 percent of young adults being married in 1978.
As sex has become more available outside of marriage and divorce has become more common, there’s less reason than ever for men to get married. Similarly, many women used to get married at least in part for financial support from men. That motivation has largely gone away as well since more women have entered the workforce and the government has stepped up to financially support single mothers. All of it has damaged the institution of marriage and in turn, robbed many Americans of what could have been their purpose.
Of course, becoming a creator can fulfill that role in someone’s life as well. Maybe that’s in art, literature, self-help, or some other way that allows you to produce something that can make a difference in the lives of others or potentially live on long after you’re gone. Think Elon Musk trying to go to Mars, Jeff Bezos creating Amazon, or even Vint Cerf and Bob Kahn creating the Internet (sorry Al Gore). Of course, it doesn’t have to be that big. It could be building a successful restaurant you pass down to your son or being an amazing painter and taking pride in people hanging your work in their homes. Personally, my book “101 Things All Young Adults Should Know” was in the top 50 in the self-help section of Amazon for a while. Today, it’s nowhere near that level, but I still take pride in creating something that continues to make people’s lives better. My grandfather literally built part of the house that he and my grandmother lived in. He was surrounded by proof that what he did mattered for him and his family every day.
Others find meaning in service to others, although as we’ll see, that’s a much trickier one than some of the other options. As Ronald Reagan said:
You should be able to say the same thing, at least to a certain extent, about doctors, nurses, police officers, and firemen. To be able to say, “A lot of people’s lives are better because of me” can give your life meaning, but this can be a more difficult, transitory, and sometimes even self-delusional path.
For one thing, what happens to a person living a life of service when that service ends? In particular, a lot of soldiers when they leave their friends and the routine a military life gives them for the “real world” have trouble adjusting. If your “purpose” is to be a doctor who saves people’s lives, what happens when you retire? Does your purpose retire with you? It's also worth noting that a lot of these jobs are, by their very nature, very difficult. Being a Marine may mean you know you made a difference, but it can also mean worrying you could be shot from any direction, running over an IED, or watching your buddies get killed. It’s not easy work. Cops? That’s a nightmarish job these days, particularly in the big cities. Firemen? Who wants to risk being burned alive? Something like being a nurse may seem safer, but it also means long hours, cleaning up other people’s sh*t, and getting chewed out by ridiculous, pencil-pushing administrators who make your life miserable. Truly serving other people in a meaningful way is seldom a pleasant or easy experience and if you find it to be one, you are probably fooling yourself (more on that in a moment).
Moreover, not everyone who serves other people takes great meaning from it. The stories of celebrities and musicians who made millions of people happy with their work and then later killed themselves or overdosed on drugs are legion. Imagine having the sort of wealth, fame, talent, and adoration from the public that people covet in their wildest dreams and still not being happy. Most people would trade lives in a heartbeat with someone like Elvis Presley, Michael Jackson, Kurt Cobain, Robin Williams, Anthony Bourdain, Prince, Heath Ledger, or John Belushi, but ultimately, did any of them have enough of a sense of purpose to want to get up the next morning?
Not everyone sees the value in what they do. In fact, I remember once having a conversation with a famous pick-up artist that stuck with me. He seemed like a great guy and his philosophy, along with a lot of what he did, really boiled down to helping guys improve themselves and better understand women. In my book, he was all about helping people find love. He was a real-life Hitch.
He didn’t seem to see it that way. In fact, I got the impression, he was a little sad and embarrassed by what he did for a living despite the fact that I have no doubt he genuinely improved the lives of a lot of people. There are people in the world like that who do a lot of good, but just can’t see or appreciate all they do for other people.
Then, we get to the people that are fooling themselves…for a while anyway. These are self-delusional people with messed up lives who create a purpose out of thin air and convince themselves that they are doing something great and important when they’re doing nothing of the kind. There are a lot of examples of this, but one of the best examples these days has to be members of ANTIFA. These people will tell you they’re waging a war against fascism. They’re doing this in ultra-liberal cities by painting graffiti, rioting, and screaming abuse at police officers. What are they trying to achieve? They don’t know. What’s the endpoint of all this? They don’t know. What “victories” do they have against fascism? None really. It’s all fake. It’s all self-delusion. It’s all LARPING (live-action role-playing). Look at these faces and ask yourself if they’re the faces of healthy, stable, fulfilled people living with real purpose, or just self-deluded fools:
People lie to themselves about having a purpose in less extreme ways all the time: “I hurled abuse at people I disagree with on Twitter all day. I’m helping!” Alternately, they demand some legislative change. “I want the free rent for good people bill” and they convince themselves that because they supported that, they’re good people with a purpose. Of course, even if it passes, the “good people” still don’t get “free rent” because despite all the sound and fury, the latest politicians promising miracles probably aren’t going to ultimately deliver them, if they even bother to try. Over the last few decades, the vast majority of legislative changes we saw hurt more people than they helped. It’s not something most people are ultimately going to be able to look back on with pride.
Still, people need to feel that purpose. For most of us, it’s good news that you can’t be another Rosa Parks because she already did what she did, but the bad news is that some people want to be “the next Rosa Parks” so badly they’ll invent racism to fight if that’s what it takes. That’s Black Lives Matter in a nutshell. Ultimately, all they’ve done is convince more people to hate each other, help burn a lot of black businesses to the ground and get a lot of black Americans killed by defunding the police. There’s no purpose there. Nothing someone can be proud that they participated in. Ultimately, this sort of self-delusion can’t last. Eventually, assuming they haven’t found a way to get paid doing what they’re doing, people get tired and give up or it finally dawns on them that they aren’t really accomplishing anything. That will happen with Black Lives Matter and Antifa just as it did for the Black Panthers and the Weather Underground before them.
Of course, people in that position can still do some good. They could create a business, ladle out soup for the homeless every weekend, or just show up with a group and clean up people’s neighborhoods (shout out to Scott Presler).
Unfortunately, that takes effort and it’s easier for a lot of people to just give up entirely and spend all their time in low-grade hedonism. They work in a job they don’t care about, if they’re lucky, date someone they never intend to marry and live for the weekends when they’ll drink, watch sports, get outraged on social media, play video games, and try to stave off that gnawing feeling that there’s no point in life a little longer.
The problem is that ultimately, we’re not meant to be nothing more than go-along-to-get-along consumers. We humans NEED a purpose. A reason to get up in the morning. Something to answer if we’re asked, “What’s the point of life?” Furthermore, in some way, shape, or form, that purpose usually comes down to serving others. Serving God. Creating things that make life better. Having a family and raising children. Helping others in need. This is not a message we get from our culture today which tells us to embrace hedonism and life is all about having as much money, sex, fame, attention, and momentary pleasure as possible. The problem is those kinds of things are the side dish, not the main course and if that’s all you get, you’re going to spend your whole life hungry.