Differences Make a Difference
Some years ago I was returning from Brussels to London on the Eurostar Express. As the train approached St. Pancras Station, it went past some dilapidated Victorian buildings beside the track. Many of them were covered with a splattered mess of graffiti, slogans, and protest symbols. But one wall carried a message that was clearly readable as the train slowed before entering the station.
You only live once, and it doesn’t last. So live it up. Drink it down. Laugh it off. Burn it at both ends. You only live once, and you can’t take it with you.
Those words are of course a summary of the short-lived YOLO philosophy (“You Only Live Once”). The idea swept many university and college campuses briefly as a much-popularized version of Epicurus’s famous maxim, “Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die.” But it’s probable that few devotees of YOLO were aware of one original formulation that set out the philosophy with a sharp sting in its tail: “You only live once — if then.”
This blunt version of the YOLO philosophy, and indeed the entire craze for purpose today — books, seminars, conferences, life coaches, slogans, and all — raises some important questions: What is the meaning of life itself? What does it say of life, and the universe we live in, that so many people do not have the chance to live out their “three score years and ten”? And if we only live once, how are we each to discover a purpose that can make this brief life fully worthwhile, however long or short it turns out to be? And under such conditions, what does it mean to talk of a full life or a fulfilling life? Start thinking, and the questions begin to sprout in all directions, and that is where the differences start to come in. Almost everyone talks about purpose today, but many people mean completely different things by it and respond in starkly different ways.
If the questions multiply, and the possible answers multiply with them, so also do possible attitudes to all the different questions and answers. For with so many different perspectives on the search for purpose, the obvious question is, how are we ever to decide between them? And do we have to? Can’t we all just be content with the ways we each have in hand, and hope that everything will turn out all right in the end? Does it really make that much difference which response we choose?
Current modern thinking, for example, prides itself on being relativistic, tolerant, and inclusive, which would make any examination of the differences unnecessary. If that sort of thinking is right, we can stop the discussion right here. It really makes no difference that there are differences so long as each of us has his or her own answer, for the answers are all roughly the same in the end. There are no true or false answers, though some may be a little better and some a little worse. After all, that sort of thinking says, the answers are only a matter of “different strokes for different folks.” What matters is that your answer works for you, and my answer works for me.
A little clear thinking, and the plain course of history, would show how faulty and foolish such an attitude is. Certain facts are undeniable. First, there are important differences between the different answers. Second, these differences make an important difference. And third, the differences make an important difference, not only for individuals, but for entire societies and even for civilizations. In short, truth does matter, all ideas have consequences, and it is always vital to remember the maxim, “Contrast is the mother of clarity.” Socrates’s ideal of living an “examined life” is as important when it comes to thinking about purpose as about any part of life. It would be absurd to be careful in examining your restaurant bill, or to be rigorous in making sure your car insurance is up to date, but to be blithely casual in thinking about the purpose of your life itself. We must not plunge into thinking about purpose without ensuring that the whole notion of purpose is itself grounded solidly.
Forget It Or Do-It-Yourself?
As it happens, the differences are clear between the major answers to the search for purpose in life, and they lead in entirely different directions. Take the “big three” answers, which for all practical purposes cover the range of options offered in the modern world.
The first is the Eastern answer, which includes Hinduism and Buddhism. If the final reality is an impersonal ground of being (the so-called “undifferentiated impersonal”), what is the purpose of life for each of us as individuals? The answer in brief is, “Forget it and forget yourself.” We take ourselves seriously only because we are caught in the world of illusion. So, to seek fulfillment as individuals is to make matters worse and perpetuate the desire that perpetuates the craving that perpetuates the attachment that keeps us bound to the wheel of suffering. Seen from this perspective, freedom is not freedom to be an individual but freedom from individuality — through detachment and renunciation by one path or another. Humanity must be cut from “the dark forest of delusion,” says Lord Krishna in the Hindu scriptures, the Bhagavad Gita. The goal of Zen, said the great Japanese master D. T. Suzuki summing up his understanding of Buddhism, is not incarnation but “excarnation.”
The second is the secularist answer, which includes atheists, most agnostics, naturalists in science, and a large number of humanists. If the final reality is chance and there is no God (or gods or the supernatural) to consider, then purpose is up to each of us to decide and achieve for ourselves by ourselves. We don’t discover it — we decide it. In Friedrich Nietzsche’s words, our challenge is “to turn every ‘it was’ into a ‘thus I willed it.’” In Bertrand Russell’s view, we are each to be “a weary but unyielding Atlas,” carrying on our own shoulders the world of our own making. Like Frank Sinatra, we must each do it “my way.”
The third is the biblical answer, which is common to both Jews and Christians and is the main shaping force of the dynamic sense of purpose characteristic in Western civilizations. From this perspective, the final reality is neither chance nor an impersonal ground of being, but an infinite personal God who has created us in His image and calls us into relationship with Himself.
Our life-purpose therefore comes from two sources at once — who we are created to be and who we are called to be.
Not only is this call of our Creator the source of the deepest self-discoveries and growth in life, it also gives our lives an inspiration and a dynamism that transforms them into an enterprise beyond any comparison.
Have you concluded that your desire for purpose is an illusion? Then follow the Eastern masters to their various states of detachment. Have you determined that your purpose is something you must figure out yourself and accomplish all on your own? There are many secularist thinkers to cheer you on in the attempt. Or are you open to the possibility that there is One who created you to be who you are and calls you to be who He alone knows you can be? Then listen to Jesus of Nazareth and His two words that changed the world — “Follow Me.”
This is no time to fall for the lazy person’s mantra that differences don’t make a difference. This is no time to mouth empty slogans such as, “Make a life, not a living,” when the only difference between the two is the words. This is no time to allow people to mumble on about “callings” when they don’t realize there can be no calling without a Caller. Survey the restless panorama of the human quest for purpose and fulfillment, and you will see the empty and inadequate answers drop out of the running. And at the end of your examination you will see that the real notion of calling is the “ultimate why” for human living.
Answer the call of your great Creator.
Become an entrepreneur of life and see all of life as an enterprise transformed by His call. Count the cost, consider the risks, and set out each day on a venture to multiply your gifts and opportunities, bring glory to God, and add value to our world. Answering the call is the road to purpose and fulfillment in your life.
Are you content with the current craze for purpose, with all its slogans and clichés, or do you desire an examined sense of purpose? Have you explored how the biblical view is so different from the answers of the other families of faiths, and how it has made such a profound mark on history? Above all, consider the claims of the clearest and boldest call to purpose in all history. Listen to the commanding invitation of Jesus that is both a call and a charge: “Follow Me.”
Excerpted with permission from The Call by Os Guinness, copyright Os Guinness.
* * *
Are you longing for purpose and fulfillment? Have you heard a call on your life? Are you following that call from God? Come share with us on our blog. We want to hear from you! ~ Devotionals Daily