Jewish World Review August 29, 2002 / 21 Elul 5762

What are we doing here?

By Dr. Abraham Twerski, M.D. | There is a story of two loiterers who were arrested for loitering. When they were brought before the judge, he asked the first loiterer:

"What were you doing when the officer arrested you?"

"Nothing", the man answered.

The judge turned to the second man, "and what were you doing?"

"I was helping him," he answered, pointing to his companion.

Just what are we doing here? What is the purpose of existence? Is it to "eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we may die?," as the prophet Isaiah asked? It is not necessary for spiritual man to know the purpose of his existence, but it is essential that he think about it and search for it. If one concludes that he has no, purpose in life, that is his privilege, but as a human being he must exercise the unique human capacity to at least contemplate whether there is a purpose to life or not.

This is necessary because this search is crucial for self esteem-a necessary prerequisite for a person to maintain his emotional health. Self esteem requires a sense of having value or worth. Generally we value things for their function or for their aesthetic value. Of these two choices, man is not merely a decorative ornament, so we are left with contemplating our function: Just are we for? To be without a purpose would be devastating to our self esteem.

Now for the big question. Can you have purpose in life without postulating a Creator? To speak of one's ultimate purpose one has to assume that there is an ultimate purpose for the entire universe; a universe where each person has an individualized role. For the Universe to have a purpose there must have been some Intelligence that brought the Universe into being in order to fulfill that purpose. In a Universe that came about spontaneously and happened to evolve in such a way that after billions of years man appeared on insignificant earth, man can hardly be considered to have a purpose.

Can one have a purpose without postulating a Planner or Creator? What about people who are humanists, who believe it is their purpose to promote the welfare of other human beings? Can they not have a noble purpose in life without believing in G-d? Of course they can. Yet noble aims and an ultimate purpose are not one and the same. An ultimate purpose presumes a reason for living. If we have a reason for living then we have value and hence our ultimate purpose is to live a life of value measurable by some universal standard.

While helping others is highly commendable, it is not the same as having an ultimate purpose. Even if we all help each other, what is the purpose of that assistance? To what ultimate goal? We need to identify an overarching goal which makes all of existence meaningful and purposeful. Helping others is a means to an end. Not the ends, in and of itself.

Now, coming to a firm conclusion about one's purpose is not essential. What is crucial is that one thinks about it and searches for it. The search itself is uniquely human, and the finding is incidental. To refuse to search is failing to act spiritually.

The reason many of us refuse to even contemplate the search is that if we actually do search and do find an ultimate purpose we may feel committed, by force of intellectual honesty, to fulfill it; and that indeed is an awesome responsibility. It is much safer and much more comfortable to avoid the issue of purpose altogether by finding some intellectual objection to the concept of G-d or ultimate purpose.

And that is the crux of the problem of spirituality. Spirituality and comfort are mutually exclusive. Spirituality is a long and arduous path, often requiring a reorientation of one's character. It necessitates patience, perseverance, self reflection and self improvement. One can readily understand that it is much more comfortable just to "not believe" in ultimate purpose.

When I travel through the countryside, I often reflect on how much calmer and more tranquil life would be if we were able to free ourselves of the arduous and turbulent thoughts and pressures of urban life. Wouldn't it be idyllic to lie in the sun like the cows on the hills, and simply chew our cud? On second thought, I would much rather pay the price of inner human turmoil rather than be bovinely tranquil.

If there is design and intelligence behind the universe then it is absurd to assume that contentment and tranquility are the goals of life. If the latter were true, there would be no need for the enormous mental, emotional and spiritual energy that man has.

One of my teachers pointed out that if you saw a child wearing pants that were too long, a jacket whose sleeves extended well beyond his hands and a hat which came over his eyes and nose, you would certainly not conclude that these clothes were designed for him. He obviously was playing dress up with an adult's clothing. Similarly, if life's aim was to achieve tranquility and contentment, there would be no need for man's mental faculties. The goals of contentment and tranquility are far better served by instinct. Although cows lack computers, sandwich makers and the Hubble telescope, they are far more content than the wisest human. Man's mental faculties were clearly not designed for the goal of tranquility.

If the purpose of life consists of working all day, then sitting in a bar for hours, and then coming home to sit in front of the television until overtaken by sleep, then man's capacity for abstract thinking, meditation, hopes and aspirations would be wasted.

Our physical drives push us toward the goal of comfort, pleasure and tranquility and this goal is certain to be frustrated when one searches for purpose in life. The natural inclination is therefore to rationalize and therefore dismiss considerations of spirituality as being irrelevant to daily life. One may find "scientific support" for this attitude by invoking the "maxim" that whatever can't be proved in a laboratory has no value. They may argue that since spirituality cannot be verified then it is meaningless. Such considerations and arguments are nothing but defensive techniques to allow one to remain spiritually complacent. If, however, one indeed values truth, one should be willing to make the necessary sacrifices to investigate it.


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Self-blinding perceptions destroy spiritual growth
Learning to Like Yourself
Contented cows
Spiritual animals?
The Believer's Guide to 'Buying' Happiness
Preventing future attacks
American Spirituality
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD): A very real condition
Helping our kids deal with trauma
The Creator helps those who help themselves
Knowing what to expect
Psychological fallout in the shadow of terrorism
Self-esteem in the face of world terrorism

Abraham J. Twerski, M.D. is a psychiatrist and ordained rabbi. He is the founder of the Gateway Rehabilitation Center in Pittsburgh, a leading center for addiction treatment. An Associate Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, he is a prolific author, with some 30 books to his credit. He has recently launched a new 12 step program for self esteem development Send your comments by clicking here.

© 2002, Abraham J. Twerski, M.D.