A Difficult Question
DECEMBER 01, 1969 by STANLEY YANKUS
Mr. Yankus moved to Australia from Michigan in protest against government intervention in agriculture, but knows that it is not a sufficient purpose for his life.
What did you talk about at the dinner party last night? Chances are you discussed the weather, your favorite TV show, sports, a story in the news, and similar trivia. We don’t often discuss our deepest concerns; how often do we engage in a conversation about the purpose of life? It’s not that few persons care about life’s meaning; everyone wants to know what it’s all about. Conversations about the purpose of life are rare because one difficult question leads to another and no one likes to admit he’s stumped.
Why do we need a purpose in life anyway? Should not life, after all, be lived spontaneously and adventurously? Let the philosophers think about life; the rest of us are content to live it! But can we live life to the full—and not merely exist—unless our lives have direction? The effort to discover the purpose of life is to provide us with a goal, lacking which we are hopelessly lost. No wind serves him who has no destined port, runs an old proverb.
You own a clock to tell the time, a pen to write with, a chair to sit on. Catalogue your possessions and isn’t it true that every one of them is owned to some purpose? When something has served its purpose—your purpose really —you discard it. Things which do not serve some purpose of ours are without value to us; but what purpose do we serve? We don’t value any object except as it serves some purpose, and a man will not value his own life unless he discovers a genuine purpose for living. The higher level his purpose, the more will he value the days of his life.
Man Needs a Purpose Beyond Primary Survival Needs
Let’s pose a basic question: Why do we need anything at all? In imagination, abandon all your possessions, then observe what needs come first to the fore. Before the day is out we’ll experience discomfort and perhaps pain; hunger pangs and the sharp edge of the north wind make it clear that our primary survival needs are for food, clothing, and shelter. If you wish to go on living, old mother nature doesn’t offer you any alternatives at this level; meet these primary needs or die! But once these needs are met and your survival assured, then you are confronted by the need to find something to do with your life that will give meaning to survival by challenging your powers and drawing out the best that is in you.
Some men have said that the noblest purpose in life is to serve our fellow man. Suppose someone dedicated to the ideal of serving others knocked on your door saying, "I have decided that I know what is best for you. You are making some horrible mistakes in your life and I have come to convert you to the correct way of living." Such a caller would get a cold reception. Every man has a right to live his own life, and men whose professed purpose it is to serve others deny this right to those others. Besides, the man who is busy serving others cannot be engaged in his own self-improvement. And if his own self is unimproved, how can he improve others?
There are many choices open to anyone who tries to select the best purpose in life. Choice itself is the foundation of every such purpose; life would be meaningless in the absence of any choice. If some bureaucrat had the power to decide how you should think and act in every situation, there would be nothing in your life you could call your own, not even your life purpose.
The Liberty to Choose
The greatest opportunity in life given to man by his Creator is free will—the liberty to choose what he likes to do and reject what he does not like to do. Many men let their lives be governed by their likes and dislikes. However, what a man likes to do and what is right are not always identical, as I shall demonstrate.
Children at play will always choose what they like to do. Watchful mothers forbid their children to play with electricity, matches, poisonous drugs, and other harmful substances because the consequences can be injurious or even fatal, no matter how much the child may enjoy such play. One of the aspects of growing to maturity is a recognition that our actions have consequences for which we are responsible.
Many men believe the circumstances in their lives occur by luck or chance. Such men deny that cause and effect operate in the universe. It is self-evident that a man is free to choose what he likes to do, but he cannot choose the consequences of his actions. These are determined by the nature of things.
For example, a man is free to touch a red-hot stove with his bare finger and he is free to tell lies to all of his friends, but he is not free to choose the results. His finger will get burnt and his friends will despise him for his untruths. The results of these actions and of every other action in life are determined by the natural laws, whether man likes these results or not. His likes and dislikes will not turn his mistakes into virtues.
What is a law of nature, anyhow? The laws of nature, the laws of God, the laws of Creation are simply phrases used to describe the way things are and the way things work. The laws of nature cannot be canceled, bribed, or evaded. If you seek liberty, good health, or success in any other worthy endeavor, look for the laws of nature underlying all things. As I see it, man’s chief purpose in life is to discover the laws of nature so he can harmonize his actions with them and achieve good results in whatever he wishes to do with his life. Such a purpose in life excludes no one. It is open to everyone, no matter what his circumstances may be.
By seeking the laws of nature in all things, a man best serves God, his fellow men, himself, and the cause of liberty.