Last Word | Purpose

In this piece from Mountaineer magazine, Steve Scher ruminates on the meaning of the word 'purpose'.
Steven Scher Steven Scher
University of Washington Teacher
October 23, 2018

My only purpose in life is to live.

Is that too egoistic?

Maybe too amoral?

I can paper it over if you like.

My purpose is to procreate.

Too cynical.

Too selfish?

The trees along the trail and the birds in the trees follow that purpose. Fortunate for us then that their process; respiration, decomposition serves us so well. But then, our purpose is what, to toil, to dig, to chew, to be chewed upon? Living to be dying so others live on again and again?

Ahh, but then here we are, back at the purpose of all that absorbing of sunlight, devouring of nutrients (if you’d prefer the more polite and sanitary term).

But we are not the lilies of the field or the wolf on the prowl.

We are humans and because we walk in our fleece and Vibram soled shoes while we ponder the purpose of all around us, the starry nights that call us, the rushing rivers that excite us, we can contemplate a purpose beyond our selves.

And so many of us say, well, our purpose as a species is to “make the world a better place.”

Define that at your peril, you builders of factories, you job creators, you believers in the latest “ism’s.” As the poet Shelley wrote, I look on your works, ye mighty, and despair.

But despair is not a valid response. Despair leads to lethargy, to weakness and decline. Decline leads to… well you see, here we are again at the one purpose that seems to hold steady. My purpose it to live, to procreate and to shuffle on along.

We can circle back to the intellectual justifications. I know there are people who tell themselves their purpose is to stop the destruction of the planet by stopping the destroyers. Does that purpose ease their conscious as they adopt the corollary, ‘by any means necessary?” 

That’s a large sized ego that justifies its purpose that way.

Maybe it takes a large-sized ego to get things done?

Somewhere in the rubble might be a small shoot seeking the light of a better answer.

Those who set out to conquer disease, design new tools for better lives or peacefully demonstrate for equality follow a purpose that is not selfish, or at least not entirely selfish. Most of us walk the line as saints and sinners, trying to live well by doing good. As often as we can, anyway.

My purpose is to live and in doing so leave the living a better world.

Simple enough. Nothing new. Just a reminder.

If I embrace that purpose, what do I do?

Plant a tree, propagate life. Protect a forest, protect life. Shelter the homeless, feed the hungry, cure the afflicted. Enrich the living with art, with music, dance and sculpture. Life goes on. Maybe it even gets a little better. Maybe it’s just worm food.

These are thoughts to contemplate walking along a snowy ridge, the green world aglow all around.

Are these thoughts even worth fighting for?

Ahh but here we are again, fighting for peace, destroying to live.

It is a circle, vicious or maybe, viscous, gluing us to our spinning, confusing, challenging world, our purpose to keep trying to figure out the best answer. And, maybe share a few laughs along the way, with as many creatures as we can.


 This article originally appeared in our Summer 2018 issue of Mountaineer  Magazine. To view the original article in magazine form and read more stories from our publication, click here.

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