By Robert Wheeler
It may not be obvious and may even seem far- fetched, but there is more to life than struggling out of bed in the morning, going to work, wrestling with problems all day, and maybe relaxing in front of the TV in the evening. Sure, the first and most pressing purpose in life is to live. Reproduction comes next followed by security for continuation in meeting these pressing needs. But, there is more.
Studies of history and paleontology show a continual development in nature toward increasing complexity that enables more effective ways of existing. We modern day humans are the result of this process. There is a pattern of emergent capabilities that seems to have purpose and design. Whether this was the result of a Great Creator, or the result of a mysterious evolutionary increase in complexity, is not as important as realizing that this advance of nature exists. Primordial forces or particles combined to form atoms which combined to form molecules which, in turn, combined to form living cells which combined to form animals from which developed humans. Humans with their mental abilities combined to form societies and civilization. A purposeful pattern of increasing complexity is indicated. So, here we are, people with sophisticated mental abilities that realize we are part of a developing pattern that has a purpose to increase in complexity—a continuing process rather than a short-range goal.
The most logical result from looking at this view of history is that our fundamental purpose is to continue this pattern of development. This seems to be the purpose in life that spawns many goals. A first goal is to increase our effectiveness so that the daily activities of existence are easier and more comfortable. This requires additional skill, resources and knowledge. A second goal is to have relations with and support from others. There is no animal more dependent on the fellow member of its species than the human. Family, tribe, community, state, and nation are structured for this purpose causing many complications such as altruism, cooperation, politics, competition, violence, and war.
A third goal grows out of the first two. We have a mental structure that requires sufficient explanation of our existence that our activities are manageable, and meaningful. This has been referred to as a philosophy of life, world-view, spiritual belief, or ontological imperative. It results from the same mental structure that causes realization of the need to grow in complexity and development–that is, wonder about the cause of all of this, why I am here, where I came from, and where I am going. These are known in psychology as ultimate concerns. Despite the amazing advance of science, natural studies have been unable to provide answers to these concerns, so supernatural ones developed with spiritual and religious beliefs that have dominated societies throughout known history and have been the main impetus for the advance of science, technology, and civilization. Even the people that do not hold the beliefs of religion and culture live in an environment thusly dominated
Religion and culture have traditionally ameliorated ultimate concerns by organizing belief systems that not only gives answers and explanation, but also provides resources, support, social structure, and relationships. This has allowed ultimate concerns to be subjugated to more pressing concerns of daily existence. The ultimate concerns are eclipsed by consumerism, competition, politics, and aggression, but they are still there. They lie in the recesses of the subconscious mind creating an unsettling feeling of discontent, and sometime boil up to create emotional turmoil resulting in the current increase in depression, anxiety, and suicide. Instead of reaching out for a long-range goal of development, now pursuit of short-range goals of meeting immediate needs are emphasized.
The role of a sense of purpose, feeling of meaning in life, and provision for ultimate concerns are widely recognized as a major cause for mental health problems and social issues. Many remedial programs and therapies have been developed for individuals, but problems of discontent continue to increase. Many factors have been proposed as cause such as: decline in religion due to conflicts between dogma and science; cultural emphasis on consumerism, wealth, and competition; loss of family and community ties; availability of entertainment and other self-centered activities; and delegation of care-giving and responsibility to government. However, these are all ramifications of a more basic cause which is losing sight of the growth purpose with its need for explanation.
If this innate need for development and answers to ultimate concerns are so important, why are they so neglected? The answer is because we are lazy. We take the easy path. We adopt procedures and explanations that are expeditious for meeting immediate needs. As commercialization developed, providing for these immediate needs became paramount and formed direction for society. Efforts to explain ultimate concerns were replaced with efforts to meet immediate needs. Progressive Western culture became dominated with “getting and spending,” buying and selling material needs. Competition for resources produced conflict, aggression, and violence. Today our major concerns are meeting these material needs. We are bombarded with these goals by TV, radio, newspapers and magazines. Schools and colleges teach predominantly about these goals with little about ultimate concerns. Leaders and politicians are concerned mainly with their own power and success rather than about ultimate concerns.
How different our world would be if media, educators, leaders, and politicians would emphasize the basic need we all have to understand, develop, and grow rather than the current emphasis on consumerism, wealth, self-interest, and power. This would reorient a focus on existence to a higher goal of moving forward. It would stimulate a constructive sense of purpose that would reduce discontent, depression, and anxiety for individuals, and for nations it would stimulate cooperation instead of conflict and war.
Many causes have been proposed for the current problems of the world. And, many remedies have been proposed; however, they all will be ineffective until the emergence of a culture dominated by efforts to move forward to something bigger and better. We are moving in that direction. Emergent well-being and peace are not only possible, they are probable.