What is the Purpose of Life?

Doug McManaman
Copyright © 2006
Reproduced with Permission

In my experience, the most important question on the minds of young people today concerns life's ultimate purpose. If you were to ask them what they think it is, they typically answer that life is about achieving one's goals, living life to the fullest, or fulfilling one's potentialities, etc. Such answers are not all that bad for adolescence.

Much more trying are those very answers when they come from adults who should know better. That the purpose of life is to fulfill our potentialities is in some ways a truism. What else could it be? The problem is knowing just what those potentialities really are. The hedonist thinks they amount to little more than the potentiality to feel good, while the megalomaniac sees them in relation to his overall goal of achieving power, while another regards the potentiality to complete selflessness.

To the ears of an adolescent, "realizing one's potentialities," means, for the most part, that the purpose of my life is primarily about me. So as an answer to the question about life's purpose, "realizing one's potentialities" doesn't mean a great deal, even though it may not be, strictly speaking, false.

For the Catholic, the answer is both revealed and accessible through reason. Man's highest powers are to know and to will, and the object of the intellect is truth, while the object of the will is the good. Man's chief end is to know the highest truth and love the greatest good. Hence, the ultimate purpose of our life is to know, love, and serve God (Cf. Mt 22:38).

Indeed, this is the realization of our highest potentialities, but the answer has a religious focal point. Moreover, we cannot realize this end on our own, without divine grace. But there is more.

A number of mathematical physicists have begun to suggest that the mathematical intelligibility of the universe points to a greater and more personal intelligence as its cause, namely God. But if the mind of God is reflected through mathematical laws of nature, how or in what way is the goodness of the cause to be reflected?

Certainly the beauty of God is manifest through the beauty of creation, but man is called to reveal the divine goodness and beauty in a way that nature below him cannot. Animals can be affectionate, but they cannot love in the true sense of the word, for they have no will. Man, on the other hand, is called to be the "effect" that calls attention to the goodness and magnificence of the cause.

But how does he do that? How do I call another's attention to God's personal attention to him? I believe the answer is: by being a channel of God's personal attention. And one manifests God's personal attention to another by actually paying attention to the other, especially to those who need attention, such as the mentally ill, the sick, and the suffering.

But this is not always easy to do; for life can be very busy, certainly too busy, or worse, we can be much too preoccupied with ourselves, or worse than that, we might suffer from an inordinate sense of self-importance that it just doesn't dawn on us that life can have anything to do with paying attention to ordinary, forgettable, apparently insignificant human beings.

But life is about being genuinely present to people, especially the sick and suffering. Consider all the learning there is in this world, in libraries, in books, journals, periodicals, etc. What, ultimately, is it all for? The answer is: to serve human beings. All of it converges on the human person, whose life is brief. And to serve the ordinary human person is to serve God, not because in some pantheistic way man is God, but rather because through love one becomes the other, and God loves the least of us so much that He is the least among us (Mt 25, 40).

Perhaps the secular world can do no better than maintain that life's purpose is the realization of one's potentialities. But for the Catholic, this won't do. The purpose of life is primarily about being a sacrament of the divine mercy.