This is not a question asked by octogenarians when they enter a room and wonder what brought them there. It is a question about human existence. Does life have a purpose beyond simply the living of it? That question is not the same for everyone. It is suitable only for those on the front end of life. For those on the back end of life the question becomes "why was I here?" Only the young have the luxury of asking the question in the present tense. The question has two foci: first, what is the purpose of all life, and second, what is my individual purpose in life?
The first focus is a wide-eyed wondering that anything at all exists, and hence in part asks about origins. Depending on your commitments, however, that question may or may not be answerable. If you are a Creationist, you believe that a God originated all you see about you. Various religious traditions offer a number of different answers to the question, but all would consider creation as an act of God. The ancient Hebrews answered the question "why am I here?" as follows. Your purpose as a human being is to:
Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth (Genesis 1:28).
Hence in this view the chief aim of humanity is to manage the earth and all its life processes. The answer that comes out of the Christian Puritan and Reformation traditions is that human beings are here to serve and glorify God (e.g., 1 Peter 4:11; 1 Corinthians 10:31).
On the other hand, if you are an Evolutionist, the origin of life was not a purposeful act. Life happened "quite by accident" over time around "4.0 billion years ago in the ponds and oceans of primitive earth" (Sagan, Cosmos , 30-31]. Hence the answer to the origins question "why am I here?" for an Evolutionist is: there no reason; you just happened along in the course of things.
There is, however, a second aspect to the question "why am I here?" It is: what am I supposed to do with my life now that I am here? In many ways it is a quotidian question. That is, how should I occupy my time throughout the day? It is also a serious existential query and prompts the question: what is my purpose in life? We usually bump up against this aspect of the question when we think about occupation, but it also has a more narrow focus: how should I act in a particular situation?
A good example of this latter significance of the question is found in Esther. Hadassah (Esther), a Jewess, had become the queen of the Persian Empire. Her uncle Mordecai learned of a plot to annihilate all the Jews in the Empire and sought help from Esther with these words: "Who knows whether you have not come to the kingdom for such a time as this" (4:14). In other words: this is your moment; time to step up to the plate!
Creationists have already answered the origins question by projecting a Creator behind the cosmos whose will must be satisfied: we are here to obey the will of the creator in all things. The Evolutionist, on the other hand, finds no need to pander to the will of a supposed deity mediated through imperfect and contradictory interpreters. The Evolutionist is free (to a point) to decide what to do in life and with life. It is both exhilarating and terrifying to realize that what I do with my life is my personal choice; or in the words of the poet:
Out of the night that covers me
Black as the Pit from pole to pole
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.
It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate
I am the captain of my soul (William Henley, Invictus).
From the perspective of the Creationist, however, the child of the Creator replies to the Evolutionist's arrogant assertion: true freedom can only be found in complete submission to the Creator—for only where the Spirit of the Lord is does true freedom exist (2 Corinthians 3:17). Everyone is enslaved to sin, and only the Son brings freedom from sin (John 8:31-37; Romans 6:17-28 and 8:2). Or in the words of the poet:
Free to be me, God, I really am free.
Free to become what you want me to be.
Free to decide whether I should be Lord
or be your slave and obey your word (Kate Wooley, Free to be me).
How do you answer the question, why am I here?
Charles W. Hedrick
Missouri State University
When Charles Hedrick is your dad, hard questions are the norm. Having all the answers? Not so much. In response to your (ie, Dad's) persistent insistence on a posted response: I choose to believe there is purpose and reason for why things happen the way they do, even when the "why" is unclear. Faith in a greater good feeds humility to success, perspective to loss and hope to (seemingly) hopeless situations. It's comforting, reassuring, soul inspiring and feels more TRUE than the I'm-all-alone-out-here train of thought. This is my truth: my mommy and daddy told me so. :)
I gather from your response that you align yourself with the Creationists (to use the word I used in the blog).
I, for one, would be interested in reading your comment on what you have chosen as the purpose for the existence of humankind being in the world. Even a ballpark suggestion as to what that purpose might be would be illuminating, since you have obviously given the matter some thought.
Is it allowed to say "both/and"? I believe that the existence of humans is purely the "accident" of evolution (the universe follows the laws of physics but any particular planet might have the statistically unlikely good fortune of not being hit with a giant meteor at just the wrong time to prevent the evolution of intelligent life). There was no divine hand that entered history to call humans into existence.
However, one existing and becoming capable of language, discovering self awareness, and learning to cope with mortality, we bring meaning to our existence as a matter of both creativity and choice. In some mysterious way, we sense the presence of the divine in our loving connection but we are not the result of a divine will.
Thoughtful and rich, as usual. Thanks. I'm happy to be nagged by the question, to be uncertain about my answer. Is that "both/and"? I wonder.
Hi Charlie, very thoughtful and thought provoking! I absolutely love the poetry.
I wonder if we're here to trigger the organismic-valuing-process, to help each other move toward completion, toward freedom. This idea is associated with the client-centered theories of Carl Rogers (Client-Centered Therapy, 1951; On Becoming a Person, 1961), one of the mid-20th century founding fathers of the science of psychology. The parameters of this theory of human nature do not require naming the involvement of deity. Simply, given an accepting interpersonal dynamic where the self can thrive, all necessary healing will take place. That dynamic includes core behaviors such as empathy, genuineness, and unconditional positive regard, which theoretically draw disabling symptoms like depression, anxiety, and mental confusion into themselves, absorbing, neutralizing, and dissolving them. One need not be a professional to practice these behaviors.
Here are some others way to experience completion.
Moving toward cultural freedom takes the form of fruits of the spirit which absorb and dissolve slavery to legal tyranny (love, joy, patience, etc: Galatians 5). Moving toward psychological freedom takes the form of forgiving which absorbs and dissolves guilt, of being genuine which absorbs and dissolves deception, of an accepting manner which absorbs and dissolves confusion and sadness, of empathizing which absorbs and dissolves anger, of reassuring which absorbs and dissolves fear, and of fully accepting which absorbs and dissolves shame. And all of these move one toward comprehensive health.
Charlie, it's funny you asked this because I just heard a person give an answer to it I'd never pondered before. He said, "Existence simply is. The question 'Why do we exist?' is a question within existence... So the question is subject to existence- existence is not subject to the question. Our existence does not in any way shape or form need to justify itself by asking why do we exist. Existence exists because that's the quality it exhibits: existence."
Whatever you choose to do with your existence is entirely up to you. Some people find the task overwhelming and need to be given a specific purpose of some sort. I've never understood that, by the way. I've also never understood people who not only can't decide what their own purpose in life is, but they will not hesitate to question or criticize or control someone else's.
What's wrong with choosing your own purpose and leaving other people's purpose alone?
Good Morning Roger,
I thought I had your answer figured out till I got to the end, and now I am pondering what is this "mysterious way" that "we sense the presence of the divine"? And further how is that "mysterious presence" (if I may put it that way) involved in our answering the question "why am I here"?
I also am nagged by the question (hence the essay) but unlike Roger (just above) who involves the divine (but note the lower case) in our human quest for meaning and purpose in life, I cannot appeal to a "mysterious way." When I think back on my life (I am after all nearing the end) it is up to me (with no help from outside) to make sense out of the zig and zag course of my 80 odd years of living. In short it is similar to prayer: when I pray I am only aware of one voice in my thoughts--mine. So my question is: whence comes the "both/and" for you? In other words what am I missing?
Good morning Gene,
Your answer suggests that our purpose in being here (see your first sentence about triggering) is a purely human trait and like Elizabeth's response our purpose has nothing to do with the idea of a divine other? In other words we must make our own way in the world without any supernatural guidance?
Good Morning Elizabeth,
Your response to my question seems to leave a divine other out of consideration when it comes to us humans finding a purpose in existence, both in the natural world and in our own personal existence. Both Roger and Bob left the issue of divine involvement slightly open. I would suppose that the involvement of a divine other (if Gods there be) could only be affirmed or denied in looking back over the course of one's life; hence the question is always slightly open and then always open to interpretation.
Good afternoon Charlie,
I tend to define deity as a gender neutral condition or grounding (unknowable in itself) which prompts (not according to any rules known to us) a certain kind of positive energy output, spirit energy according to some, breath-ability if you will, the movement from relational incompletion to relational completion. I tried to describe that process in my first post. Some, like Jesus, seem to have been more grounded than others, and serve as guides. If all humans were left to their own devices I doubt that they would be capable of rising to relational heights.
No once can answer any question about other people's belief systems with regard to "divine involvement." If your belief system contains such a notion, then your experience will be defined as such. Your belief system and definitions determine your experience of reality... But only yours.
I can't answer your question related to anyone but myself, Charlie, and I trust in a positive and benevolent Universe. Whatever you put your trust in will be reflected back to you. If you trust in a random, senseless, semi-real, semi-unreal, capricious Deity who plays around with people's lives and drops bird poop on their shoulder just for kicks... Then that will most certainly be your experience. You're always trusting in something, whether it's positive or negative.
Since I don't trust in a random, capricious deity, that is not my experience. My experience has always been and always will be a positive one because that's the meaning I choose to give all circumstances. We don't respond to events- we only respond to the meanings we either consciously or subconsciously give them.
Sorry, I didn't mean to go all mushy on you. It is a fact that our bodies are comprised of the same star dust as the trees and rocks around us. It is also a fact that I do not experience the star dust arranged as my daughter in the same way or with the same meaning as I experience the star dust that forms the oak tree outside of my window. Technically, they are both made of the same stuff but I do not regard them as being, therefor, the same. There is an inexplicable mystery to the existential dimension of existence. I think Einstein said it very well:
We are in the position of a little child entering a huge library filled with books in many different languages. The child knows someone must have written those books. It does not know how. It does not understand the languages in which they are written. The child dimly suspects a mysterious order in the arrangement of the books but doesn't know what it is. That, it seems to me, is the attitude of even the most intelligent human being toward God. We see a universe marvelously arranges and obeying certain laws, but only dimly understand these laws. Our limited minds cannot grasp the mysterious force that moves the constellations.
There remains something subtle, intangible and inexplicable. Veneration for this force beyond anything that we can comprehend is my religion.
And that seems to work for me. Your friend, Roger
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