Sunday, June 18, 2006

Life Purpose, Part II

In my last post about Life Purpose, I offered the thesis that believers who stop believing have a serious problem recapturing a satisfying life purpose. This feeling is echoed in a number of the comments which I received. Here is a comment from Orthoprax which captures the feeling very well....

DBS,

"Non-believers seek internal answers. They look within the individual for the aspects of life which hold meaning and purpose. That meaning is vastly different for each person. And it is the accomplishment of each individual’s life purpose which enables that person to truly give to others, and to benefit mankind as a whole."

Can you tell me then what would be wrong with a person choosing his meaning in life to be, say, watching television all day? Or one's purpose in life is to have sex with as many women as possible? In modern society that seems to be popular among the younger people - or at least that's as far as the media presents it.

You seem to define a "good purpose" as that which gives to others or benefits mankind. On what justification do you make that assertion?I suspect you are making the same type of extrinsic value judgements that you criticize theists (and post-theists) of doing.

See, I've been there on the other side of things. I've even given the arguments that life's meaning is self-discovered and self-contained, but I now find them unfulfilling. It's not that atheists can find meaning so much easier, it's just generally that they don't think on the same scales that people like I do.

They don't think about the question in the way I do.They may say that they live for X, but they aren't willing to see, or to recognize, that X is an artifical construct not really worthy of living for in itself. I am victim of it myself, but at least I'm trying to root it all to something more, well, meaningful.


Orthoprax,

You may be right, that I’ve let my own value judgments creep into the post. But, at least philosophically, I do not think that there is such a thing as an absolute ‘good’ life purpose. This is different from morality, where I do think that there are absolute standards for behavior which are detrimental to society and are immoral.

I do have one conviction which is very central to my own thought process; that each of us pursuing our own unique life purpose is what keeps the planet moving forward.

Perhaps that is due to spirituality, perhaps Dawkins, perhaps it is just my rose colored contact lenses. But, by my observation, it is our own diverse internal goals, priorities and motivators which have been the most powerful force in advancing both the scientific and humanistic progress of our civilization.

And, I believe that if something makes you feel happy and fulfilled, you will be a more positive force on earth. This isn’t a just a granola and bean-sprout argument, it’s a simple observation that people who are happy are just healthier humans. Being around someone who is happy with his life and satisfied with his endeavors is much more beneficial than being with someone who is unhappy and frustrated. And yes, they can give you more; as your spouse, your parent, your friend.

So I don’t think that there’s anything wrong with deciding that your life purpose is to watch tv all day, or to have consensual sex, or even spend all your time blogging. If you look at the world, you'll see that very few people are true hedonists, and can really find fulfilment in these pleasures. But I’d rather that you do that and be happy than expend your energy on something which is supposed to be more worthwhile, but makes you miserable.

Even if that ‘something’ is a very altruistic pursuit, if you find it frustrating and unsatisfying, you may do more harm than good. Haven’t we all had teachers who were burned-out and frustrated, or doctors who were cynical and bored? Wouldn’t we have been better off if they had run off and joined the circus? Then they could have added some joy to the lives of the people who are passionate teachers and healers.

And, for whatever reason, lots of people find that all sorts of altruistic pursuits, large and small, are satisfying and fulfilling. So you can worry about what would happen if everyone wanted to watch tv all day long, but the beauty of humanity is that there is inherent diversity. You may just as well worry about what would happen if everyone wanted to spend the entire day learning Talmud. Relax, they all won’t. Different strokes for each of us.

You mentione the problem of ‘scale’ in finding the non-theistic life purpose which is satisfying. These are the very same words used by other commentors, and it is, perhaps, the greatest challenge of former-theists.

For theists, certainly for Orthodox Jews, the life purpose we seek must to have a great, global, world redeeming, eternal significance. We set ourselves at the center of God’s attention, and we look at each of our minute thoughts and deeds as being eternal in His memory. That is the scale with which we are trained to search.

Someone sets you to search for a very valuable thing called a ‘diamond’, and explains that it is shiny, translucent and beautiful. But all of your life experience tells you that things which are valuable must, by definition, be very large. You will not be able to recognize the diamonds when you see them. You are looking for something gigantic - ten stories high - when all around you are tiny precious jewels which are fare more significant than the gigantic object which you envision.

But there is something much more insidious. Not only have we placed great importance on the idea of Divine Purpose, but we have diminished and discounted our own human value. We are taught to look at ourselves as being insignificant without God. As it says in the Netaneh Tokef prayer on Rosh Hashanah “Man is...a broken shard, withering grass, a fading flower, a passing shadow, a dissipating cloud, a blowing wind, flying dust and a fleeting dream.” It is only God that gives our lives significance.

And we are not just devaluing ourselves, we are dismissing the value of all of humanity. No wonder it is so difficult to privilege a more personal life purpose. We can’t value our own life purpose because – absent of God – we can’t sufficiently value our own selves.

In order to regain a meaningful and satisfying purpose we must be able to regain the importance which we place on our own life, values, goals and happiness. And, we must realize that our community is important, the earth is important, mankind is important. They have value not because of God, but in their own right - because of their own existance.

A core teaching in Orthodoxy is that one can not have faith in ones own self. “Hillel said…’trust not in thyself until the day of thy death…’” (Perek II:5). But to value our own path, we must have faith in that path. We must re-learn that our own selves – our hopes, our fears, our thoughts, our values, our feelings, our experiences – these are not simply chafe to be ignored in light of the Almighty Will. These internal forces are and feelings comprise the roadmap itself. And, we must regain our faith in ourselves to live up to our own ideals, to conquer our failings and to achieve our goals.

Is it diminishing to seek not the great purpose for all of creation, but to seek the special purpose for our own selves – for one individual of the six and a half billion souls on earth. Are we sacrificing our quest for greatness? Are we settling for a smaller life? No, we are not reducing our own worth in the least, quite the contrary.

We are elevating all of mankind.

12 Comments:

Blogger anonymous said...

"But there is something much more insidious. Not only have we placed great importance on the idea of Divine Purpose, but we have diminished and discounted our own human value. We are taught to look at ourselves as being insignificant without God. As it says in the Netaneh Tokef prayer on Rosh Hashanah “Man is...a broken shard, withering grass, a fading flower, a passing shadow, a dissipating cloud, a blowing wind, flying dust and a fleeting dream.” It is only God that gives our lives significance."

For every quote I will find you another. Bishvili nivra haolam. Kol hamatzil nefesh achas etc. Sure, these lives take value due to god, but life has inherent value in that all human life is b'tzelem elokim, and god created life in all its diversity. "And we are not just devaluing ourselves, we are dismissing the value of all of humanity." Come now, have you never read the story of yonah?
"A core teaching in Orthodoxy is that one can not have faith in ones own self. “Hillel said…’trust not in thyself until the day of thy death…’” (Perek II:5). But to value our own path, we must have faith in that path. We must re-learn that our own selves – our hopes, our fears, our thoughts, our values, our feelings, our experiences – these are not simply chafe to be ignored in light of the Almighty Will."

This doesn't mean not to trust your *feelings* It means not to trust your righteousness.

You've posted before that orthodoxy teaches people to ignore their emotions. I think that is something from your personal background and not common even in the most Orthodox circles. People don't always act on their feelings (and do you tell your boss you hate him, if you do?) but they aren't really taught to ignore them as data IME.

June 19, 2006 2:30 AM  
Blogger drjeff said...

Richard Elliot Friedman, in his facinating book, The Disappearance of God, A Divine Mystery, describes the oft observed but unexplained phenomenon of God's gradual withdrawal from the world, beginning from creation up to modern times. Friedman parallels this process to parenting, when parents gradually turn over autonomy to their children, giving them ever increasing freedom and responsibility. Similarly, man who has increased his knowledge and learned from experience, is able to guide himself with his own moral compass, without the "crutch" of an external source of morality. Another great book which gives expression to this idea is Alan Dershowitz's Rights from Wrongs, the Source of Human Rights. Although his treatment specifically deals with human rights vis a vis governments, the same logic can be applied to morality in general. What makes something wrong is that we have learned from the harmful consequences of committing the wrong. In other words, we know "bad" when we see it, and most people can agree on it, so we commit ourselves to a series of rules that prevent that bad from happening.
Yes, morality is relative and ever changing, but hopefully improving...

June 19, 2006 8:40 AM  
Blogger dbs said...

anon,

For every quote I will find you another. Bishvili nivra haolam. Kol hamatzil nefesh achas etc. Sure, these lives take value due to god, but life has inherent value in that all human life is b'tzelem elokim...

I don't know if you really believe what you are writing. Does human life have significance in Judaism? Sure. In order to serve God. You quote Sanhedrin 37a "Man should say 'The World was created for me'" - Rashi says that this is to prevent sin. Yonah? The entire city was doomed to be destroyed by God. "tzelem elokim"! exactly. We have worth because we were created in the image of God. This is not humanism, this is the opposite - Man has no worth absent God. If we go source for source, you're going to lose about 10:1.

This doesn't mean not to trust your *feelings* It means not to trust your righteousness.

Yes, don't trust your rightiousness. Man is corrupt. Our intellect is weak. We are in constant danger of giving in to temptation.

Nor am I saying that you 'act on your feelings' all the time. But view your emotions as an important informer of your internal self, not as an outside enemey which is trying to lead you astray.

June 19, 2006 8:45 AM  
Blogger anonymous said...

"I don't know if you really believe what you are writing. Does human life have significance in Judaism? Sure. In order to serve God. You quote Sanhedrin 37a "Man should say 'The World was created for me'" - Rashi says that this is to prevent sin."

the choice is in people's hands, which gives them the power. Why, do you not believe that evil people have power to destroy the world? Do you not respect the power of people to choose love or hate, and etc.

"Yonah? The entire city was doomed to be destroyed by God. "

Who didn't destroy it, and sent a prophet because of the people, and even the cattle.

""tzelem elokim"! exactly. We have worth because we were created in the image of God. This is not humanism, this is the opposite - Man has no worth absent God. If we go source for source, you're going to lose about 10:1."

If you twist things beyond recognition, sure! What do you think being created in the image of God means, if not that man has creative power and intrinsic worth.

"This doesn't mean not to trust your *feelings* It means not to trust your righteousness.

Yes, don't trust your rightiousness. Man is corrupt. Our intellect is weak. We are in constant danger of giving in to temptation."

This is simply not what the memre means. The first part, don't trust your righteousness, is apt. The rest is stuff you made up. "Our intellect is weak"? NO, al taamin b'atzmecha means that people allow themselves to be tempted by short term gains at the expense of long term damage. History will bear that out! There is no message of not trusting the intellect.

"Nor am I saying that you 'act on your feelings' all the time. But view your emotions as an important informer of your internal self, not as an outside enemey which is trying to lead you astray."

judaism doesnt' teach differently, there's no message to ignore emotions as data or as important indicators of how to behave. You can't convince people that something is so when they can turn around and look all around them and see the opposite. I've met some individual orthodox jews who feel and act as though their emotional reactions are not valid -- all of them are from markedly dysfunctional families.

June 19, 2006 5:59 PM  
Blogger dbs said...

drjeff,


Thanks. I like the 'children' analogy, though I wonder if it isn't perhaps more like growing up with an imaginary friend, who plays less and less of a role as you mature.

I'm still a believer in Hillel's "what is hateful to yourself..." dictum as an 'absolute criteria for moral behavior. How it ends up defining morals may change with the circumstances, but the dictum itself is global.

June 19, 2006 8:44 PM  
Blogger lightseeker said...

Beautiful post. In capturing both the essence of what former theists must let go of and the rich possibilities that can be found, you have created a bridge between the worlds for those who are willing to journey across.

June 19, 2006 8:47 PM  
Blogger dbs said...

anon,

Obviously,you are discussing a far more progressive orthodoxy that I am familiar with. Perhaps it is one which skips Ecclisacties, doesn't study "Duties of the Heart" and doesn't recipt the "meh unu" prayer on Yom Kippur.

And, once again, you have your anonymous friends to cite as examples of your theories.

You actually think that orthodoxy believes in the value of mankind independant of God? In the validity of personal moral choice?

I don't hear much mussar endorsing those ideas, but perhaps you go to a different shtieble.

June 19, 2006 8:54 PM  
Blogger anonymous said...

"Obviously,you are discussing a far more progressive orthodoxy that I am familiar with. Perhaps it is one which skips Ecclisacties, doesn't study "Duties of the Heart" and doesn't recipt the "meh unu" prayer on Yom Kippur."

I didn't say this isn't there, I said it's a much more complex system than you make it out to be, with many strands of thought. Therefore, the net result is not a community of people who don't take their own emotions seriously.

Meh uhnu is not some kind of mandate to ignore one's emotions. There are many similar themes in iconic western poetry and literature. Or do you think that every individual's contribution is obviously lasting, and that there's no sense that individuals are eclipsed by the sheer scale and power of the natural world, the passing of generations, etc.

"And, once again, you have your anonymous friends to cite as examples of your theories."

I am no more citing them than you are citing yours when you make these claims about the orthodox being trained to ignore emotions.

"You actually think that orthodoxy believes in the value of mankind independant of God? In the validity of personal moral choice?"

These are both distortions of what I wrote and fail to engage the argument.

June 19, 2006 11:19 PM  
Blogger smoo said...

Drjeff- Hidden Face of God is the new name for that great book by Friedman.

June 20, 2006 12:51 PM  
Blogger smoo said...

I found The Power of Myth by Joseph Campbell very insightful regarding the journey we must travel in life and the relevance of myth/religion as a guide on that adventure.

June 20, 2006 12:55 PM  
Blogger dbs said...

anonymous,

"You actually think that orthodoxy believes in the value of mankind independant of God? In the validity of personal moral choice?"

These are both distortions of what I wrote and fail to engage the argument.


Okay, just checking.

June 20, 2006 3:37 PM  
Blogger dbs said...

Smoo,

Thanks.

(...the ever expanding reading list...)

June 20, 2006 3:38 PM  

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