Purpose: What gives life meaning?

The majority of college students, 76 percent, are searching for their personal philosophy, according to a national study done by UCLA’s School of Education and Information. A personal philosophy is a belief about life that can have a large impact on a college student’s experience, from impacting their major to future career paths. That belief can be a religion, a philosophy or a mix of both.

“A view on the purpose to life should be included in any developed personal philosophy,” Whitworth sophomore and philosophy major Sam Director said. “A personal philosophy dictates what your view on life is.”

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The following four views on the purpose to life come from individuals who live by those perspectives.

Christianity

One man’s teachings, life, and ultimately death and resurrection became the foundation of the Christian religion.

Instead of seeking personal enjoyment or worldly things, the purpose to life under Christianity is to live for Christ, the Lord and Savior of the world. Christianity is a way of living that comes from a personal commitment to Christ, said Roger Mohrlang, Whitworth professor of biblical studies.

“Everything we do is to be an expression of our love for [Christ] and our love for others,” Mohrlang said.

Mohrlang became a Christian in college, which shifted the direction of where he thought his life was going, leading him instead to Bible translation and teaching the New Testament.

“As a Christian academician, I want to teach my subject well to the glory of God,” Mohrlang said. “But on a deeper level, I pray that God will be working in the hearts of my students through my teaching, to bring them to Christ, and to strengthen their own commitment to him.”

Mohrlang’s purpose in life is centered on Christ, he said.

“Though I have often fallen short of my ideals, my deepest desire is to live the whole of my life wholly for Christ — that is, to see Christ doing his work fully through me,” Mohrlang said.

Pragmatism

Pragmatism is a philosophical perspective in which one applies the scientific method to inquiry, using the method to make decisions, said Terrance MacMullan, a professor of philosophy at Eastern Washington University who specializes in pragmatism.

Under pragmatism, the purpose to life will look different for each person.

“It’s ultimately going to be the idea of leading as fruitful, as consistent, as meaningful to you, a life as you can possibly live,” MacMullan said.

To use pragmatism in making a decision, you think about what you want, look hard at your experiences, and make a decision in what you think will create the best results, MacMullan said,

“Then you have to start testing it, and be willing to say ‘I thought this was the right way to go, but it didn’t turn out’,” MacMullan said. “Then you are back to the hypothesis stage, but you are one step closer to something that might work.”

Pragmatism places a high value on one’s experience. Experience is all there could be and all that we have to work with.

“Instead of trying to fit experience to ideas, we should instead tailor our ideas to as best as possible explain and make sense of our experiences,” MacMullan said.

Because experiences vary from individual to individual, two pragmatists can be faced with the same decision and come to different conclusions.

“The thing they will agree on is there is no one right way ahead of time they must follow, and that our notions of everything emerge out of our experiences,” MacMullan said.

One of the key pragmatist thinkers, William James (born in the 19th century), described pragmatism as a hallway in a hotel. Open one door and there is a theology student trying to make sense of God. Open another door and there is a chemist trying to solve a problem. They both use pragmatism, but in various ways. That can occur because pragmatism allows for flexibility in beliefs.

“Since reality itself is constantly changing, our theories, our ideas, our beliefs about reality also have to be flexible — not chuck them out the window, not think whatever you feel like, but you need to have flexibility built in,” MacMullan said.

MacMullan said he uses pragmatism in his daily life.

“Experience has led me to see that just being selfish does not actually lead to my own flourishing,” MacMullan said. “I learned respecting my obligations as a dad and husband are absolutely important to me having a meaningful, happy life.”

Buddhism

Paul Vielle, a minister’s assistant at the Spokane Buddhist Temple, is a Shin Buddhist and places a lot of importance on life having meaning.

“Life without purpose is meaningless,” Vielle said. “With Buddhism, the point is not to live simply for the sake of living. The purpose to life is to become a buddha, to attain the same level of wisdom as the Buddha had.”

Buddhism views man as inherently ignorant. Before one can reach the wisdom of Buddha, one must first overcome ignorance and gain understanding.

One component of that understanding is recognizing that life is characterized by suffering, which occurs in the form of physical pain, observing pain in loved ones and when we experience feelings of unsatisfactoriness.

“We crave things but once we get them, the bloom is off the blossom so to speak and we get bored of it and crave something else,” Vielle said.

In Buddhism, the cause of suffering is connected to how we think, because we ignore the impermanence of life. The problem is that people get attached to their desires and believe they cannot be happy unless they possess those things.

“Because everything in life changes, the objects of our desires inevitably change and that’s when this suffering occurs,” Vielle said.

To cease suffering, one must end the attachments, reaching Nirvana. Reading, applying the Buddha’s teachings to everyday life, and verifying for ourselves that it is true helps individuals reach Nirvana, Vielle said. By changing how one thinks, one can end suffering and reach understanding.

“Buddhism is a path leading to understanding oneself,” Vielle said. “It’s not so much about becoming a holy person or having some mystical experience. It’s learning to see things clearly, understanding the reasons why one suffers and with that insight being at peace with oneself and the world.”

Humanism

While Christians can adopt humanist ideals, generally humanists do not believe in a supreme being or life after death.

With no life after death, one emphasizes improving this life, humanist celebrant Ray Ideus said.

For a humanist, there is no set purpose in life to strive for.

“You do not need a purpose to life,” Ideus said. “You just are. You just came into being and that’s all. If you want to have a purpose in life, then OK.”

Ideus said those who believe you must have the supernatural in your life to have purpose have not looked at other perspectives and that the humanists in the meetings he attends are full of more happy people than you could believe.

For Ideus, he finds purpose in helping people.

“I want to leave this world a little bit better than when I came,” Ideus said. “I don’t worry about what the world is going to do after I die, because after all it got along very well before I was born.”

Whether students are firm in their beliefs, unsure of their beliefs, or somewhere in between, learning and thinking about other beliefs is beneficial.

“Wrestling with hard questions is necessary to be happy whoever you are,” MacMullan said, “Because if you are blindly following, you are not really living your life and someone else is living it for you. I think that is contrary to both the good of being a human and the curse of being a human, which is to be self-aware.”

Madison Garner Staff Writer

Contact Madison Garner at mgarner16@my.whitworth.edu