Arguably the most clichéd religious and philosophical question is this: What is the purpose of life? This question has been uttered, written, and repeated by thousands of folks around the world including Adam, one of my good high school friends. Even now, a full decade later, I still remember our conversation about the purpose of life. It was the years of adolescent angst and strong opinions, so typically, I was perfectly happy to philosophize about grand questions. However, even then I remember finding it almost comical that Adam was asking, “What is the purpose of life?” I laughed and then stifled my laughter when I realized he was asking in earnest.
Yet now, I have a little more sympathy for Adam and all the other askers of this question. As is unfortunately too often the case, my sympathy for this concern came only after I had to wrestle with the same question for myself. For me, the heady “What is the purpose of life?” first slipped in under the guise of its pragmatic second cousin, “What do you do?”
“What do you do?” I was asked over and over. It’s a simple question, yet for nearly a year I didn’t have a simple answer because I was unemployed. Historically, I could always answer succinctly. I’m a student. An intern. A grad student. A researcher. However, during my period of unemployment, my answers to this simple question either felt long-winded or incomplete.
I was searching for a new job and hoping I would stumble upon a new career in the process. I had begun my previous job with a certainty that this was it, this job was the launching pad for the career I envisioned for myself. It was an academic position focused on research in poverty, which seemed like a perfect fit for my philosophizing self (I never really outgrew that). I was sure the job would be fascinating, move me toward more graduate school, and be beneficial to society. Plus, there was a paycheck and benefits. Practically perfect in every way. Perfect, that is, until it morphed and I morphed and unfortunately we didn’t morph in the same direction. I was anxious, burdened, and unhappy about my job. My dream job was deflating me and I didn’t know what to do about it.
During this time, I remember thinking about a scripture from both Book of Mormon and Isaiah: “Wherefore do not spend money for that which is of no worth, nor your labor for that which cannot satisfy,” (2 Nephi 9:51, Isaiah 55:2). This scripture, along with support from friends and prayers, provided the courage I needed to leave the job. However, it didn’t immediately help me answer the question: What did I do? What did I want to do? What should be the purpose of my life?
I think one of the reasons this question is difficult is that it is in truth a deeply personal and individual question, which should always be reframed as, “What is the purpose of my life?” Since this is a personal question, the scriptures (as a general guide) can only begin to answer it by pointing us to God and Christ, explaining the Lord will anchor us when we are directionless and keep us focused when we find direction. And most importantly, in my experience, the Lord can then guide each of us in our decisions and personalize the answer to the question for each of us.