A friend proposed an interesting question the other day and I thought to use this essay as a method for diving into it.
We were having a discussion about things and he prompted the question: “Can you have meaning without purpose?”
Without thinking too deeply, I said no. I said that meaning is the impact of your purpose. When you have a purpose, you unlock the ability to have a meaningful life. I said that human being optimize for purpose because they have a desire to have meaning and use.
I thought this was an okay answer. But he did not.
He said that, in his life right now, his purpose is very unclear. He is directionless and lost. But he said his life still has meaning.
I thought this was an interesting perspective and one that directly challenged my prior narrative.
Can someone find meaning in their lives without holding onto a specific purpose?
Is the problem that people have a purpose and are not aware of it, or is it that meaning and purpose are two independent qualities?
I have since gone back on my statement: I agree with my friend and believe you can have meaning without purpose.
I think we tend to fixate on finding an identity – something we can talk about with people and think about before bed. What is the value of having an explicit purpose?
Purpose is a big part of identity, but so is your ability to find meaning. I think some personalities find more meaning in the small things – relationships, nature, etc. Others need some grand identity to attach to their lives before unlocking any spirit of meaning.
It is valuable, often, to think about how your own bias impacts how you view the purpose vs. meaning debate.