by Dr. Purna Bikkasani
The purpose of life has been debated since the beginning of time. For many, the debate is a confusing, never ending dilemma.
Yet the debate is worth having, because a thorough understanding of the purpose of life clarifies our material, emotional, and spiritual perspectives.
Knowing the purpose of life empowers our mission, goals, and overall vision. It forms our moral and emotional foundation, providing us with an ethical compass and creating a much more gratifying life.
I have conducted a long and deep search about the purpose of life, exploring theistic, atheistic, philosophical, and evolutionary perspectives. I have concluded that the purpose of life is twofold. The first purpose is self-preservation (self-help) and the second is helping others (mutual help). Virtually every human thought, action, and behavior on earth springs from either one or the other. Self-help and mutual help are intricately interlaced in our evolutionary heritage to protect and propagate the human race. People who help themselves to succeed invariably benefit society; conversely, people receive benefits when others serve society. The apparent division in form and function between the individual and society is an illusion.
Taking care of oneself is a natural human instinct; we run away from danger, fight to survive, shy away from pain, and gravitate towards pleasure. We constantly seek and secure our basic human needs, and struggle to achieve the best possible wealth and happiness in life for ourselves and for our posterity. People employ education, hard work, and various professions to accumulate wealth and enjoy rich lifestyles. Throughout my life I have always been curious about people all over the world, and have visited many countries and continents. I have returned from each trip abroad with the clear impression that people everywhere cherish a better life for themselves and their children. The two primary human functions, self-help and helping others, are nestled at the polar opposites on a continuum of service to humanity. The distinction between these two human attributes becomes blurred and confusing at times. Self-help is crucial to our well-being and progress, yet self-help that takes advantage of others is selfish and detrimental. Self-help should work within the social, moral, ethical, and legal norms of a community; violating those norms is selfishness. Making a keen distinction between the two and acting in the proper way is a matter of conscience.
Now let us look at the concept of mutual help. Our ancestors in Africa lived a nomadic life, hunting and gathering food, and seeking safe shelter in dangerous environments. Life was difficult and primitive, and their survival depended on a sense of community, i.e. mutual help. People lived in small groups of families or extended families, sharing their meager resources equally. They led an egalitarian life. Self-help was confined to personal hygiene and self- protection. The notions of personal property, wealth, and political power, as well as language, culture, literature, and art, surfaced in human life once agriculture and ancient civilizations were introduced in river valleys about ten thousand years ago. Personal freedom and individual rights came to the forefront with scientific discoveries, industrialization, the Great Awakening, and other political revolts and reforms over the last four hundred years. These changes set the stage for the current socio-economic and political debate between the rights of the individual and the welfare of the larger community. All of the economic, social, and political conflicts in human history have been rooted in the struggle to balance the moral, ethical, social, and political aspirations of the individual (self-preservation) with those of the community (mutual help). The nature of the work one does has no bearing on life’s purpose.
Virtually every working person, whether a nurse, an engineer, or a businessman, delivers an “equivalent” purpose in life. No line of work, big or small, is either superior or inferior to another. Both the President of the United States and a janitor bear equivalent value and purpose in the grand scheme of societal operation. The intrinsic value and the economic value of our service in a community remain exactly equal on the evolutionary scale. Your purpose in life transcends the mere social distinctions of class, hierarchy, authority, status, pay, and skill. Doing just what you love will achieve your purpose. No one should confuse you about this. Some people don’t fully understand how their service affects society. The service each one of us performs is just the tip of the iceberg; your service flows invisibly, in quantum leaps, across continents to the rest of the world. Our work and welfare in society are intrinsically interwoven with everyone in the world. I want you to witness and appreciate this invisible flow of your service across the globe. Knowing that you fulfil your purpose in life through your work empowers your commitment and devotion to it. Merely wishing, wanting, hoping, and praying won’t attain that purpose, but working does help you attain your purpose in life.
The individual and the society are alike, just as a person and his or her reflection are alike in a mirror, bound by an inseparable matrix of independence and interdependence. This duality mimics the head and tail of a single coin, which are inseparable. If you separate one from the other, neither can retain their form or function. For example, Thomas Edison illuminated the world with the electric bulb, while making money and glory for himself. Who benefited the most? Was it the inventor or society? Does it even matter who got the most benefit? Can you see the tapestry of how personal interests and the common good are interlaced? Take any profession, company, or venture in the world, and you can witness how it benefits both the individual provider and the society.
Helping others has become a human creed. There is no doubt a selfish aspect to it: people serve others, even when it requires great self-sacrifice, only when they enjoy doing it. The ulterior motive of helping others is self-satisfaction, self-gratification, and a sense of purpose. Even the people we revere most—the apostles, freedom fighters, adventurers, and scientists who render altruistic sacrifice for the common good—help others because they gain fulfilment and a sense of exhilaration. Mother Teresa, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Mahatma Gandhi, Jesus Christ, and Gautama Buddha, while enduring hardship and sacrifice in helping others, have also experienced pride and pleasure.
People from all walks of life have waged a relentless struggle for economic, social, and political progress in history. Through hard work and sacrifice, they succeeded in advancing democracy, freedom, equality, fairness, and social justice for themselves and for their progeny. People continue to organize charities, volunteer groups, and missionaries to feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, treat the diseased, educate the illiterate, and help refugees across the globe.
These people, as well as every working person in society, are achieving their purpose in life.