Do I live only so that I may die?
November 11, 2019 3:22 PM   Subscribe

What is the purpose of my life? - this is a question I have been thinking a lot about.

The superfluousness of my life has become readily apparent to me these last few weeks.

Tomorrow I will head to the office, work my 9-5 for minimum wage doing mostly uninspiring, unproductive, and extremely tedious work.


You "work to live" according to most self-help websites. Since my work is neither valuable to the world nor to me personally but only insofar as it makes someone else wealthier, and the wage I earn makes it impossible to "live" if living means anything more than to exist, the logical conclusion is that I make someone else wealthier so that I may exist. This doesn't answer the question as to why I exist.

I have several interests and hobbies I enjoy: reading (I've read 52 nonfiction books in 2019 so far), book reviewing, etc.


I have no friends, family, followers, etc. that care about what I have read. Neither do I have any practical application for the knowledge I acquire through reading, making the knowledge I have useless. What use is knowledge if it serves neither me nor humanity?

This afternoon, I was sitting on our couch, staring off into space. It occurred to me that I was simply waiting for the inevitable - work.

Is that the purpose of my life? To wait until the inevitable, i.e., death?
posted by 8LeggedFriend to Religion & Philosophy (34 answers total) 50 users marked this as a favorite
Currently, it seems your purpose is to find or discover a purpose. That's legit.
posted by amtho at 3:28 PM on November 11, 2019 [32 favorites]

Maybe the purpose of your life is to figure out how to make a living out of what makes you happy?

Maybe your miserable job is a barrier to that.

Maybe you have to risk being unemployed and financially precarious in order to find your purpose in life.

Or, at the very least, you need to find a better-than-minimum wage job to be miserable at, because being miserable for peanuts doesn't sound like a good deal.
posted by Reverend John at 3:29 PM on November 11, 2019 [2 favorites]

it is to have experiences. The more interesting, the more intense the better -- whether that's having adventures alone; experiencing relationships with other people; or gaining insights and pleasure from books.
posted by fingersandtoes at 3:30 PM on November 11, 2019 [12 favorites]

Or to discover for yourself what feels fulfilling (rather than looking to what someone else says or writes -- even if they are correct, the communication of it is impossible to do perfectly).

It may be that all we can really know is how we feel in a moment, and patterns that usually work to make us feel fulfilled. That's fine - if you can accept that you're just optimizing for what very probably will work, then the uncertainty is what makes life worth continuing -- if we knew for certain what would happen, there would be little reason to continue. We need to want to know.
posted by amtho at 3:31 PM on November 11, 2019 [1 favorite]

When you think of someone who lived life well, who do you think of?

Then consider why?

Whether you’re religious or not, I also find some of the New Testament teachings instructive and radical in their simplicity—help and love others without worrying about yourself. Give of yourself—money, time, and talent—as much as you can stand, and then more. If you ask, What’s the point? Well, why not? We are living here together on this planet, what else are we going to do?

I’ve also always liked the quote: “if your life bores you, risk it.” Not that you should go sky diving, but change things up in a big way and see where you land.
posted by sallybrown at 3:58 PM on November 11, 2019 [22 favorites]

Kurt Vonnegut's commentary on this matter always resonated with me:

“I work at home, and if I wanted to, I could have a computer right by my bed, and I’d never have to leave it. But I use a typewriter, and afterward I mark up the pages with a pencil. Then I call up this woman named Carol out in Woodstock and say, “Are you still doing typing?” Sure she is, and her husband is trying to track bluebirds out there and not having much luck, and so we chitchat back and forth, and I say, “Okay, I’ll send you the pages.”

Then I go down the steps and my wife calls, “Where are you going?” “Well,” I say, “I’m going to buy an envelope.” And she says, “You’re not a poor man. Why don’t you buy a thousand envelopes? They’ll deliver them, and you can put them in the closet.” And I say, “Hush.”

So I go to this newsstand across the street where they sell magazines and lottery tickets and stationery. I have to get in line because there are people buying candy and all that sort of thing, and I talk to them. The woman behind the counter has a jewel between her eyes, and when it’s my turn, I ask her if there have been any big winners lately.

I get my envelope and seal it up and go to the postal convenience center down the block at the corner of Forty-seventh Street and Second Avenue, where I’m secretly in love with the woman behind the counter. I keep absolutely poker-faced; I never let her know how I feel about her. One time I had my pocket picked in there and got to meet a cop and tell him about it.

Anyway, I address the envelope to Carol in Woodstock. I stamp the envelope and mail it in a mailbox in front of the post office, and I go home.

And I’ve had a hell of a good time. I tell you, we are here on Earth to fart around, and don’t let anybody tell you any different.

posted by whisk(e)y neat at 4:14 PM on November 11, 2019 [192 favorites]

Have you considered volunteering in some capacity? It may help to have direct interaction with people in a meaningful way. Doing something that helps another human being, even in a small way, might help you to feel like you did something that mattered. Maybe you'll find a purpose for your life or maybe you won't, but putting some good out into the world is not an insignificant thing and it might really help you. For instance, you could volunteer for an afterschool literacy program. Use your love of reading to help children learn to read and develop their own passions for reading.
posted by acidnova at 4:23 PM on November 11, 2019 [10 favorites]

I am not going to share a pithy quote or try to jolly you out of this.

You sound sad and in deep thoughts but to me, this sounds like depression talking, not philosophy. Just waiting to die does not sound healthy or happy.

Find a therapist. In the meantime, get a dog or cat. Having something to care for gives many people a reason to live, because there's a creature dependent on you.
posted by yes I said yes I will Yes at 4:29 PM on November 11, 2019 [31 favorites]

Why does there need to be a purpose? We don't expect there to be a purpose for the life of any other species.
posted by DarlingBri at 4:45 PM on November 11, 2019 [23 favorites]

We need to feel that our basic drives, like other people's basic drives, are comprehensible and consistent, so that we can trust that other people don't all just want to eat us.
posted by amtho at 5:08 PM on November 11, 2019 [1 favorite]

Check your MeMail.
posted by epj at 5:18 PM on November 11, 2019 [1 favorite]

I agree with the Molly Bloom respondent: it sounds to me that you are depressed and there is medical help for that. It won't find you; you must search out medical help. When you're depressed, it may feel that seeking help is asking too much, that your life is too little to bother anyone else with it. Don't stop at that feeling. Experiment. Get to a doctor.

Once one starts to talk about a life purpose, the answers tend to get rather grand: to be President of the US [hmmmm?!?], to cure cancer, to find a convincing argument for one cult of spiritual belief over any other, etc. But for most people purpose usually is subtler than that.

So, my personal story:

I was clinically depressed for a number of years. Like some men, I didn't know what was happening but sought to feel better, in my case, through drug addiction. Once I lost nearly everything and stopped drugs, I reluctantly saw a psychiatrist and got an SSRI drug. The effect started slow but after two months, I could read a book all the way through [!], shower daily, and fix dinner. At about three months, I was taking on long-term tasks. Eventually, I went back to work.

A decade later, after an early retirement, I began, with my husband, to write non-fiction books in an area that always interested me. Since I was a pre-adolescent it was my dream to be a published author. Now, late in life, I've co-written and individually written 6 published books. I achieved a purpose I articulated early in life---and then forgot. And when late in life there was time and energy, I picked up that dream and achieved it.

I'm not holding myself as an example. Rather I want to say, that thinking in terms of "what is the purpose of life" is too big a thought. Start finding how to find satisfaction most days.

And a good psychiatrist with the right drugs can help.
posted by tmdonahue at 5:53 PM on November 11, 2019 [26 favorites]

I am an existentialist. I believe that I create my own meaning in life. This belief is important to me because, by the standards of the capitalist society in which I live, my life is not meaningful, given that I currently don’t work and am housebound due to disability. But my life is generally happy and fulfilling because I find my meaning in kindness given and received, and that includes extending to myself the same kindness I give others. I’m always with myself, so I always have the opportunity to practice kindness, and so my life is always meaningful.

Life doesn’t have to be big and grand to be meaningful. Meaning is what you want it to be. If reading for reading’s sake is meaningful to you, then a well-read life is a meaningful life. The point is that you get to decide what the meaning of your life is.
posted by Ruki at 6:11 PM on November 11, 2019 [38 favorites]

I find passions from time to time, but for the most part I’m very aware that I’m just keeping myself entertained until I keel over. Sometimes that means public service, sometimes travel, sometimes laying around doing nothing. But it’s all in the name of passing the time.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 6:55 PM on November 11, 2019 [4 favorites]

I am assuming that in your reading journey you have read Viktor Frankl's Mans Search for Meaning. If you haven't, you probably should consider doing so. It helped changed my perspective from being a victim of life to being a full participant.
posted by Xurando at 9:44 PM on November 11, 2019 [6 favorites]

This book addresses some of the issues you're bringing up, and he recently run a course that guides and frames these questions (e.g. why am I here?) in a modern context. The course is still up and available.

Is that the purpose of my life? To wait until the inevitable, i.e., death?

As we struggle and seek out answers to these questions, we undergo internal changes and thereby change the world.
posted by hannahelastic at 10:52 PM on November 11, 2019 [1 favorite]

Maybe you have to risk being unemployed and financially precarious in order to find your purpose in life.

This would be a lovely luxury if so many people didn't live paycheque to paycheque.
posted by Chaffinch at 12:27 AM on November 12, 2019 [1 favorite]

Why does there need to be a purpose? We don't expect there to be a purpose for the life of any other species.

I just wanted to expand on this. I feel like "seeking your life purpose" is a very Western, elitist thing. To think that your individual life is so special that it has a meaning and you just need to find it is very self-indulgent. Having a job to pay the bills for food and shelter is the norm for 99.9% of humanity. I mean, there are 8 billion people in the world; do we all have a purpose? Does someone living an anonymous life in a 3rd world country trash picking have a higher purpose? Do people incarcerated for terrible crimes like murder, spending their entire lives in prison, have a purpose? (And if we want to get all Hallmark, even if their "purpose" is to find Jesus or Islam or reading and be an "inspiration" to other prisoners, what about their original victims? Was the "purpose" of someone else's life to die so someone else could inspire people to religion or literacy?)

We were all born from chaos, and we live in chaos. There is nothing wrong with chaos and the random nature of life and the universe.

That doesn't mean you can't give purpose to your days. Work to save money to travel. Or go to the gym because it makes you feel good. Or train to be an EMT because you enjoy it. Or whatever -- get some goals. And it's okay if they're small; you don't need to cure cancer.
posted by DarlingBri at 6:34 AM on November 12, 2019 [12 favorites]

I think maybe you've fallen into the trap of thinking that you should be getting meaning from your job and there's something wrong with you if you don't. That's an easy trap to fall into - we're totally inundated with the idea that we should all have fulfilling, meaningful work, when in reality that is a huge luxury that most people throughout history haven't even thought about. Looking at Wikipedia, between 21 million and 46 million living today are actual slaves (depending on how you define slavery). Go back to your own ancestors a hundred years ago. My grandfather was a coal miner who earned extra money by lighting fuses for explosions in the mine - it paid extra because there was a decent chance he would die doing it. I think he would look at me sitting at a desk all day, getting decent pay and health insurance, and he would just be baffled that I'm unhappy with my job because I don't feel it's important or meaningful.

For me, the most helpful thing is to read history - and you do like to read. That gives me a better sense of how most people have lived and helps me really understand that my vague existential angst seems like a problem to me because I am physically so much more comfortable than almost everyone who has ever lived. I have also gotten much more into spiritual reading, which may be completely unhelpful to you, I realize. But if you are at all interested in the spiritual, you might try a more liberal faith community, such as Unitarian Universalist or Quaker. I have gotten involved in church again, and I get a lot of meaning out of that, but the church I'm involved in (Roman Catholic) is specific to my own faith history and ancestry and probably wouldn't be great for someone who doesn't have that history.

But I think the biggest problem here is that you don't like your job and you feel like you should have a job you derive meaning from. Probably, the only way you'll ever find meaning is by looking outside of that job. I agree that getting involved with volunteer work if at all possible is really the way to go here. If you can truly help other people live better lives, maybe you can find meaning in that.
posted by FencingGal at 6:43 AM on November 12, 2019 [6 favorites]

I have struggled with these same questions. I have come to the conclusion for me that there is no real purpose except what we make. For a while it bothered me but somehow I have made peace with it. Nothing specific happened. I did not read a book or go to therapy or anything. Maybe crossing 50 and accepting my mortality to a degree has helped.

We are all insignificant to the universe and are less than a blip on the radar so to speak. Someday all of humanity will be extinct and it's ok. For me I try to get enjoyment from the simple things I enjoy. My self ascribed "purpose" is to make life a little better for some people through acts of kindness and volunteering when I can. Or at the least try not to actively make things worse.

Try watching The Good Place on NBC. The whole show is basically about this and it's great.
posted by Justin Case at 7:30 AM on November 12, 2019 [7 favorites]

I have bipolar disorder. After many, many, many years of this (since I was 12), I know how I can tell when I'm getting depressed. The biggest sign for me is that I feel like you're describing.

I'm not ruling out what others have said in this thread. Maybe you do need to find or make a purpose and maybe that would fix this feeling. But I'd add that it may be brain chemistry, and there may be no need to feel like this.

I know my depressed brain would read that and think, "Well, they just want me to take medication so I'm happy with this drudgery and insignificance and go on working my shit job till I die." But I also know from experience that if I fix the depression, it's easier for me to see how I can find a purpose, maybe get a new job, maybe be happier with the good stuff that's already in my life.

Good luck!
posted by fiercecupcake at 8:39 AM on November 12, 2019 [5 favorites]

Maybe there is no purpose in that grand sense, that sense of some deep guiding force that imbues one's life with meaning. You exist because you were born and here you are here now. That's it. Eventually you will come to the end of your time and pass on, just like the billions of people that came before you and the innumerable creatures that came before all of us humans in the long, long history of the earth. Does an ant have purpose? A woolly mammoth? A mushroom?

But if there is no divine unifying purpose to our existence, does that imply that your life has no meaning? Of course not. You are here now, your life has meaning to you. You have the opportunity to make the best of your short time here in whatever way supports your own sense of purpose.

For some people that sense of purpose comes from work, but for many (maybe most, and historically just about all) others work is just what they do to put food on the table and keep a roof over their head, nothing more. Meaning comes from family, friends, religion, volunteering, study, hobbies. On a smaller scale I think that meaning comes from incremental action—from making your spouse smile, petting the cat, finishing a book, comforting a friend, taking a walk—from all the ways we find to make ourselves and the world around us just a little better off.

Your purpose is to figure out what that means for you.
posted by 4rtemis at 8:44 AM on November 12, 2019 [3 favorites]

It sounds like you have a Bullshit Job. My last job was a bullshit job that also had a shitty boss and shitty benefits and I was depressed while there. I found a new job that is not 100% bullshit (though it still has chunks of that) with a better boss and decent benefits. That part helped. I also got involved in an old hobby again, started a peer support group with a friend around a shared identity, and got involved in a religious community. Those things were not strictly tied to getting a less shitty job, but they help get me outside of my own head. I got to meet new people, pushed my own boundaries, and got to help some people.

I would suggest looking for another job, volunteering for something you are passionate about, and finding one other activity a week outside of your house. Maybe a book club would be a good fit since you love to read and review books.
posted by carrioncomfort at 9:57 AM on November 12, 2019

I asked a similar question about a year ago. I found many of the answers helpful; perhaps you will as well. Good luck!
posted by Bella Donna at 11:13 AM on November 12, 2019 [1 favorite]

I feel kind of the same way you do and I don't really buy that it's depression or anything. We are just dropped here on this earth to make our own meanings of things and when we don't have any kind of religious guidance we buy into, it's hard to really see outside of the day-to-day drudgery of a capitalist society that only values our production. Of COURSE we wander a bit aimlessly, especially given the ostensible state of the world lately. That's not a mental health problem; that's normal. That said, I read this article the other day that spoke to me.
posted by urbanlenny at 11:40 AM on November 12, 2019 [1 favorite]

Here's what I've come to after many, many hours pondering this: it helps to think of "purpose" from an evolutionary standpoint.

To put it simplistically, our purpose is to continue moving the species forward. In my personal/spiritual view, we're already pretty deft animals, in a physical sense, so the next phase of evolution will be seated in our collective consciousness, as we begin to realize on a larger and larger scale just how interconnected we all are. And nearly everything meaningful in life goes back to humans moving toward that realization.

This is done any number of ways, from Grand Things like creating cancer vaccines, to more localized stuff, like showing up fully to our relationships, healing from family traumas, or, in your case, maybe eventually taking all the grist you collected from those years of reading and creating something entirely new from it.

Once you hit on the thing that you're uniquely suited to do to bring about whatever comes next for us, you start to feel like a single cell in a giant body, with your sovereignty and integrity in tact, as well as an essential function within the larger whole.

The problem is that a lot of things stand in our way, including ourselves. And especially capitalism!

Sometimes you meet someone who is living with purpose and you see the spark in their eyes, and witness the way the pieces seem to fall into place to help them do what they were meant to do. I've met enough of these people that it kickstarted in me the belief that it is possible to find that thing, go after it whole hog, and watch some of the larger anxieties of life drop away. And the "going after" is as honestly as meaningful as the end result—because other people watch you doing it, and then they have to re-examine what they thought was possible.

Note that I'm not talking about career or vocation here. It's a lot more than that.
posted by gold bridges at 12:05 PM on November 12, 2019 [4 favorites]

An almost omniscient, omnipotent robot was asked why "he" was cleaning a table in ― Iain M. Banks', Use of Weapons:

'And therefore does not really signify on the cosmic scale of events?' the man suggested.

He smiled in response to the man's grin, 'Well, yes.'

“I could try composing wonderful musical works, or day-long entertainment epics, but what would that do? Give people pleasure? My wiping this table gives me pleasure. And people come to a clean table, which gives them pleasure. And anyway" - the man laughed - "people die; stars die; universes die. What is any achievement, however great it was, once time itself is dead? Of course, if all I did was wipe tables, then of course it would seem a mean and despicable waste of my huge intellectual potential. But because I choose to do it, it gives me pleasure. And," the man said with a smile, "it's a good way of meeting people. So where are you from, anyway?”
posted by lalochezia at 2:22 PM on November 12, 2019 [5 favorites]

I have no friends, family, followers, etc. that care about what I have read.

Would it make a difference if it felt like someone did care about your book reviews? I ask because I know that new and self published authors are often extremely interested in having their books reviewed, and will sometimes offer free copies in exchange. You could set up a blog, or just review unknown books on platforms like Amazon or GoodReads. The first few reviews mean a lot to undiscovered authors, so that would be a way to make an impact without taking on a demanding commitment.
posted by space snail at 3:23 PM on November 12, 2019 [4 favorites]

I have noticed in my life that feeling like life is meaningful is a side effect of feeling that I am connected to people and that I am of use to the people I'm connected to. A lot of creating and maintaining those connections feels like going through pointless motions, but I've learned that they are worth doing in the long term even if they feel pointless in the short term.

I am an introvert, BTW.
posted by clawsoon at 5:58 PM on November 12, 2019 [1 favorite]

Correction: When I'm connected and useful, it's not that I feel that life is meaningful in some grand, ultimate sense. It's that the question matters a lot less.

I've also learned that the feeling of meaninglessness comes and goes. The first few times through the bottom you're, like, "This will never end, I will always feel meaningless!" And then after a few more times you're like, "I've been here before, and in a few days or a few weeks or a few months this feeling of meaninglessness will go away. It's temporary, and not nearly as big and important as it makes itself out to be."

Whether or not you're depressed, you might find some of the tools from CBT and ACT useful. The Happiness Trap is not a great book, but it's worth reading.

Just as worthwhile is taking steps to connect with people, and not being a perfectionist about it.
posted by clawsoon at 6:17 PM on November 12, 2019 [1 favorite]

Oh, man. I could have written this askme. I wish I had an answer for you. Yes, depression is part of this, but that is a symptom, not the cause. The cause is capitalism, put simply. It forces us to value all the wrong things and take that which really matters for granted.

I agree that existentialism has it right here: life is meaningless; you have to choose your own meaning. But I assume you've read Sartre, etc. That Vonnegut quote is on the money. Life might be futile, and meaningless, but it's all we have. So forget about all the things society is telling you are measures of meaning and success, and define them for yourself. Maybe you just want to read everything you can get your hands on. That can be an end in itself. Not everything has to serve some higher purpose. There is joy in learning for the sake of learning.

I was in exactly the place you are in when I quit my job. I've been out of work for over three years now. I hated that job and I don't regret walking out. But I didn't find purpose as a result of it. So, like I say, I don't have the answers. But when I reflect, the moments that give my life meaning are those when I make a human connection with others. They can be fleeting, but they're all we have. The rest, to paraphrase Roy Batty, are lost in time.

It's true that experiences are what makes life worth living. Hence the "work to live" idea. Here's a question I asked some nine years back on that exact subject. I still haven't figured it out. Back then I was long on money, short on time. Now the reverse is true. You can't win sometimes. But it's all experience, just the same.

I have a kind of mantra that keeps me going. I tell myself that all this is just research. When times are tough, work sucks, life feels pointless. I tell myself that I'll have a much better understanding when it comes to writing characters or situations dealing with those same issues. I haven't written that great novel yet. Perhaps I never will. But that's how I view it. Just research.

Maybe you could consider writing. Books are a kind of magic. They speak to people through time. They connect us. You've probably become a proficient writer already, simply from having read so much. You have insights. They matter. You don't need to have all the answers. Some things are unanswerable. But they are nonetheless real.

Above all, know this: you are not alone. Not by a long shot.
posted by Acey at 7:03 AM on November 13, 2019 [7 favorites]

What I've settled on, for now, is a parallel to the 'leave no trace' approach to being outdoors: I want to leave this place better than I found it, and do as little damage as possible. I have to be healthy and content to do so, so I try to take good care of myself as well. Part of that is finding meaning in my work, even if the meaning has sometimes been as small as trying to learn from the experience while I make enough money to live (and trying to pursue other things in the mean time). Being able to support yourself is important work. Staying healthy is also important, and if reading helps you do that, then it's important.

If I go out of this life with a few people having good memories of me, and a few lives that are better because I impacted them in some small way, and very few that are worse because of my mistakes...then I'm ok with that. The meaning of life doesn't have to be grand. I hope that helps.

(quick edit to add: I agree with the above commenters mentioning depression and looking into therapy, medication, whatever is right for you. The times I have struggled the most with this have been the times my depression was the worst, and the existential despair has faded greatly in concert with a lot of work on improving my mental health.)
posted by MartialParts at 8:19 AM on November 13, 2019 [3 favorites]

Yes, you only live and then you die.

We all do.

And we each define what "live" means to us. That determination is combination of passive influences and active intention/action.

We are also social creatures, and therefore at least part of our purpose is contribution. Whatever contribution feels meaningful, satisfying, and or pleasurable to you, because those states are attractive to us for a reason. Contribution from your talents and interests, and towards yourself and whatever groups you identify with and care about.
posted by dancing leaves at 6:27 AM on November 14, 2019

I have no friends, family, followers, etc. that care about what I have read. Neither do I have any practical application for the knowledge I acquire through reading, making the knowledge I have useless. What use is knowledge if it serves neither me nor humanity?

This is a very interesting question, and I'm glad you asked it. Not trying to be too cute here, but the knowledge and introspection that prompted this question has already served one small bit of humanity, i.e. me and the other posters in this thread.

I suspect the knowledge you acquire could have other practical effects that may be invisible to you. If you are posting reviews online, they very well may benefit others. And your reading may positively impact your behavior, and therefore benefit humanity, without you even knowing it.

More importantly, the act of reading itself may be intrinsically valuable, regardless of whether or not it has any perceivable impact on the "real world." At a minimum, time spent reading is time not spent actively harming yourself or others.

Beyond that, consider the mystics, monastics, and assorted introverts who spend their lives in an internally directed search for knowledge and truth. Very few will have the dramatic impact of a Buddha. Most live and die in complete obscurity. Even so, their lives seem honorable and valuable from where I'm sitting.

The foregoing may just be self-serving bullshit designed to internally justify the large percentage of waking hours I spend reading for pleasure. Hopefully not.
posted by lumpy at 1:08 PM on November 17, 2019 [1 favorite]

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