The Modernists warned us about it, and now I fear it is coming true.
The Great Gatsby is a book all about the meaninglessness of society; of how, all Gatsby does is throw these large, elaborate parties, and the people eat, and drink, and dance. And, it all means nothing, because our relationships are corrupt, we don’t work, and nothing we have really matters in the end.
Hemingway, in The Sun Also Rises, notes this same foolishness in society; the characters move from country to country, bull fight to bull fight, seeking something exciting and meaningful, and find themselves trapped in an abyss of pointlessness. Cohn says, “I can’t stand it to think my life is going so fast and I’m not really living it.”
And, perhaps a more contemporary author, Ray Bradbury portrays people in Fahrenheit 451 as boring, monotonous robots, who do nothing at all, but push buttons, type words, and stare at television screens all day. No one thinks. No one progresses. No one does anything of importance, ever.
I am starting to see people my age fall into these same purposeless lifestyles. We wake up, work eight hours a day, come home. On the weekends, we hang out with our friends. We might call our families. And, that is really the extent of what we do. However, I believe, as 20-somethings, it is critically important to keep a drive for our purpose alive. If our life consists of showing up to work for 40 hours a week, and then socializing the rest, I think we are doing ourselves a disservice, because our existence is worth so much more than that; we will end up as a Jay Gatsby, or a Cohn, or a Mildred.
Part of my existential crisis was discovering just what purpose I served on earth, and while it certainly was no fun to go through, I now understand (to an extent) why I was put on this earth; what role I should play.
I first started by reminding myself why I picked my job, and what I was good at in it (certainly, there is no point in having a ‘purpose in life’ that you aren’t good at, and you don’t enjoy). When I was picking a college major at 18, there was something that attracted me to teaching, and not business or engineering, and I had to remind myself of why I made that decision. I liked teaching, because I could be the center of attention. And, not that I want it to be all about me, but I know that, by being the center of attention, I can take away a little bit of anxiety, of self-consciousness, of burden from my students; they can project those things onto me, and lighten the weight off themselves. I really liked this for two reasons: first, I can fulfill my need to be the center of attention, and two, I can gain satisfaction from helping other people.
Next, I paid attention to how those traits infiltrated into my non-work life. Of course, I can be the center of attention at school, but I also enjoy being the center of attention when I hang out with my friends and family, when I am being competitive in my yoga classes, when I am in my Bible study and grad classes. And, I realized that, although teaching is one venue I can share my strengths, I can also do this while I am coaching, while I am in classes, at the gas station, leaving the yoga studio. Invariably, the reasons why I liked teaching could transcend just my job, and I looked at the kinds of ways I could do this. When I am being the center of attention, I usually do one of three things: (1) serve to uplift, (2) make other people laugh, or (3) ask people to question the world around them. There are many other places besides teaching I could share this strength. I could write on my blog. I could engage in a class discussion. I could ask questions during Bible study. I could strike up a conversation with my Uber driver on the way to the bull riding bar. What I am good at, and what I like to do, I can find at my job, but also in other places of my life.
Then, I looked at how I was being called to enact that purpose. As things always occur in three’s, there was a one week time period in which I attended a funeral, sat at a brain surgery, and served as the counselor for an individual going through some tough family stuff. I knew in all three of these circumstances, I had to show up. And, I realized how incredibly fulfilled I felt once I did, because I was serving my “purpose”. And, now I know that, anytime I am called to be the center of attention in order to uplift, to make people laugh, or cause people to think, I must show up, because that is one thing I can offer the world.
I believe that we all serve some kind of unique, specific purpose; that we are all crafted for a special reason. Some of us are meant to be thinkers, envelope-pushers, instigators of change. Others of us are meant to maintain the status quo, abide by the law, follow directions. Some of us are meant to live on the fringe of society, to represent the under dog, to challenge conventional wisdom. Others of us are meant to play prescriptive roles, to think artfully, to accept conventional wisdom. Some of us make really good husbands and wives, others travelers and nomads. Some of us need to be happy-go-lucky, optimistic thinkers, while others need to be authoritative and realistic. And, any of those roles you may fill are great, because in a functioning and progressive society, we need them all.
As 20-somethings, I think we need to be very careful to not fall into the meaningless trap that Fitzgerald, Hemingway, and Bradbury warned us about. We must make sure that our lives are more than just frivolous activities, because otherwise, we sell ourselves short, and we live empty, pointless lives. When it comes time for your funeral, are the people who show up going to consist of your family, your co-workers, those you went to concerts/sporting events with, OR, are the people who show up going to be your family, your co-workers, perhaps some that you went to concerts/sporting events with, but also the immense amount of all those you touched along the way?
(…and, there I go again, making you think!)
William Shakespeare once (apparently) said, “the purpose of life is to discover your gift; the meaning of life is to give your gift away”.