Purpose And Meaning Are Very Different Things; Or, Don’t Be A Functional Nihilist

Typically, purpose and meaning are spoken of as if they were synonyms. They’re not; they’re actually quite different (even if it is possible to have purpose and meaning).

I define purpose as directing myself at something in a way that channels all or most of my energy so that said energy is actually directing at that that thing. A typical example would be setting a goal. Once I set a goal, I have a purpose. And what is that purpose? Plainly, to achieve that goal. Hence, it’s as if I point myself at the goal and, accordingly, corral my energies so that they’re helping me to get closer to the goal. If my goal is to climb a 5.14b, then I direct myself at that goal by doing the sorts of things–intense fingerboard training, ARC training, limit bouldering, and so on–that inch me toward the goal.

Similarly, duties, obligations, or responsibilities can give me a sense of purpose. If I have a child to take care of, then I know why I’m getting up this morning: to take care of my child. If I am obliged to attend a meeting, then I have another purpose: to do certain things in my power so that I’m ready and able to attend the meeting.

Purpose, then, could be said to answer the question: “Why am I getting out of bed this morning?” And, as you can see, purpose is very much a matter of action.

Not so for meaning. I define meaning as being in touch with a greater reality. Given this definition, meaning is not something you can do. This is because meaning is what you essentially are. It’s enough to understand one’s true nature in order for one’s life to be meaningful. The wonderful corollary is that when life is meaningful, there is no question about whether life is meaningful because no such question can arise. When there is beauty itself, there is just the presencing and experiencing of beauty itself.

Observe that meaning is a cosmological and theocentric question that could be formulated thusly: “Why is it that I’m here? What is ‘all of this’ really about? In what sense is ‘any of this’ a home?” I cannot answer this question about appealing to the anthropocentric alone.

Hence, it’s possible–and, in our time, likely–that many people have a sense of purpose but do not experience meaning. To be sure, they have a reason to get up in the morning (to finish a project, to take care of a child, and so on), they are functional beings in society, but they do not know why they’re here. This phenomenon could be called functional nihilism–and it’s pervasive!

You can now see why Total Work won’t get you to meaning and therefore why meaningful work is a logical impossibility. The bad news is that you can’t get there from here. The good news is that you don’t, in fact, need to do anything except to find out who you are. Stop searching among a world of objects and come home to yourself. That is all.