Searching for Purpose in a Brutal World

“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.


  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

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