As I began to study religion in college, I began to acquire information and knowledge that helped me to think about my own religious heritage. Acquiring some knowledge also helped me to think about life. In the days when I was growing up on an Indiana farm, there was not the technology that exists today. Because of that, I spent great deal of time by myself riding a tractor in some field. There were only things to do: think and daydream. I did a huge amount of both!
This life was a good life. But there was one drawback, which I did not recognize at the time. The drawback was that I did not have enough information, experience and knowledge to make sense of life. I was given a rudimentary religious education that probably helped make sense of life. But I don’t think I paid much attention and, certainly, did not really “own” it as my perspective. In some ways it was like a borrowed or rented perspective.
I doubt that I was unusual. I do not think babies come equipped with meaning and purpose in their lives. Those are not issues of our DNA. Of course, we are exposed early on to our parents “take” on life. However our parents and friends make sense of their lives is the way we typically will take on to make sense of our lives. But it is often a “make do” way of making sense of life.
Inevitably most of us come to question our inheritance. In my case I began to wonder if I were really a Quaker or actually a Christian. Both were very good ways of making sense of life, but if they were to be really meaningful, I needed to work with them and “own” them. I needed to get to the place where I bought them, instead of simply borrowing them from parents and friends. For me this process really began in college.
Decades later, I can say that I have a significant amount of knowledge. I continue to take in information. Hopefully in the process of living, I have gained some wisdom, too. One writer I like describes wisdom in this way: it is deep understanding with practical application. In my life this means that religion (or spirituality) is not simply some head knowledge. To the contrary, my spirituality informs and forms my life, as I go forward.
All this was in place when I read an interesting tweet. The title of the tweet was catchy: “A new study suggests emotional state does not affect your longevity, but having a purpose in life does.” Wow, I exclaimed. I was hooked. I opened the little article to read the details. The title of the article was even more riveting: “Sense of Purpose Lengthens Life.” I loved the first line, which reassured me. “New research finds having a purpose in life appears to be an excellent buffer against mortality risk across one’s adult years.”
I am not so naïve as to think getting a purpose in life guarantees a long life. But I do agree with the sentiments of the article. I am not surprised that having a purpose in life actually enhances the chances that we will live to a ripe old age. I suspect there are a number of factors that would account for this.
I can imagine having a purpose in life means that we generally take better care of ourselves. To live in despair is to live without hope. If we have no hope, then we really don’t care---or, as we hear in common language, “I don’t give a damn.” Having a purpose means we do give a damn---whatever that means! To have a purpose means we are more likely to be content with today and we actually look forward to the next day and the next week and so on. We know we are mortal, but we are in no hurry to be mortem!
I am not so narrow to think only religion or spirituality give us meaning and purpose. But I am certain spirituality is a great indicator that you have some purpose in life. With an authentic spirituality in our lives, we would expect that we have some kind of vision for our lives. In fact, as I work with students, I like to ask them, “so what is your spiritual vision for your life?” That is a difficult question that most folks have never pondered. But if you can begin to answer that, you have a purpose. And maybe you will live longer.
And even if I don’t live longer, in my own case I know my life will be better, richer, and more satisfying. I would like to live a long life. That is true, even though I am entering my autumn years, as some would have it. But I don’t mind getting older. I would mind getting purposeless and being condemned to live a meaningless life. For me, that would be mortem while still breathing!
I come away from this reflection reassured. I am reassured that having a purpose is good news. My ministry now is to spread the good news.