Literature highlights the need for a purpose in life

I used to have a prejudice against popular culture. Experience had shown me far too often that popular things are sometimes not good things, whether it be in the realm of books, movies or television. Happily, I have since grown out of this rather narrow frame of mind and have come to realize that many new things are quite good, or, even if I find a great deal wrong with them, at least they contain something of merit, which can be very personally enriching.

So, when I get some free time to read, I try to spend some time perusing some of the newer and more popular books, both to see what is valuable in them and also to get a feel for the general climate of culture and society.

From looking through the bestsellers at Borders and reading a few, I believe I can see a trend developing. It seems that many new books have to do with helping a person find the purpose and meaning of life.

This trend is across the board, encompassing both secular and religious books. Two examples, which I have read and plan to comment on in this article, are “The Purpose Driven Life” by Rick Warren and “The 8th Habit” by Stephen Covey.

I should also note that these are authors who I might not be drawn to at first. In Warren’s case, I am not Protestant, and in Covey’s case, I generally have little respect for self-help books. Surprisingly, it turned out I was impressed with both.

“The Purpose Driven Life” is a Christian book that aims at helping the reader find his or her God-given purpose. It resembles other Christian books in its desire to help the reader develop a relationship with Christ, form good relationships with others and start evangelizing, but it is very unique in that its main theme is the often underemphasized Christian idea who all Christians, even those that are not involved in active ministry, have a purpose to fulfill, a mission from God. The meaning of our life is to find it and fulfill it to the best of our abilities.

Stephen Covey, the famous author of “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People,” recently wrote a book on the same theme, a sequel very cleverly titled “The 8th Habit.” “The 8th Habit” reads, “Finding your voice and helping others to find theirs.” His main point is that human beings can only find their purpose or vocation, or, as he calls it, “voice,” if they devote themselves to employing their talents to serve others.

By doing so, we can fulfill our potential to the fullest degree and live lives of greatness and contribution. If we do not do this, we will end up living mediocre, unfulfilled lives.

We find what we were created to do by beginning to serve the human needs that we see around us. He argues that nearly all historical figures who made a great contribution to the common good followed this model.

For instance, Mother Teresa never set out to be famous. She simply saw the human need in the poverty of Calcutta and felt called to help. She started by helping one person and this led to helping more. Soon, women inspired by her example began joining her, and now the religious order she founded is one of the largest in the world.

He also pointed out that our contribution does not need to be on a grand scale: someone who makes a great difference in the lives of their families, friends or coworkers should also be considered great.

I would also add that I believe anything we do can be done for others. Even if, for example, I am a mathematician who spends all of his time in research, I am still deeply involved with others.

For one, I rely and trust the research of other mathematicians, which gives me a base for developing my own theories, and I also construct ideas that will help others. So even a scholar who is mostly alone is, in a sense, working with and for others.

Moving on, both books put forward the belief that every person has a great purpose to fulfill, and fulfilling it is the meaning of his or life. This purpose, moreover, consists in serving human needs.

The fact that these books are so popular is an indication that Americans feel a great need to find some sort of purpose and meaning for their lives beyond themselves.

Both of these books, in a way, represent a new development. Sometimes books of this sort have a pronounced individualist mindset, which focuses purely on personal growth.

This is no surprise considering the value Americans often place on self-sufficiency. (I do not think this is a bad thing at all, since we must mature as persons before we can make any worthwhile contribution to others.)

But now we are seeing, I believe, a new philosophy emerging that seeks to link personal growth, whether it be on the spiritual or the human level, with contribution towards the common good.

Perhaps we can even say that this is the answer to many of the problems of the 20th century. Much of that century was plagued by two false philosophies. One was totalitarianism, which placed the common good, the good of the state, above the good of the individual, such as in a Soviet Five Year Plan.

The other was a highly individualistic mentality, in which, for some, personal interest was pursued at the expense of the common good, such as in the various business debacles of recent memory brought about by greed.

But here we see the two concepts linked together: people fulfill themselves and find their purpose not through personal indulgence, but through service to others.

If that is the case, than both the good of the individual and the need for the individual to contribute to the common good is taken into account, without either being devalued.

I also think we are seeing a new appreciation of the value of the individual. Many of us can probably agree that all people have a great worth. Therefore, they have certain personal rights that cannot be violated.

But this type of interpretation takes that a step further and asks us to believe that not only do people deserve certain rights, but also that each person is capable of making a contribution towards the common good, perhaps a great one.

I think this has been proved true by experience. We have all heard inspiring stories of people who came from terrible backgrounds, but who then turned their lives around and made a positive contribution to society.

Why not assume anyone can do this?

Perhaps what keeps people from fulfilling their potential is that we often assume they do not have any, and they begin to believe it themselves.

Perhaps we do not fulfill our own potential because no one has been able to see and communicate to us the capacity for good that we have in us.

At any rate, I admire the principles that I have seen in “The Purpose Driven Life” and “The 8th Habit,” and I think the theme of the need for each person to selflessly contribute to the good of others is very important.

With so many difficulties today, the message is timely. It may be that only by using our talents in a selfless way can we solve the problems facing the world.