Life without Purpose and the Search for Meaning


While spending eight weeks at a psychiatric rehabilitation center last year, I made what I thought to be a fairly innocuous comment. I simply stated that things just happen. In other words, there are no cosmic reasons for what happens around us. My therapist was quite taken aback suggesting that “I would be in trouble with my depression”. I thought about the comment for a long time. I tried to reconcile my existential belief with my mental illness.

There is some risk associated with admitting to suffering from a mental illness. It causes a lot of uneasiness in people. I immediately have a credibility problem whenever I state a belief or opinion. Many times people dismiss my comments by suggesting they must be a result of my mental illness. To restate my premise, I maintain that there are no cosmic reasons why things happen.

There is no grand design.

There is no purpose. In short, we are living on a spinning planet subject to physical forces. However, the fact that there is no purpose does not make life bleak or desolate. On the contrary, we can appreciate the beauty of the world, we can appreciate the fact that we are alive despite overwhelming odds against us ever having been born. There is grandeur in this view of life.

Belief in a grand purpose or design causes much more anxiety than non-belief.

Let me explain. As a father, my biggest fear is having one of my children die. I can think of no greater torment. For those who have faced this tragedy they are invariably presented with statements such as “There must be a reason”. So, we struggle to explain such a horrific thing by suggesting that there is a reason for it to happen. We can’t understand the reason, the event is too overwhelming. Many assume that a divine being had a hand in it. This is the only way to rationalize the enormity of the situation. But I suspect something is happening on a deeper level.

While in one part of our brain we struggle with the ‘reason’, in another we are hearing a voice saying there is no reason, no plan, no design. Things just happen. So we try to reconcile these opposing views. If there is a reason we will struggle to find it. That is our nature. Our brain will attempt to understand why the tragedy occurred. When we can’t come up with a reason we lay it in the hands of a supreme being.

I argue that if we don’t struggle with supernatural explanations we can find some kind of peace of mind. We can accept that there are diseases, accidents and human actions that cause suffering. We don’t understand why a child would get a disease. We don’t w

ant to believe that it just happens. It’s too unbearable. But I think the search for reason makes it more unbearable. “Things happen for a reason” causes more pain than “Things just happen.”

In my search for knowledge and understanding, I have read widely on a number of topics. Titles such as “7 Paths to God” and “Wherever You Go, There You Are”  made their way to my bookshelf. I wanted to investigate my spiritual side.

Spirituality has much to do with finding meaning or purpose in the universe. However, along this path, I discovered a new trail. I read Richard Dawkins’ “The God Delusion.” As the title suggests, it is a far cry from “7 Paths to God.” The author’s assertion, of course, is that God does not exist. He takes great pains to uncover the origin of religious belief, the nature of morality, how religion is dangerous, and finally, he offers a view of life that is both refreshing and in a very real sense, spiritual.


Dawkins says at one point, “what if there is no purpose, so what.” The simplicity and strength of that statement are overwhelming. It is quite liberating in its power. We are free to enjoy a summer breeze, the flight of a butterfly, the majesty of mountains simply as they are, not as the work of some supernatural being. The fact that we are here is purpose enough seems to be what Dawkins is suggesting. I agree wholeheartedly.

If God did make us with a purpose

This is a powerful idea as well. Imagine a supernatural being who is all-powerful creating us with a purpose. The implications for our self-esteem are enormous. How could you not feel good about yourself with the knowledge that you are here for a reason? It is very easy to understand how an idea such as this would develop and become prevalent.

What is our purpose?

How do we find out what it is? Here’s where religious belief staggers a little. But it rebounds with the notion that we are not supposed to understand the ways of God, we are not supposed to understand the mysterious motivation of God. This seems a little too convenient. We are told to follow our dreams, find our purpose, discover our authentic selves. Is my purpose to pour coffee, teach children, perform open-heart surgery? Many people struggle with this concept. In fact, a growing field, existential psychology, deals with just such problems. Many people become listless, bored and apathetic in their search for purpose. They can’t seem to find a place where they fit in. I have struggled with this issue as well.

I suggest that if we believe we are hereby evolutionary and genetic chance, then we would reduce our existential angst. We could be free to see a new beauty in all existence, in all life. I continue to be fascinated by what people believe, why they believe, and the depth of their beliefs. As Pascal said, “I am so mad that I cannot believe.” It must then be possible for someone to say, “I am so mad that I must believe.” The human mind is an infinite landscape of thought, perception, emotion, and belief. Maybe we cannot escape the search for purpose. Maybe we are so made that we must be in a state of the perpetual investigation.

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