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Photo: iStock
Photo: iStock

Purpose may not be as important as it’s made out to be

The reason it became so integral to modern lives is that it was marketed by grand people

In Pixar’s new film, Soul, a man who has found purpose learns that there is more to life than purpose, like sunshine, temperate weather, falling leaves, the children of other people passing by, and junk food. In other words, he learns that the best thing about life is life itself, its banality, which includes commuting, traffic and queues.

People across the world are celebrating the film, as though it has illuminated a bleak year. Soul has transmitted what millions wished to feel—a release from the oppression of purpose, its sacredness. People are tired of meaning, goals, grand ambition, and of hoping and trying, and of premonitions of defeat. They, of course, know that a film cannot liberate them from the inevitability of purpose. Just that they are glad someone denounced it for them.

In Soul, ethereal forces create all human personalities long before people are even conceived. The film does give “a scientific explanation" for such a deterministic universe using theoretical physics. These days, if you use “quantum" in your language, you can spout any nonsense. But that is not the intent of Soul. The purpose of the film is to rejoice the pointlessness of life.

For most of human history, people were not required to have purpose. How then did purpose become so important in modern life? Why did the joy of an aimless ordinary life become a matter of shame?

I have a theory. Purpose was marketed. And it was marketed by its most powerful brand ambassadors—people who had purpose. The history of purpose is the same as the history of influence. A handful of people who had a talent, or a complaint, or a fiery madness acquired a sense of purpose, and they infected everyone with idea that life should be headed somewhere. People with purpose are highly persuasive. For instance, take this exquisite and powerful exhortation by Mahatma Gandhi: “Find purpose, the means will follow."

But most people in this world do not have talent, grouses or insanity; as a result it is hard for them to find purpose. And they begin to feel something is wrong with them. Or worse, they expose themselves to hell by imitating the purpose of some grand people.

Even the few who have found purpose do not always enjoy being this way. The long road to their goal is dreary. This path is given heroic names—like tough, lonely and painful. You may even imagine ‘dreary’ is a heroic thing. But the perfect word to describe the path might just be ‘boring’.

The feats of the greats in all fields belie the dreariness of the process. In science, too.

“Science is boring," writes Michael Strevens in The Knowledge Machine - How Irrationality Created Modern Science. Many of us who see only the beauty of the ideas and insights are blind to the long years of “tedious laboratory labour". I am yet to read Strevens’ book, as it is not easily available here, but I would like to share these lines: “The single greatest obstacle to successful science is the difficulty of persuading brilliant minds to give up the intellectual pleasures of continual speculation and debate, theorizing and arguing, and to turn instead to a life consisting almost entirely of the production of experimental data."

In a just world, purpose promises us something known as “recognition", which is the broadcast by a few scholars that you are very good at what you do. Is this worth the gruelling process? And what after the recognition?

In Soul, a musician who understands that “music is just an excuse to bring out the you", still craves glory. And one day, his wish comes true. He enjoys the adulation and the justice of it all. And he asks, ‘what next’? His idol tells him that he will experience experience adulation again tomorrow, and again and again. In that way, the very fulfilment of an ambition becomes as dreary as a daily commute. People in his position then seek something greater.

The more they succeed, the more clearly they see a better place that has its doors unjustly shut to them. As a result, most successful people, too, have a sense of failure. In my life as a reporter, I have never met a celebrated public figure who did not have a sense of defeat, barring Sachin Tendulkar, but then he was at his peak when I met him. I am certain that even Tendulkar feels defeated today by the question, ‘what now’?

In the human hierarchy of reasons to live, purpose has primacy. Its stature could have given us joy if only we had not required purpose to contain a certain grandness. Most people have reasons to exist, important reasons, but not grand reasons. And they begin to suspect that they are frivolous, that they have wasted their lives “doing nothing".

In the four languages that I can understand, evangelists of purpose provide the sense that people need to “find" their purpose. This implies that purpose is a set of things, of a certain sanctity, that these seers themselves have “found". I think it is bad language. Purpose should not be something people should try to find in a pool of great pursuits". Instead, it is something that people need to invent for themselves.

If purpose is the pursuit of meaning alone, then most people have it. They may have “found" it or invented it, but they have it. They live for their children, or for other forms of love, or for sex and other lesser pleasures. All these give people direction, a sense of movement, a reason to live, something to save them from the rot of having it too easy, and motivation to survive the sheer length of life.

Manu Joseph is a journalist, and a novelist, most recently of ‘Miss Laila, Armed And Dangerous’

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