On Meaning in Life: Part 2, A Sense of Right Direction
Beyond coherence and comprehension, my ability to tell the story of my life in a way that makes sense of my life, the second aspect of meaning in life is purpose.
We spend our life pursuing a wide variety of goals. Many are short-term goals, like going to work or doing a project around the house. And we also work toward long-term goals that span years and even decades, from plans for our career, our homes, or our retirement.
Accomplishing those goals gives us a sense of satisfaction. Purpose in life, however, is how all these goals work together toward an overarching aim or direction. Purpose helps us choose the goals of life and sort out and prioritize among our goals when choices have to be made in how to direct our time and energy. Purpose asks: What do I want out of life? When I’m moving toward that purpose I experience meaning in life. Purpose gives us a reason to get up in the morning. William James describes this sense of meaning as “a sense of right direction.”
In the last post I described coherence and comprehension as the need and ability to “story” your life. With purpose I think of telos, the Greek word for “end,” “goal,” and “end goal.” Humans are teleological creatures. We need an aim, a goal. To use biblical language, we are eschatological creatures. We live today with a preferred future in mind. Otherwise, we feel lost and directionless. At sea without navigation. In a dark wood without a compass.
In short, meaning isn’t just about how the pieces of life “hang together,” it’s also about where that story is going. Meaning implies that your life has a plot.