Years ago I read the book by Orange County mega pastor Rick Warren, A Purpose Driven Life. The premise of the book is that successful lives are born of those people that make living Biblical principles their purpose. In other words, make God your main purpose in life and all else will fall into place. Pastor Warren and his book left me unconvinced that I should adopt his prescribed purpose into my own life. However this idea of humans needing a purpose to organize their lives has percolated in my head for many years.
Purpose and meaning are important to humans because we like to organize. We also like to assign meaning and value to all things we organize. We organize our living arrangements into little sets of rectangles of streets and buildings. Much of our developments are to support those pre-established methods of organization. We develop technology to light our little box shelters and we devise methods of transportation to move from one organized community to another.
We set up religions and governments to organize human behavior and keep order. Within such organization we set priorities of those things that are most important, enacting rules and laws to maintain that order, creating incentives and punishments intent on guiding compliance with the rules.
But what happens when things happen that out of our control such as natural disasters? In the last few years the world has seen a number of very large naturally caused disasters. Take a moment to contemplate the devastating earthquakes in Sumatra, New Zealand, Chile and Japan, and the erupting volcanoes in Iceland, Indonesia, Chile and elsewhere. Each year, extreme weather events such as typhoons, hurricanes and incidents of extreme flooding such as in Colombia and the Midwestern United States destroy lives and buildings, disrupting the organization humans have tried to impose on the earth. We call these naturally occurring events tragedies and disasters not because they have damaged the earth, but because they have disrupted our sense of self-imposed order.
Many try to understand these events through categorizing by giving them human centric meaning and purpose. Fundamental religious leaders claim the natural disasters are a result of misbehavior, thus assigning purpose and meaning of a God instituting the disaster in order to punish humans for some perceived failing. Secularists and environmentalists on the left equally claim that all extreme weather patterns are a result of humans failing are either causing or contributing to the inhospitality of the earth by upsetting the delicate balance of the atmosphere with carbon emissions. In both cases humans have organized the world around self interest much as our ancestors did by organizing the heavens with the earth at the center of the universe.
More sanguine individuals realize the natural occurring events have no purpose beyond being neutral expressions of the liveliness of the little blue rock we inhabit. Actions and reactions of natural plate tectonics or weather patterns have no direct purpose or meaning in our lives. They are simply natural occurrences that are unconcerned with their effect on the earth’s parasitic human beings.
Five hundred years into the future there will be many more intellectual discoveries about this planet we live on and the cosmos of which we are part. Surely humans will need to redefine their purpose and meaning in light of new knowledge. Maybe that perspective is as important as purpose.