Finding Purpose When Everything Seems Meaningless
I used to have this recurring dream that I was being chased by zombies. In typical dream fashion, none of the mandatory Bleep Tests that were forced upon me in secondary school made the slightest bit of difference: I could never get away quick enough.
Oh, what’s a Bleep Test? I’m glad you asked.
It was a tortuous activity disguised as a fitness test. It was sprung on you without warning by your P.E. teachers and consisted of running to-and-fro like an imbecile at the helm of the all-mighty and dreaded “bleep” sound until you cried out, “No more! I am weak and feeble!”
You might know it better as the Beep Test but I’d prefer to say bleep because you couldn’t help swearing as you got to each end of the room.
This thoroughly amused your teachers as it was revenge for your adolescent deviance like, for example, comparing them to Miss Trunchbull from Matilda.
Anyway, back to the dream.
Before the zombies could eat my braiiins, I would look down at my body and to my surprise, I had been a zombie all along. I was already part of the brain-eating squad and I wasn’t running from them, I was running with them! I had this dream almost every-other night for 2 months.
In my waking life, everything seemed fine. I was finally able to hustle a good job in broadcast television, my parents were in good (enough) health, and I had a great group of friends.
Except, everything wasn’t fine at all. Something was missing from my life: a sense of purpose.
Much like a zombie, I would do the same routine every day; wake up, take the same route to the office, spend 8 hours doing a variation of the same work before heading back home to eat dinner in front of the same TV shows everyone else was watching.
There were holidays and alcohol-fuelled Friday nights with friends but they were always tainted with a shared knowledge that what we were experiencing was a temporary escape from the monotony of everyday life.
I kept thinking that if I just got this “one thing” I would feel excited about life but I would get that one thing and then another thing until eventually, I realised that my feelings hadn’t changed.
On top of that, the world at large seemed to be burning. I’d pick up the morning newspaper and sit down later in front of the evening news to see inconceivable suffering, senseless violence, and apathetic politicians. What was the purpose of all this?
And herein lies the question: how do you find your purpose when everything seems meaningless?
Why get out of bed if nothing matters? What’s the point of revisiting something that once gave you joy when happiness is so fleeting?
Why try or do or even be when nothing means anything anyway?
It turns out there are a few reasons why it’s worth trudging forward, even if everything appears to be devoid of meaning.
The first reason is that you won’t feel as badly as you do, all the time, forever because the only thing guaranteed in life is change and not all change is bad. You have to believe that.
You have to believe it because you are worth being here even if here is not where you want to be right now. Those moments of joy you’ve experienced before can happen again and you’re worthy of having them.
Another reason lies in the old saying, “Nothing changes if nothing changes.” I take this to mean that you can reclaim a sense of purpose from a life lacking in self-fulfilment by making active changes.
It can be as big as booking a ticket to the other side of the world as you’ve always dreamed of doing or as small as dancing around your room to a song you love twice a week.
Change can also mean acknowledging that you’re not happy and you’re not quite sure why then deciding to open up to someone you trust to listen without judgement. As renowned psychiatrist and holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl wrote,
“Pain is only bearable if we know it will end, not if we deny it exists.”
It took something extraordinarily absurd happening to wake me up to the fact that I was looking to other people to provide me with a sense of purpose instead of confronting deeper underlying issues that were acting as a barrier between me and the life I wanted to have.
Instead of being an active participant in my own life I had succumbed to being on auto-pilot just as a zombie would.
A final note on The Beep/Bleep Test. There was a girl who was always the last one running long after everyone else had slunk off to catch their breath. She wasn’t a sporty spice, in fact, I always thought she smoked quite heavily for a 15-year-old.
Now, I’m not saying smoking will give you superhuman running powers but that the baffled looks on the teacher’s faces were delightful, especially because they suspected the girl in question was smoking at break- time but couldn’t prove it.
Also, there was no meaning to it; it was just a peculiar thing that happened every few months and gave us joy in the face of suffering.
I mention this because some people become so discontent in the pursuit of meaning that they become blinded to the sense of purpose they already give or could give to the people around them.
Viktor Frankl mused that meaning cannot be pursued as a goal in itself, it’s something that ensues as a result of activities that provide you and others with a greater sense of fulfilment,
“View life as a series of movie frames, the ending and meaning may not be apparent until the very end of the movie, and yet, each of the hundreds of individual frames has meaning within the context of the whole movie”