Tuesday, December 11, 2018

"Gotta Be Who You Are In This World": Some Thoughts On Purpose

There's a scene at the beginning of The Equalizer where a young lady named Teri asks Robert (The Equalizer) what happens in Hemingway’s story, "The Old Man and the Sea." Robert tells her that the old man catches the fish. She asks, "Why didn't he just let the fish go?" Robert replies, "Old man's gotta be the old man. Fish has got to be the fish. Gotta be who you are in this world, no matter what."

In the context of the story, I don’t think it was a statement of fatalistic resignation or some silly version of, "You are perfect just the way you are!" Robert was pointing out that we are all made for a purpose, with a role to play. We have to find that purpose and live it. It's an acknowledgment that we are made for some things and not others. It’s a Hollywood discussion of telos - the idea of design and purpose in the world and in our lives. I often hear this described as flourishing. I like that description.

I read two books recently that spent some time focusing on the issue of telos. A quote from each of these books will be the springboard for further discussion.

“Unlike the Jews, Muslims, and Christians who would one day seize on this insight as proof of the existence of a supernatural Creator, Aristotle held that the natural universe, although meaningful, is self-sufficient. And, unlike the secularists who would one day deny that it has any intrinsic meaning at all, he asserted that it is full of purpose. 
Everything that exists, he taught, strives to fulfill itself—to realize (or, in his language, to “actualize”) its inherent potential. This great law makes nature comprehensible and invites us to fulfill our own destiny by learning to comprehend it. Wisdom is the knowledge of causes, but, consistent with Aristotle’s emphasis on a developing universe, his definition of “cause” is broader than ours. It includes not only a thing’s “efficient” cause—the preceding event or condition that ordinarily produces it—but its “material,” “formal,” and “final” causes—the stuff the thing is made of, the patterned way in which that material is transformed, and the purposes that guide its transformation. 
So, if we want to understand a particular person fully as a natural creature, we must know not only that she is the product of the sexual union of her parents but also that she is a fleshly creature animated by a soul—an individual whose natural aims are to preserve herself, continue her species, and become a self-conscious being. 
Aristotle was aware, of course, that words like “purpose” and “striving” ordinarily refer to human motives and behavior, and he was not so benighted as to think that trees or rocks think or act as humans do. But the opposite notion, that the universe is totally unlike us, that it is chaotic matter on which we impose a purely subjective mental order, he would have thought both arrogant (because it locates all meaning in the human mind) and despairing (because it deprives the nonhuman universe of meaning). 
The lynchpin of his thinking—the idea that connects the meaning inside people with the meaning outside them—is the presence of form in nature. Every natural substance, he declared, whether a tree, a star, or a person, is a compound of matter and form.  “Form,” as he uses the word, means shape, but it also means that which makes a substance what it most truly is: the thing’s internal structure and its animating force, the factor that realizes or actualizes a thing’s potential to be the kind of thing that it is.”  - Aristotle’s Children, by Richard Rubenstein

“Philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre…observes that Greek philosophers in ancient times and Christian thinkers in the medieval age understood morals as guiding human beings toward an end state. ‘The whole point of ethics…is to enable man to pass from his present state to his true end.’ This is the concept of telos. To describe humanity’s telos is to answer the questions “What are we for?” and “What is our purpose?’” 
MacIntyre [claims that] a moral judgment of something can never be made apart from an examination of its given purpose. [He] uses the illustration of a pocket watch. If we complain that the watch ‘is grossly inaccurate and irregular in time keeping,’ we are justified in concluding that ‘this is a bad watch.’ Most people, however, would not say that a watch is bad if you throw it at the cat and it doesn't hit it.  Why? Because we know what a watch is made for – to tell time, not to hit cats or anything else. If the watch realizes its telos, it is good; if it fails to do so, it is bad. If, for the sake of argument, some people came upon a watch and had absolutely no idea what it was or what it was made for, they would have no way to determine if it was good or bad. “ Making Sense of God, by Timothy Keller

To paraphrase Keller, “If, for the sake of argument, people had absolutely no idea what people were or what they were made for, they would have no way to determine if they was good or bad.” On the other hand, if we can know this, then (as Rubenstein notes) we can realize or actualize a person’s potential to be the kind of being they are, or are at least the kind of person they are meant to be.

Augustine defined evil as the privation of good, or the corruption of nature. Ravi Zacharias once described it as the “privation of purpose.” In other words, in order to understand good and evil, we must understand the purpose or the nature of things. The more we encourage and enable purpose in and around us, the more we do good. The more we distort or destroy purpose in and around us, the more we do evil. The “good” life, then, is one in which we help to actualize the purpose of people, situations, and things around us, and constrain the privation of purpose in the same.

Let’s make it practical. Lungs are for breathing air; when I inhale other things, the illnesses that follow are themselves a signal that something is not being used for the purposes for which it was designed. Eyes are made to see, and ears are made to hear. When I do something to help someone see or hear better, that’s good. When I harm their ability to see or hear well, that’s bad. Brains are made to think. When I help others to think more clearly (speaking truthfully, for example), that’s good. When I hinder their ability to think clearly (such as lying to them or denying them access to education), that’s bad.

We see and understand how this works in these examples. Why not apply this to the entirety of our lives? Our very existence? 

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The First Lady has recently urged us to “Be Best.” I don’t disagree; I just think we need to know not only who we are in this world, but what we are as well.

It is within our purpose that we flourish. 

It is within our purpose where we find peace.

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