The Gift of Purpose

No one lives in a cocoon. Instead, the world constantly invades our lives. In response, we give purpose to these invasions. The image, here, is that of a pearl. What is the purpose of a pearl? The pearl is the oyster’s gift to a grain of sand that gets inside the oyster and disturbs it. Of all the gifts we can give, the greatest is the gift of purpose. It is the pearl of great price. All other gifts are ornaments and baubles. A quite different view of purpose is common. According to this view, the invasions of life come with purposes already attached, and our job is to discover those purposes and reconcile ourselves to them. The image, here, is that of a coin. The coin is an instrument for exchange, and its purpose is predefined. Confronted with a coin, we can be ignorant of its purpose or we can consent to it. But, strictly speaking, we cannot rebel against its purpose: in the very act of rebellion, we tacitly consent to it. The problem with this second view is not that it is wrong but that it is incomplete. Where it applies, it presupposes the first view, because even things like coins do not have their purpose intrinsically but as a gift (in this case, from the national treasury). But, more significantly, very little in life has a predefined purpose. To be sure, most things in life occur against a backdrop of purposes. But just as a house composed of bricks is itself not a brick, so an event that occurs against a backdrop of purposes need not itself have a purpose. For instance, a business that goes bankrupt resides in a socioeconomic context chock-full of purposes (the underlying monetary instruments, trading conventions, and contractual understandings are all purpose-driven). But the merchant whose business goes bankrupt cares little about what purposes apply to business life in general. Nor is the 1 merchant’s ultimate concern with the precise reasons why the business went bankrupt. Even if a compelling, rational explanation can be given for why the business failed (mismanagement, unforeseen new technologies, sabotage, etc.), this doesn’t answer the deeper, existential questions of meaning and purpose that invariably arise when things don’t go our way..
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