I have been thinking a lot about meaning, and whether or not my life has any meaning. There are many reasons for this, recent triggers and stressors that have made me wonder if my life carries with it a sense of purpose. One reason is because recently, I have had a general limited feeling of purpose, but I have also collapsed into a certain nihilistic worldview that I am actively trying to combat, and to be blunt, I have struggled with suicidal thoughts and depression, among other symptoms of mental illness.
I think this is an important question to ask: how do we find a sense of purpose? I have talked to many people, in all walks of life, and it’s interesting to see where they find purpose, or how they sometimes don’t succeed in finding purpose. Sometimes, there is nothing but the painful struggle. Sometimes I encounter the hardline and discouraging perspective that we must not complain about a lack of meaning in our lives because meaning is abundant and it is our fault if we do not feel like there is purpose, because it’s all on us. No matter what you believe about meaning and how we find meaning in this life, I’m sure you agree with me that it is a common goal to search for meaning and to search for a sense of purpose: just think of the hero’s journey, that famous archetype and narrative trope. I recall Viktor Frankl when it comes to the quest for meaning, logotherapy, purpose amidst hard situations and cruel circumstances, and the quest for meaning as the driving force of our lives.
But again, how do we actually find that purpose? Sometimes, it seems to evade us, drive us over the edge. It seeks to dismiss us. I don’t know, I am coming to the conclusion that no matter how you slice it, we have to work very hard, almost impossibly so sometimes, to find meaning in our lives. Just because we have all of the tools at our disposal (supposedly, anyway), just because we live in a developed culture and a developed country, doesn’t mean that our needs can be easily met, because life is very, very hard. Which is why I believe we have to keep searching, and we have to keep trying to find that purpose, no matter how hard it gets.
One way I have found a sense of purpose is by doing consistent and constant humanitarian work with the nonprofit the Legacy Initiative and serving the homeless population in Salt Lake City. Recently, due to life stressors, mental illness, internalized nihilism, a lack of faith in myself, and other reasons, I have found myself somewhat alienated from this love of mine, this love of providing humanitarian aid and serving those who suffer from homelessness. I wasn’t burning out, per se, but I was indeed questioning my purpose and role, and wondering whether or not I was actually making a difference, or could make a difference. Even though I had people telling me all over the place that I was making a difference, I didn’t feel like I was, because I didn’t feel like what I was doing was good enough, and that it was actually bring about necessary change. I’m not sure how I internalized this through time, I guess because I reached a point where I realized just how hard the work was that I was doing: serving, leading, organizing, writing, etc. It was all very demanding, and all very taxing, and I was downplaying the role it was having at dismantling my faith in myself: in short, I didn’t feel like I was doing enough. I didn’t feel like I was doing enough for the greater good. I was becoming nihilistic about something that I cared about deeply, in other words, thus requiring the necessary battle against nihilism in a war zone of frenzied thinking. But I didn’t know how to do that, how to fight back.
Don’t get me wrong: I love and loved the work, but I had reached a point in my life, mostly due to certain life events, where I was devaluing myself, and feeling as though I wasn’t doing enough, and it was taking a toll, because I was doubting the work that I was actually doing, and I wasn’t appreciating myself. My recent mental breakdowns were part of the impetus for that thought, that nihilism. And all of this, of course, ties into that sense of purpose that is so very important for all of us to find and have. It’s hard for us to feel reaffirmed at times, and when you are suffering with a mental illness, it can be hard to view the world and your work in a positive light, without the impetus for self-destruction and self-sabotage, because you have a negative filter that prevents you from seeing the good in the world, and prevents you from seeing the good that you are actually doing.
Just recently, I struggled with depression, mania, paranoia and delusions, and suicidal thoughts. I remember walking on the sidewalk way late at night, in the cold, in the snow, past midnight, and just yelling about how I wanted to die, because I didn’t see another way. Of course, I don’t divulge this lightly, and I definitely don’t want to reinforce and invigorate stereotypes about mental illness (I seek to do the opposite in fact and bring awareness through my disclosure): but, suffice to say, I was in a very negative place that I didn’t fully understand, and I wish to communicate that this was a very real experience of mine, which dealt with this intensive need that we all have to find meaning and purpose in our lives. We need a sense of purpose, because when we don’t have it, our life feels as though it is falling apart, and this can be very disruptive to our well-being and to our happiness.
And this brings me back to serving the homeless: it gives my life meaning in a way that I can never fully understand, because it teaches me patience and resilience and compassion, and it reinforces my understanding of vulnerability. It reminds me of what I have, when I hear the story of a person on the streets who lost so much and got sick, and then became homeless as a consequence. It just helps me reorient what I’m doing with my life, and remember that we must do our best to care for others every day and in every moment, because we never know what they are going through, we never know what anyone is going through.
I’m not saying any of this is easy, of course. How can any of it be easy, when meaning is something that seems so elusive and evasive at times, especially when we doubt ourselves so severely? But when I look at the homeless themselves, I am reminded of the resilience of the human spirit, and that inspires me to keep going, to keep trying, and to work to value my life and understand the meaning that exists and that is there. As it so happens, I end up talking to intelligent people that want to help influence policy to serve Native Americans and combat the injustice that exists, all while on monthly outreaches: and I find this beautiful, a beautiful reminder of why I do what I do, and why I can’t give up on it. I don’t think that it’s easy to value ourselves, I think it’s easy to get tunnel vision and forget that we are making a difference (and to forget people care about us). No doubt, I think it’s easy for us to get discouraged, and for us to feel the social and cultural pressures that exist and that push against us, and that break us down. But that said, I feel like the meaning is there, I feel as though the sense of purpose is there, if we just keep striving for it, and don’t give up. I have talked to many people who serve the homeless with me on a regular basis, and I have sensed their own doubts and their own frustrations, their own version of nihilism, but instead of being crushed by this and discouraged by this, I seek to find it inspiring and I seek to relate. Because, no doubt, I can relate, because I can relate to feelings of emptiness and feeling as though I have not achieved that sense of purpose that I long for, that I crave. And no doubt, I think a sense of purpose is inextricably bound up with service, because I think we are social beings and we by nature seek and strive to eliminate suffering in the world and in others, and we do our best to succeed in this every day. No doubt, I hope the best for all of my friends, and for all of the people that have helped me to cultivate and achieve my current sense of purpose, for keeping me alive in the harshest of life situations, for guiding me and helping me to understand what I am doing here: it’s because of community that I don’t give up, and I believe in service (as many people I have met also believe in), I believe in selflessness, and I believe in fighting for the greater good, no matter how hard that becomes, and even if that very fight sometimes makes us tired and even makes us want to give up.
I would say it is nonetheless still worth it. We must fight against nihilism, we must fight against purposelessness, and we must wage war against a life without meaning. We have no other choice, if we are to truly understand, if we are to truly uncover what we are capable of doing, the tremendous good that can be achieved and that we can accomplish, if we continually take the steps necessary, have faith in ourselves, and continue to push forward.
No matter how hard it gets on the battlefield.