Finding Purpose

What makes life worth living?Since I’ve now several years out of college and am existing as a real live adult, one question that keeps coming up in my mind is: how do I measure success in my life?

Coming out of college, I had certain goals laid out that I wanted to achieve. Get a job that uses my English degree. Travel abroad. Publish a book. Make lots of money. Maybe even marry and have kids someday. The biggest career goal—publishing a novel—has recently been accomplished twice by now. Of course, that’s not enough anymore. Now I’m working on publishing more novels, with the eventual goal of it being profitable enough for me to write fiction for a living. I don’t need to be churning out best-sellers, although that would help a lot. But my biggest goal right now is to do something I enjoy and make enough money doing it that I can cut out things I don’t enjoy, like most other kinds of work. So basically, my biggest goal revolves around comfort. But once I get that comfort, then what do I do? I spend most of my free time playing video games and writing. If everything I do is free time, then I’m seemingly living for recreation. By many people’s standards, that would be a huge waste, because I’m not really contributing to society.

All this thinking leads me to wonder what the standards are for living a full life. The Hallmark card answer is that the main goal in life should be to have a lot of people who love you. I can’t argue with that much. My father was not a wealthy man or someone who effected change on a large level. He is a person who set aside his needs and raised a family. Then, after his wife had cheated on him and broken his heart, he married another woman who already had two boys. My father had already raised two children of his own, and didn’t need to go through the pain of parenting again, but he did. Until his death, he worked his butt off so his family could live well. Even when he was diagnosed with cancer, he made sure that he was well-insured and that his family would survive without him. I consider my father to be a very good man, and one who lived a good life. If anyone were to suggest to me that his life was a waste, I would probably break their face. That said, none of my dreams for the perfect life have involved me simply working hard and raising a family. There’s always more than that, and I’m sure there’s more than that for many other people. Growing up, most folks don’t dream about living in a trailer and working at a steel mill for thirty years. They dream of being rich, respected, and powerful. Of making a difference in the world and being renown for it.

But maybe this whole making a difference thing is overrated. American society doesn’t seem to have any sort of realistic standard for what qualifies as a life well lived. For example, I would argue that someone who plays basketball for a living, even if they do it really well, is not a significant contributor to society. We take our entertainment seriously, but playing a sport for a living is not my idea of making the world a better place. That said, many people look up to individuals like Michael Jordan, wanting to live that kind of life (maybe minus the appearance in Space Jam). In America, and probably much of the rest of the world, a lot of people would be content if they were very good at sports, made millions of dollars, and nothing more.

Most people who live as celebrities, though, don’t get the success that Michael Jordan enjoyed at basketball. Case in point: Ryan Leaf. Not a lot of folks know who he is, and I’m pretty sure no one has said, “I want to be like Ryan Leaf when I grow up!” Ryan Leaf was a college football star who was supposedly the next great NFL quarterback. He was drafted #2 overall by the San Diego Chargers, and went on to absolutely suck at professional football. He’s the poster child for great expectations but no results. However, he enjoyed more of his dream than many people ever will. He was a star in college, if not in the NFL, he made millions of dollars doing something he enjoyed, and now for all I know he’s living happily ever after. If just being a rich celebrity is what is important, then Ryan Leaf is every bit as successful as Michael Jordan in life.

The big difference between Michael Jordan and Ryan Leaf is that Leaf had success on a lesser level, whereas Jordan is definitely one of the best athletes to have ever played basketball. Expounding on that, it seems that being morally good or producing something tangible in our society is not necessary as long as you are one of the best there is at what you do. Of course, that idea is flawed, too. Josef Stalin was one of the best killers of human beings in the world, and he certainly was not a worthwhile human being. If we further limit our purpose to finding something that doesn’t harm others and doing it incredibly well, it excludes killers like Stalin while including athletes like Jordan. But such reasoning is still flawed, because that means that almost everyone is doomed to be a failure. Using myself as an example, I consider myself a good writer. I am not, however, as good a writer as Steven King, Michael Chabon, or Carol Shields. I’m better than most, but not elite. I’m young, so I still have a chance to improve my writing dramatically as I learn more about technique and gain more publishing experience. But if I’m never as good as Steven King, who I believe to be one of the best writers of the 20th century (he’s still writing, but the new century is still very young), then I still will not consider my life a failure.

And even if I were the best in the world at writing books, what does that mean in the long run? Sure, it provides a few million people with a few hours of entertainment. It doesn’t really accomplish a lot in the grand scheme of things, though. This is true of most professions. Even presidents get forgotten by the history books. How many people will be able to say anything about Richard Nixon in twenty years? Heck, how many people today know anything about the Carter administration, other than the fact that The Simpsons made fun of him? Great doctors may save their patients, but everyone ultimately dies. As stated in Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club, on a long enough timeline, the survival rate for everybody drops to zero. By that same token, the impact that even the greatest of people has on their world eventually drops to zero, too.

One could argue that I’m using too large a scope here. I don’t think I am. Many people measure their success by how many people know they are successful. That’s not an accurate scale, because eventually it all goes away. Bill Gates isn’t living a more fulfilling life than my father did just because one is rich and the other died in the lower middle class. History itself is unreliable; it glorifies some people and ignores others. James Monroe got more accomplished in his time as president than John F. Kennedy did. But Kennedy is considered one of the greats because he got shot on television. You might be able to measure the impact someone makes on a society by their historical or celebrity position, but fame itself doesn’t make a life well-lived. Case in point: Marilyn Monroe was one of the most beloved women in America. Then she committed suicide.

So now I’ve eliminated fame, wealth, and skill from my criteria of what makes a good life. Now I’ll go back to the sentimental point of view that the measure of a person depends on the people around him, by how many people truly love that person. I personally like this idea, since I have a very supportive family, a wife who I love very much, a son on the way, and friends who have always been there for me. If I get hit by a bus while crossing the road tonight, I’m sure everyone will be very sad and that I will be remembered fondly. However, I still don’t find myself satisfied by this answer. For one thing, I can bring up the question of scale again. Many, many Italians loved Benito Mussolini for bringing pride and strength back to his nation. I’m sure his defeat and ultimate death was mourned by thousands, if not millions of people. But that doesn’t mean he lived well. The idea that you are only as good as the people who love you also encourages complacency. If I have so many great friends, a good job, and an altogether happy life, I have no reason to want to improve upon that. I should just continue as I am until the day I die. However, the fact is that I will personally be disappointed in myself if even ten years from now I haven’t made a marked improvement in my already blissful life.

But how does one mark that kind of improvement? Can a life be measured based on salary or celebrity or the number of friends one has? Can it be measured in depth of experience, in how far one travels and what sort of exotic lands he reaches? The whole conundrum unfortunately yields one of the great non-answers of our age. How we rate our own lives is entirely personal, and unable to be measured in any quantifiable way. Some people might be happy to simply live in a nice house and raise a family. Some people want to be politicians, lawyers, or athletes. Everyone has their own goals, including goals they won’t share with anyone else. And even those goals change over time. As a child, I wanted to invent the time machine. Now, I’ve come to realize that dream is never coming true. So now I want to be a novelist. Shadowslayers and Reality Check (plug plug) have sold fairly well given the situations involved in their publication and marketing, but what if my next novel tanks and no publisher will ever touch my work again? Does it mean my dream is dead and my life is a failure? No; it means my dream will be revised into something else, and I will form yet another compromise with my existence. At the very least, I can find happiness in my family and friends. But what about those people who prefer to be distant from others? The type who doesn’t want to be married, and only has casual acquaintances instead of friends? Believe it or not, there are some people who can be happy through being alone.

To make an already wishy-washy rant a little more wishy-washy, I can only come to one conclusion. Only an individual really knows their motivations and goals in life. No matter how people might want to think that a life can be shared completely with a spouse or a friend, it can’t. There’s always something that people hold back, either intentionally or through an accident of exclusion. As such, measure of success is entirely personal. Only you can determine if you have lived a good, fulfilling life. This fact can be both comforting and distressing. One the one hand, it means that you ultimately have no one to answer to but yourself. At the same time, it places the responsibility for your life entirely on your shoulders. Years from now, if you die and you’re not happy with the life you’ve lived, it means you’ve wasted it. No matter who loved you or how much they insist that you lived a good life, the only person who can ever say for sure is you.

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