Searching for Purpose in a Brutal World

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“Civilization
is a stream with banks. The stream is sometimes filled with blood
from people killing, stealing, shouting and doing the things historians
usually record, while on the banks, unnoticed, people build homes,
make love, raise children, sing songs, write poetry and even whittle
statues. The story of civilization is the story of what happened
on the banks."

~
Will Durant
The Story of Civilizationi

On
the day I sat down to write this, a video was released showing one
man slowly cutting off the head of another, allegedly in retaliation
for abuses perpetrated against prisoners in the first man's part
of the world. On that same day last May, rioting Muslims in Nigeria
killed 11 Christians and burned two churches, following the murder
of hundreds of Muslims the previous week. In the Gaza Strip, a dozen
Israelis and Palestinians were killed in an ambush, and in the Northern
Iraqi city of Kirkuk, four people were killed and another 25 injured
when a bomb exploded in a crowded market.

It
can be discouraging to try to think about "purpose" in
a world that seems to get bloodier and more vicious with each day,
where the vast majority of the population is doing well to just
survive, and where the fate of so many rests in the hands of people
who have no "purpose" beyond their own acquisition of
power. But of course, this is precisely why it is so important to
examine our own sense of purpose.

As
a culture, we humans seem to believe that conflict is more interesting
than peace.

Throughout
the media, power and violence are glorified as exciting, intriguing,
even desirable. Local news stations compete with each other to bring
viewers the most sensational crime and car chase footage, while
blood and gore continue to do well at the box office. Across the
board, we tend to agree that violence is "interesting"
and worthy of our time and attention.

In
the entertainment marketplace, stories offering violent solutions
to problems sell — and they're easier to write. Developing dramatically
compelling conflict and resolving it without violence is extremely
difficult. It requires a great deal of thought and imagination.
In the movies as in the real world, action and violence involve
much less effort than does creativity.

There
is also something seductive about violence. "(W)ar is a drug,"
writes journalist Chris Hedges, "…peddled by mythmakers — historians,
war correspondents, filmmakers, novelists, and the state…"
He writes: "The enduring attraction of war is this: Even with
its destruction and carnage it can give us what we long for in life.
It can give us purpose, meaning, a reason for living."ii

In
other words, one doesn't have to do the difficult, time-consuming,
and often boring work of figuring out what a worthwhile purpose
might be, and then figuring out how to live that purpose in one's
own life, every day. War is a ready-made game, with ready-made rules
and values — even ready-made equipment and a ready-made enemy.

Hedges
goes on to speak of those who become "addicted" to combat,
and high-risk situations. Writing about his own experiences covering
wars, he says "There is a part of me — maybe it is a part of
many of us — that decided at certain moments that I would rather
die like this than go back to the routine of life. The chance to
exist for an intense and overpowering moment, even if it meant certain
oblivion, seemed worth it in the midst of war…"iii

As
human beings, we do hunger for extreme experience, and to be passionate
about something. Admittedly, risking death is at the top of the
list of "extreme experiences," but there are other experiences
that do not rely on violence, that provide powerful inspiration
— and yes, sheer terror — for their participants. As anyone who
has ever performed for a live audience knows, the terror before
going on stage can only be compared to that of going into battle.
And the thrill of having completed one's best performance is a high
that defies comparison.

Life
presents us with a myriad of creative acts: entrepreneurship, athletic
accomplishment, creating a new product or work of art, making a
scientific discovery, having a baby. Each provides horrors, thrills
and joys of its own. Of course, these activities don't always come
with ready-made rules and values. Rarely do they offer four-week
boot camp and equipment issue.

Are
violence and the pursuit of power perhaps just the easiest ways
of finding meaning and intensity in life; the paths requiring the
least effort and imagination? Is it possible that evil is just the
end result of moral and imaginative laziness — of the lack of a
positive purpose in life?

If
so, then there is a very real danger to remaining lazy.

What
is perhaps most chilling about the images of Iraqi prisoners being
tortured and humiliated by U.S. soldiers is in the faces of the
perpetrators. They look happy. They look like they are having a
good time, like they are not in the least disturbed by what they
are doing. They look normal. And they are.

The
now famous "Stanford Prison Experiment," in which normal,
healthy young men were randomly assigned to be prisoners and guards
in a simulated prison, demonstrated how easy it can be for "normal"
people to commit acts of senseless cruelty. The experiment had to
be ended early because of the abuses committed upon the "prisoners"
by those playing the roles of "guards."

The
true horror in viewing the Abu Ghraib photographs is not that it
could have been you or me lying on the floor with a dog collar around
one of our necks, but that it could have been one of us holding
the leash. This is the danger inherent in not having a clear sense
of one's purpose. If we are not clear about why we are here, and
what our values are, then we run the risk of being used to perpetrate
evil.

If
we come to believe that evil is something outside of ourselves,
as those U.S. soldiers certainly must have, then we don't develop
the inner muscles we need to keep ourselves from committing
evil acts. We may even lose the ability to discern evil from benevolence.
And if we can no longer fight evil within us, how on earth can we
be expected to fight it anywhere else?

Developing
one's own sense of purpose requires a lot more effort than does
simply accepting someone else's purpose, or throwing oneself into
life-threatening situations again and again where finding one's
"purpose" requires no questioning or reflection.

Neal
Stephenson, in his novel Cryptonomicon,
asks the question "what is the highest and best purpose to
which we could dedicate our lives?" The answer given in the
novel is "to prevent future holocausts."iv

It
is difficult to argue with Stephenson's assertion. Yet there is
something empty about it. Something hollow. After all, if one's
purpose is dependent upon having an enemy to defeat, or catastrophic
events to prevent, then what happens when all the enemies are defeated,
and the catastrophes averted? Do our lives then become meaningless?
If fighting evil is what gives our lives meaning, then don't we
run the danger of actually becoming dependent on evil? One can't
help feeling there has to be something more.

What
is important is what endures. Long after the fall of the Roman Empire,
much of what made Rome great is still with us. Our civilization
today is built to a great extent on technological foundations developed
by the Romans in engineering, architecture, and most importantly
in their system of law. However flawed and perhaps short-lived our
own constitutional framework may be, it has been one of the best
attempts yet at preserving individual freedom and limiting the power
of government.

The
Roman conquests and military expansion of the Empire may have had
an impact on our present-day borders, what languages are spoken
where, or the particulars of trade routes, but none of this is what
is critical to civilization. Those things that endured the fall
of the Roman Empire were what made Rome great; not the military
conquests, nor the internal struggles for power.

The
question for us as individuals is, do we want to put our energy
into those things that will endure, and be of value in the centuries
to come, or do we want to focus on the power struggles and political
and military actions that are simply the backdrop — and often impediments
— to real civilization? Are we to be creators or destroyers?

It
is not an easy question, partly because the lines between the two
are not always clear, and because the two are not always mutually
exclusive. It could be argued that Roman law was a positive contribution
to civilization precisely because it put in place mechanisms to
keep evil at bay. And yes, civilization — the stuff that happens
on the banks — does include creating institutions, cultural traditions,
and technologies that serve to help keep us free — and that help
prevent future holocausts.

But
this cannot be our only purpose in being here, nor our highest one.
Fighting evil and preserving freedom may be necessary conditions
for human happiness and fulfillment, but they are not themselves
the source of that happiness and fulfillment. Furthermore, while
the two may sometimes overlap, they are not the same. And it is
just possible that we will never be free from tyranny, war and evil
until we know what we would do with ourselves in their absence.

How
then, to find our own sense of purpose?

In
the early 18th century, a thinker and writer by the name
of Lord Anthony Ashley Cooper, Earl of Shaftesbury asserted that
"…to have the natural, kindly or generous affections (by which
he meant those u2018which led to the Good of the Publick')… is to have
the chief means and power of self-enjoyment."v
Lord Shaftesbury argued that it is actually in our own self-interest
to care about the good of others and of society. Contrary to the
prevailing wisdom of his time, he believed that society is not at
odds with human nature, but that it is actually part of our nature
to be able to live in harmony with others.

His
ideas were not entirely new. The world's most enduring spiritual
traditions have in common the theme that true happiness is not to
be found by pursuing only one's own well-being. Jesus Christ told
his followers "…but whoever would be first among you must be
your slave; even as the Son of man came not to be served but to
serve…"vi  (Matt.
20:27, 28.) Likewise, the ancient yogic scriptures tell us that
the quickest way to enlightenment is through the practice of bhakti,
or devotion to God. Bhakti is practiced by cultivating love for
all earthly beings, and practicing service to those around us. Buddhist
tradition teaches karuna (compassion) and metta (loving
kindness) towards all as a way of life.

Each
of these traditions teaches us that it is a part of our nature as
humans to pursue some purpose outside of our own well being. They
tell us that we will find salvation or spiritual enlightenment through
working towards the good of those around us. If they are right,
then seeking the happiness of others might — crazy as it may sound
— bring us closer to our own true happiness than pursuing it directly.

The
idea is often received with cynicism. Bernard Mandeville wrote,
in response to what he saw as Shaftesbury's naïve faith in
human goodness: "…it is evident, that the first Rudiments of
Morality, broach'd by skilful Politicians, to render Men useful
to each other as well as tractable, were chiefly contrived that
the Ambitious might reap the more Benefit from, and govern vast
Numbers of them with the greater Ease and Security."vii

It
cannot be denied that politicians and others have used ideas of
virtue, self-sacrifice and concern for the good of others to manipulate
the public into doing their will. But this fact does not negate
the genuine hunger that we humans feel for our lives to be meaningful,
or the satisfaction that is found in contributing to others.

Mandeville's
view was that human greatness could be measured in terms of wealth
and prosperity. Yet most of us realize that wealth does not lead
to happiness. The personal rewards from serving others are not benefits
that can be demonstrated through logic or evidence to someone who
has not experienced them firsthand. Those who have, though — and
my guess is that they constitute the vast majority of us — know
that both the hunger and the satisfaction are real.

The
same week that the video of the brutal slaying of Nick Berg was
released, another news item went almost unnoticed, buried beneath
the carnage of that week's headlines. On May 13, "SpaceShip
One" became the first privately funded space craft to climb
to the edge of outer space. Designed by Burt Rutan and manned by
Mike Melville, the craft shot to a height of 211,400 ft. before
landing safely in the Mojave Desert. SpaceShip One has now gone
on to reach 337,500 feet and then nearly 368,000 feet within a period
of two weeks, winning Rutan and his team the coveted $10 million
Ansari X Prize.


Photo by Powell
Gammill of the Western Libertarian Alliance

This
story is not as titillating as the more gruesome events that usually
make it to the front pages. And admittedly, thousands of lives are
not at stake right now in the quest for private space travel. Yet
the prospect of private space exploration could conceivably have
as much of an impact on the world's population as the current conflicts
in the Middle East and elsewhere.

It
has been argued that a free society requires an ever-expanding frontier;
that democracies eventually devolve into dictatorships or worse,
and that the world's most successful examples of free societies
have begun as frontier societies. Whether or not this is true, the
prospect of a new frontier is an exciting one, and a frontier that
is open to private enterprise even more so — particularly as NASA
struggles with financial mismanagement, inefficiency, and a troubled
safety record.

A
century from now, what will be remembered about that week last May
will not be the brutal beheading of an innocent American, nor the
abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib, but that it marked a critical
episode in the early days of private space exploration.

Whether
you believe that private space flight will be the salvation of free
societies, or is merely the harebrained vision of techno-crackpots
is beside the point. What matters is that there are activities going
on right now — creative endeavors, some of which will fail and some
of which will succeed — that have the potential to alter the course
of history in powerful, positive ways.

These
stories are not usually on the front pages and they do not inspire
the media feeding frenzy of the more bloody and salacious events.
They are the results of people's peaceful and creative purposes.
These stories sometimes require seeking out, but for those who care,
are worth the effort. Each of us must decide which kind of story
will receive our valuable time and attention, and as we choose,
we decide to which part of the larger human story we are contributing.

Fighting
evil is sometimes necessary, and where one can do it without becoming
evil oneself, it is a worthy goal. But it is not our purpose in
being here. Likewise, it may sometimes be necessary to destroy,
and there are certainly enemies worth fighting. But to make destruction
the focus of one's life or to build a life around one's enemies
is not only unnecessary; it is contrary to our purpose as human
beings. Our purpose is not power. It is not what the headlines tell
us it is, nor what politicians would have us believe it to be. It
is something much more valuable, and much more enduring.

And
perhaps the best way to fight evil is to expose its banality, its
cheapness. To reveal that it's really not that "interesting"
after all. And then to put forward the radical notion that, as human
beings, we are happiest when we contribute to the happiness and
well being of others and to humankind, and perhaps that is our only
purpose in being here. When we can replace the cheap thrills of
violence with the genuine excitement of creativity, maybe then things
will start to get really interesting.

Notes:

  1. Durant,
    Will. Life Magazine
    (New York, Oct. 18, 1963).
  2. Hedges,
    Chris. War
    Is a Force that Gives Us Meaning
    (New York: Public Affairs,
    2002), 3.
  3. Ibid.,
    5.
  4. Stephenson,
    Neal. Cryptonomicon.
    (New York: HarperCollins Perennial, 1999), 401.
  5. Shaftesbury,
    Anthony Ashley Cooper, Earl of. Characteristicks
    of Men, Manners, Opinions, Times
    , (Indianapolis: Liberty
    Fund, Inc., 2001), 50, 57.
  6. New
    Testament, Revised Standard Version, (New
    York: Thomas Nelson and Sons, 1952), 25 (Matt. 20:27, 28).
  7. Mandeville,
    Bernard. Origin of Moral Virtue (Indianapolis, Liberty
    Fund, Inc., 1988), 47.

October
5, 2004

Bretigne
Shaffer [send her mail]
is a writer and filmmaker based in New York. See her website.

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