Flourishing on PurposeBut seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. --Jesus, The Gospel of Matthew
Most of what I remember from the college Spanish class which I took during my senior year of high school has little to do with the Spanish language. Conversational fluency developed as a means of grappling with the dapper young professor’s perspectives on issues in philosophy, sociology, sexuality, ethics and religion which were largely unfamiliar to my evangelical Christian upbringing. One day he asked us to suggest essential characteristics of a universal religion. Although bewildered at such a prospect, I was the first to raise my hand. “Religion should offer purpose to life,” I ventured. He rejected my suggestion with a wave of his hand, explaining that the lack of consensus on the issue deemed the question of purpose irrelevant to any guiding framework for humanity. Too dumbfounded to articulate my gut revulsion to his flippant dismissal of this core value, I sat back to listen as he directed the discussion toward universally acceptable ethical standards. His ideas were strangely compelling, and I began to wonder if he was right. Should we dismiss the question of purpose for human life from discussion of ethics?
My bewilderment about his ethical views continued throughout the semester. By the summer my interpretive framework was shaken enough that I began to doubt that I understood enough about the world to bring about the ethical change which I believed it so desperately needed. Were ethics possible without purpose? Did I even know how to make a meaningful difference? Yet college scholarship checks from civic clubs, philanthropists and a music teachers’ association affirmed my intentions and ability. Convinced that there was truth to be discovered and reassured of my potential to discover it, I set my sights on college.
My pastor called in the final hours before my departure. I stood in the kitchen with the phone cradled on my shoulder as she prayed over me a blessing inspired by words inscribed on St. Patrick’s breastplate: “God go with you, God before you, God behind you, God in you, God beneath you, God above you, God on your right, God on your left, God where you lie, God where you sit, God where you arise.” The moment of peace which enveloped me dissipated as the prayer ended. “Don’t be content to merely survive,” she encouraged me, “Go and thrive.” I thanked her. Her blessing calling for God to indwell and accompany me so that I would flourish was tightly interwoven with orientation in moral space. It was as if she knew that I would need purposeful direction.
As we drove the final few hours through the darkness between the life I knew and freshman orientation weekend, I realized that there were millions of other people my age in the exact same situation. I had never felt so much like one lost at sea. As a homeschooled student, I was accustomed to identifying myself against the masses, as one whose family’s choices set her apart as distinct. Now I was one of the crowd. The gravity of this identity shift began to sink in as I joined a university community populated by students who largely shared my values, ethics, and beliefs. Most of what had identified me as an individual was now either irrelevant, obsolete, or simply identified me as one of my peers.
The realization that I was no longer unique sent me scrambling for the turquoise Who Am I? devotional journal which my grandma had given me five years earlier to help me navigate the turbulence of an adolescent identity crisis. But as I flipped through its pages while home on break I found only superficial characterizations of my identity as a person ordained by God as a member of a particular family, with a particular ethnicity, in a particular religious tradition, engaged in particular relationships and endowed with particular talents. None of it felt personal, real, or fundamentally identified me. Another’s name could have been substituted for mine and the details remain essentially unchanged.
Charles Taylor’s thoughts on the frightful experience of identity crisis in his book Sources of the Self resonate with my experience. “What this brings to light is the essential link between identity and a kind of orientation. To know who you are is to be oriented in moral space, a space in which questions arise about what is good or bad, what is worth doing and what not, what has meaning and importance for you and what is trivial and secondary.” Losing my sense of identity made me feel like one lost at sea because I did not know how to orient my life around the meaningful and significant.
I reasoned that those who had gone before me could serve as guides in my search for meaning. So I became the overzealous freshman who took notes during the new student orientation class in which the other 499 students—including the upperclassmen leaders of our freshman group—distracted themselves with sleep, homework, the internet, or phones. Even though I had joined the masses, I did not have to identify with them. I determined to identify standards of achievement by which to distinguish myself. I listened intently to the panel of upperclassmen students as they dispensed wisdom from their college experience thus far. “Don’t try to do two things at once,” a charming brunette advised. “You’re much better off getting your work done first and then going to hang out with your friends or watch TV. Be fully engaged in whatever you’re doing and you’ll be much more efficient.”
Since I took it as a given that academic achievement was important, I assumed it to be the primary way to thrive in college. I determined to take her advice to heart. By distinguishing myself academically I would discover both my identity and purpose, and flourish according to my pastor’s blessing. By focusing first on academics I hoped to carve out time to thrive socially and spiritually. I took up residence in the Geek Room, the haven stocked with individual study desks and freest from distractions courtesy of the self-imposed vow of silence assumed by all who crossed its threshold. But the efficiency engendered by an environment free of distractions did not create time for rest and relationships. The pursuit of my identity in distinguished academic excellence squeezed the margins and flourishing out of my life. I clung to the fading hope that I would somehow, someday capture the elusive hours that I sought to gain by holing away in a room of geeks until my harried schedule developed into a routine with which I became obligingly and then willingly familiar.
Convinced that the pursuit of academic excellence deemed thriving unattainable, I resigned myself to be content with surviving. The glaring insufficiency of surviving became apparent one afternoon as I sat at my Geek Room desk and inadvertently tuned in to a series of frenzied conversations simultaneously occurring in my head. The words were insignificant compared to the breathless tone of voices desperate to be heard, even if just by me. It was as if my soul, so long starved for significant human interaction, had bolted from its confinement to run frantic circles around its dazed self. But since the pursuit of excellence left no time for such frivolities, I grabbed my temporarily liberated soul, shoved it back into the solitary confinement required of it by my pursuit of excellence, and barreled on.
When the semester finally ended I came up into Christmas break gasping for air, wondering how my disciplined pursuit of academic excellence had left me so dehydrated and dilapidated. Something was askew which even the achievement of the coveted 4.0 did not rectify. Following the brunette’s advice was supposed to enable me to thrive, not cause me to shrivel. I returned to prayer, reflective journaling and contemplation to nurse my battered soul back to health, and coax it out of its confinement and into full participation in my life. I knew that I was not thriving in my pursuit of academic excellence, but I also knew that I needed to pursue something. Aristotle affirms this necessity in Nichomachaen Ethics when he says that human actions are directed toward an end which motivates them. The final end, eudaimonia, sometimes translated as “happiness,” is better understood as human flourishing. Humans flourish by consciously exercising virtues, the means between vices of excess and deficiency in character traits, in pursuit of their final end.
But I was highly suspicious of talk of “means,” because they reminded me of “balance.” Every time my mom pulled out her sermon about the need for balance in life, but I dismissed it as dispassionately as I had done in high school when I told her that “Olympic champions don’t live balanced lives.” To navigate the high seas of my identity crisis, I had set my sights on excellence and worked like an Olympic champion in training. The result was all but excellent. Reflection on my first semester in college told me that I needed navigational guidance to help me aim for true excellence. Guidance requires direction toward a target of sorts by which to evaluate options and make choices.
Balance seemed a sorry target on which to set my compass because I had no desire to pursue mediocrity. I conceptualized balance as the act of keeping both the laziness and the diligence ends of my seesaw suspended in the air. I had no desire to spend my life in the tension of a balancing act, shifting my weight tentatively back and forth. Steven Curtis Chapman’s song “See the Glory” resonated with me: “I never did like the word mediocre / I never wanted it to be said of me, oh, no / Just point me to the job and I'd go over, over / Looking for the very best that could be.” I was convinced that balance was not the very best that I could be.
In pursuit of the best holistic excellence I joined the university Ethics Bowl team the following fall. I hoped to flourish by finding ethical orientation. But that was not exactly what I encountered. Ethics Bowl, I learned, was about preparing to present thoughtfully reasoned ethical arguments in response to questions posed about each of the fifteen hypothetical and real-life ethical dilemmas in the cases. The goal was not developing personal ethical orientation as much as it was to win. Winning an ethical argument required rhetorical skill to face the judges and convince them of the flaws in your opponents’ case, even if you agreed with it. Ethics became a game in which we wrestled with the best rhetorical application of Kantian, Utilitarian, Social Contract, and Virtue ethics rather than a holistic ethical orientation.
While my team’s discussions were framed by the understanding that ethics are informed by an ontological reality, this assumption was never articulated in competition. The same possibility of disagreement which scared my Spanish professor away from questions about the about the purpose of life kept us from addressing publicly the reasons for our fundamental ethical orientation. I did not recognize the importance of this unarticulated commonality until my teammate described it for the university’s news article about our team’s third-place finish and qualification for the National competition. He saw that the possibility of engaging in constructive ethical discussions was contingent upon the existence of an independent standard according to which we are responsible to orient ourselves.
I had only begun to contemplate this significant truth when, to my astonishment, I was among the half of our team members selected to represent our university at the national competition. I dismissed the question of how orientation according to ontological reality related to human flourishing with no more than a passing nod and moved into the limelight afforded me by professors, students, family, and friends. This certainly felt like thriving. The more they congratulated me, the more motivated I was to earn their praise by performing well at Nationals. I replayed their compliments in my mind until they ran coursing through my veins to warm my soul in the frigid darkness and awaken me from my sleep-deprived stupor as I trudged through the snow on my way to our 7:00 am meetings. Their approval was the standard by which I defined my identity and purpose.
When my teammates climbed into their hotel beds at midnight on the eve of the national competition, I relocated to the bathroom where I sat on the floor with stopwatch in hand and practiced my cases until 2:00 am when I was satisfied that they were perfect. I awoke four hours later with more butterflies in my stomach than there are monarchs in central Mexico in December. Our coach assured us that our opponents put their pants on one leg at a time just like we did. A teammate quipped that they probably jumped in with both at once. I was inclined to agree. As our coach led us in prayer my distracted mind flitted through the moral principles of my case outlines, unable to be still long enough to ask for God’s blessing. My reputation—and hence my identity—was on the line. I shuddered to think what would become of me if I did not distinguish myself in the competition.
The sound of my deep exhalation equaled that of my pounding heart when my cases were not called in either the first or second match. The mounting pressure within my chest intensified before our final match because I was convinced that I would be called upon to argue against our Ivy League competitors. I was not to be disappointed. Yet when I sat down at the table and heard my case called, my butterflies melted. I knew what I had to do and presented flawlessly. The opposing team’s rebuttal was weak and I responded to their objections with eloquent confidence. By the time they called my case as the second for the match, I was nearly giddy with excitement. If this wasn’t what it meant to thrive, what was? I pointed out as many of the multitude of holes in the opposing case as I could during the five-minute rebuttal period and sat back to wait for the results from the judges. The bursting smile which I exchanged briefly with our coach confirmed my suspicion that I had done extremely well.
But the judges missed the memo. According to their scoring I had done equally as well as the other team. To hear that we tied was like being hit over the head with a ton of bricks. When I masked my astonishment in order to shake hands with and congratulate our opponents I learned that the bricks had hit them too. “I wasn’t even sure how to keep up with you,” the student who had presented against me said, “Well done.” I smiled firmly and moved on. Outside the competition room, our polite congratulations erupted into a spirited critique of the other team’s presentations. My heart soared and my head grew as everyone described my performance as “unbelievable,” “flawless,” and “astounding.” My coach said it was the best presentation he had seen in the ten years he had been coaching Ethics Bowl and called me a “juggernaut.” I was so pleased that I had the courage to admit that I did not know what the word meant.
Our critiques turned into jibes as we moved from the hallway to our hotel room. I soaked in the glory, prompting my teammates to comment on aspects of the case presentation which had not yet been discussed. Everyone assured me that I had done as well as I possibly could, but I continued to question them because I wanted to hear them say it again. I felt fulfilled because I had achieved my purpose, even if the judges did not recognize it. By the time we had walked to Chipotle for lunch, the praise began to dry up as the conversation moved on to other topics. I panicked. What else was there to say which could keep the praise flowing? I suggested a peripheral issue which I hoped would lead to further conversation, but my teammate quickly dismissed my concern as unwarranted and returned to the group conversation.
As I sat down to eat my burrito the ephemerality of my glory overwhelmed me. Weeks of arduous preparation were reduced to a blip of glory and an hour’s worth of praise. I had earned my teammates’ approval. So what? It dawned on me that I did not want to reinforce an egotistic identity by sending praise sound bites coursing through my veins for the intervening months before the next opportunity to “prove” myself as an Ethics Bowl juggernaut. I had arrived at the destination toward which my purposeful decision to define myself directed me to find it vacuous. I began to feel again as one lost at sea.
The identity I found in Ethics Bowl was oriented around my thirst for approval by those whom I respected. Ernest Becker identifies our common search for “cosmic significance” in his book The Denial of Death. I looked to my work to provide that which it could not. Deifying my participation in Ethics Bowl was an attempt to justify my existence to myself in light of a desire to ground my identity in the ultimately significant. I was shaken when that ceased to be affirmed, explains Thomas Oden in his book Two Worlds, because my guilt is “neurotically intensified to the degree that I have idolized finite values.” I did not deny that this identity reflected an orientation toward a purpose which I presumed would help me flourish. I could only wonder why it took the crisis of fading applause for me to recognize that my identity would not be found in achievement or approval.
The following fall our coach read an anonymous letter from one of our teammates to open our first meeting of the Ethics Bowl season. Ethics, she reminded us, is about the life you live rather than the eloquence with which you debate cases. She challenged us to shed Pharisaical pride for lived humility at the weight of the ethical standard to which we would each one day be held accountable: “To what end, O Lord? To what purpose? For what reason? None, but Your Glory.” This was the depth of purpose for which I yearned. I began to conceive of the ethical life as the lived pursuit of the telos for which I was created. “What is the chief end of man?” asks the Westminster Catechism. “Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.” Glorifying God meant honoring him by working as if for the Lord in whatever I did, including Ethics Bowl. But to pursue argumentative ethical excellence in order to define myself was to misconstrue a means as an end.
Purpose motivates action. But as my dapper Spanish professor argued, the multiplicity of ends makes it difficult to identify any universal purpose of human life. Hence the motivation to remove purpose of life considerations from ethics. Yet his point is ultimately epistemological rather than ontological. Our inability to identify a universal purpose for human life says nothing about the existence of that purpose. Simone Weil reminds us in Gravity and Grace that “Man always devotes himself to an order.” We necessarily orient our lives around the pursuit of something, whether or not we know what that something is or should be.
Rather, the ethical question is whether that which we pursue leads to vacuity or flourishing. This pursuit defines our lives. Quite simply, as Harold Best notes in Unceasing Worship, “Nobody does not worship.” When I pursue my identity in academic excellence, that is worship. And it causes my soul to shrivel because it is not rooted in the ultimate reality for which I was created. For St. Thomas of Aquinas, Aristotle’s eudaimonia becomes ultimate union with God: “man and other rational creatures attain to their last end by knowing and loving God.” Flourishing is found in union with Reality.
Simone Weil finds that idolatry is born of a thirst for absolute good which is attached to something other than God. “A life not centered on God leads to emptiness,” suggests Timothy Keller in The Reason for God. “Building our lives on something besides God not only hurts us if we don’t get the desires of our hearts, but also if we do.” It hurt even when I earned the unofficial designation as Ethics Bowl MVP at Nationals because when the applause faded I was left with nothing. An identity can last only as long as that around which it is built.
And yet I still struggle to live by that truth. As I looked toward my senior year of college this past summer I determined that I needed to identify a mantra by which to define my purpose and orient my priorities to keep me from falling into the trap of defining myself by my academic achievements. Ethical living requires meaningful orientation. All those that I tried on for size were unsatisfactory until I settled on a single word: “Jesus.” I wanted Jesus to my center, my source, my light because I knew that any other purpose left me empty. But as the semester progressed and assignments intensified, my life devolved into a hectic schedule which reflected little of my summer’s mantra. I deceived myself into thinking that my mental depletion, emotional numbness and spiritual drought were temporarily necessary conditions which I would rectify as soon as I had the time. That time, of course, never presented itself.
The week before the Regional Ethics Bowl competition was among the busiest of the semester. When my computer died three days before the competition, taking my case briefs with it, I reasoned that I might as well die too. Sleep-deprived and overwhelmed, I worked furiously to reconstruct my cases while keeping up with all my other assignments. When I staggered out of an exam on Friday morning I was convinced that I had done more poorly than I had ever done on any exam, ever. As I walked toward the library I began to reprimand myself for failing to live up to my own identity. But the rebuke was replaced by a wave of profound humility which washed over me as I realized the gravity of my disorientation. Wisdom from Kierkegaard’s The Sickness Unto Death washed over me: “The standard for the self is always: that directly in the face of which it is a self. But this in turn is the definition of ‘standard’. Just as it is only possible to add together items of one kind, so everything is qualitatively whatever it is measured by; and what is qualitatively its standard of measurement is ethically its goal.” To define myself by anything less than the ontological reality of God was sin. Confession liberated my soul, overwhelming me with a profound appreciation for the grace by which God allowed me to try again.
I took fewer butterflies than usual with me to the regional competition the following day because I finally grasped that my identity was rooted in a reality deeper than my performance. The nervous jokes with which we distracted ourselves changed into tentative excitement after we performed well in both the first and second rounds. When we entered the third round with the knowledge that we stood in first place I refused to let myself rejoice prematurely. Even after we tied the round against an excellent team, I dared not assume anything. It wasn’t until the final results were announced and I walked to the front to accept the first prize trophy as the captain of the winning team that I realized what had happened. When I gave up that which had constituted my identity, God gave it back.
I did not notice the applause fade as I returned to my seat.