Somewhere around Christmas time 2020, I sat down to watch the deeply irreverent and existentially comedic Pixar film SOUL. In this movie, a jazz pianist named Joe (voiced by Jamie Foxx), well he dies (this isn’t a spoiler, it happens in the first 10 minutes). However, Joe, like many of us, isn’t ready to go, and he finds himself trapped in a sort of ether between the present life and the afterlife called the Great Before. I’m not going to say much more about this because I highly recommend everyone watches it (especially since there is much-needed discourse surrounding the representation of Black characters in animated films). But one of the most poignant moments came when one of the gatekeepers of the Great Before explains to Joe that no one is born with one purpose to give their life meaning, for that concept is actually quite basic. And that little physical manifestation of a highly intelligent spiritual being was right…I think.
Here’s the thing about me, I am constantly thinking about either the meaning of life, what happens when we die, and the composition of our souls, or how I can stop myself from obsessing over such weighty thoughts. But who here hasn’t found that one thing they’re really good at, had that one experience that deeply altered them, or found that one person they fall in love and create a family with and thought “ah, this is the meaning of my life, this is what I’m here for!”
I think this all the time. I think I’m here to inspire, create, motivate, and be an agent for change. And while all those things may be true (I hope!), are they really why I’m here, or is life a little more meaningless than we care to admit?
Think for a moment about Anne Frank. Now, was her life’s purpose to be persecuted hunted, and killed during the Holocaust so her journal detailing her experience would become one of the most educational texts of our time? Or do we posthumously mask tragedy with meaning and importance to make ourselves feel a little less shitty about human nature? Now think about the millions of enslaved Black people tortured, raped, starved, mutilated, forced to work, and build this country from the ground up. Most of them are nameless to us. Most of them are faceless to us. Many of them met a demise so gruesome and terrible history books watered down their suffering as to keep that dirty secret just that, a secret. Now, what was their life’s purpose? To be forced into labor on property that now boasts lavish weddings, corporate engagements, and overly priced tour tickets with haphazard re-enactments? Because that doesn’t seem quite right either.
Someone once said life is like a box of chocolates. I for one think that sounds too sweet and decadent for this pernicious world. Maybe life is really just a gunslinging duel. You may win, you may lose, but in the end, it’s all about the luck of the draw. However, I’m also averse to guns and have a personal disdain for the word duel. So what then?
Then there’s “life’s a bitch and then you die,” a phrase often found in the away message of melodramatic teen boys’ AIM accounts and ironed on t-shirts sold in the parking lot of a Jimmy Buffet cover band concert. When it comes to the aforementioned cases, that seems to check out, but is this is yet again an oversimplification of something our wittle peanut brains just can’t comprehend? Is there just as much purpose in pain as there is in triumph? Or am I trying to make sense of the senseless?
Here’s what I think: Perhaps there truly is not a singular purpose that gives meaning to our life but rather the other way around. Maybe our purpose is to live and through living, we are given meaning, even if for only a moment. Maybe we are meant to do things that make us feel like we are leaving a legacy, working towards something tangible, and actively contributing to society; and through the action, comes understanding. Through the action, comes fulfillment. Through the action, comes peace.*
*(Before I edited this I accidentally typed the word peach instead of peace. But who am I kidding, peach may come too).