In Church yesterday, our former stake President spoke, a stake assignment, and he began by asking this: what is the purpose of life? What one word would we use to describe the purpose of life? And the word he chose was ‘joy.’ Men are that we might have joy, he said. It was a good answer I thought, for a talk in Church. We are, he said, meant to have joy, to experience joy, to fill our lives with joy. And it wasn’t difficult for him to find scriptures and General Authority quotations to support it. But ‘joy’ does seem to me, well, a trifle correlated. Like, it’s the official right answer to that question. I know too many people suffering from, among other ailments, depression. We don’t all get joyful lives. Lives full of worth, and dignity, yes. Not always happy lives.
‘Joy’ was certainly a better answer than ’42,’ that sublime Douglas Adams joke answer in Life, the Universe and Everything. Although I rather like the joke, because of this: Jackie Robinson’s jersey number was 42. From that, I might extrapolate this: the meaning of life is encompassed in the civil rights movement. The meaning of life is to treat all human beings with dignity and respect; the meaning of life is equality. That’s a good answer too. But it’s not quite right either.
Looking at the world, though, looking at Mother Earth and the creatures who inhabit it, a much truer answer comes to mind. The purpose of life is survival. That’s the biological imperative of all life; to carve out some niche, some corner of existence, and survive. My wife suggested another biological imperative; reproduction. But that seems inextricably linked to survival; we reproduce so our species can survive. So species survival becomes as crucial as individual survival; either way, the purpose of Life is to continue living. The purpose of Life, is Life.
But we’ve got that one sussed, we humans. We’re the most successful super-predators on earth. Other species may be stronger, faster, fiercer. Our claws aren’t weapons; our feet aren’t that fleet; our hands are comparatively weak. But we can shape the environment to our needs. That’s extraordinary. We don’t need to cower in trees anymore; we can cut trees down, and use them to build impenetrable fortresses. We have the leisure to contemplate questions like ‘what is the purpose of life,’ because we no longer are in danger. I live in Utah; mountains and deserts. Our biggest predators are probably mountain lions and wolves. Cats and dogs; we’ve domesticated them both to the point of absurdity. Fear of felines? Our cat is curled up on the sofa, sound asleep. That’s where he usually is. There is no sense whatsoever in which he’s a threat to me.
Nor is anything else. Bacteria, yes, and viruses. We cannot be killed by anything large, unless we behave with the most colossal stupidity. We can be killed by the tiniest of creatures. They’re what we fear, sometimes, when we’re feeling poorly. But mostly, we take survival for granted. That drives us in two directions. We can be killed by each other. It’s easy, but unprofitable, to worry needlessly about essentially non-existent threats. We worry ourselves sick about terrorism, a threat so infinitesimal it’s essentially a statistical rounding error. Or, we find ourselves feeling purposeless. What now, we think? Having won the fight for survival, what purpose comes next?
And if we’re Christians, the answer is something impossible, something nonsensical. Love God, and love your neighbor. God, who is invisible, who manifests Himself only indirectly; we’re urged to love Him. Commanded to, in fact. And then the really tough one. We’re to love our neighbors as ourselves. And who do we mean by our neighbors? Everyone.
The purpose of life, is to love. And maybe that leads to joy, or to salvation. But that’s what we’re meant to do, what we’re expected to do. And it’s essentially impossible. The Sermon on the Mount is built on paradoxes, on examples of behavior we could not possibly emulate, being imperfect.
And Jesus had to know that. He was born under hostile occupation. His people were despised and enslaved, and he was the poorest of his people. Nazareth was a tiny, unimportant, a backwater town in a backwater region. Did he know what it felt like to be struck across the face; did the requirement that we turn the other cheek come from personal experience? How do you love the people who have enslaved you? How do you love those who strike you, who compel you to carry their baggage a mile, who call you names and visit violence upon you? How do we love then?
I love my wife. I love my children. I love a few friends. I love other family members. That’s not always easy. And my love is hardly unequivocal. I get offended easily. I get my feelings hurt. But, yes, sometimes, I am able to truly love, I think. I hope. I pray. But a few years ago, someone I thought of as a friend hurt me badly. He damaged me, he lied about me, he tried deliberately to get me fired from a job I loved, and he advanced professionally as a reward. And I am required to forgive this person. I am required to love him. And I can’t do it. I’ve tried. The best I can do is a weak, milquetoast, anodyne expression of grudging charity. If I were driving in my car, and he stepped into the street, I probably wouldn’t run him down. But love him? Love him? It’s beyond me.
And what about people who are genuinely evil, rather than merely weak? As my wife and I discussed this, she asked if she was required to genuinely love Donald Trump? That should be simple enough; he hasn’t actively harmed me or her, and he’s clearly a damaged man. We ought to be able to find some compassion, at least. But I find it impossible to even consider. What about Stalin, Pol Pot, Mao? What about Hitler?
And yet, and yet. This is from George F. Richards, an LDS apostle back in the ’40s. It’s from October Conference, 1946.
I had a remarkable dream. I have seldom mentioned this to other people, but I do not know why I should not. I dreamed that I and a group of my own associates found ourselves in a courtyard where, around the outer edge of it, were German soldiers—and Fuhrer Adolph Hitler was there with his group, and they seemed to be sharpening their swords and cleaning their guns, and making preparations for a slaughter of some kind, or an execution. We knew not what, but, evidently we were the objects. But presently a circle was formed and this Fuhrer and his men were all within the circle, and my group and I were circled on the outside, and he was sitting on the inside of the circle with his back to the outside, and when we walked around and I got directly opposite to him, I stepped inside the circle and walked across to where he was sitting, and spoke to him in a manner something like this:
“I am your brother. You are my brother. In our heavenly home we lived together in love and peace. Why can we not so live here on the earth?” And it seemed to me that I felt in myself, welling up in my soul, a love for that man, and I could feel that he was having the same experience, and presently he arose, and we embraced each other and kissed each other, a kiss of affection.
I think the Lord gave me that dream. Why should I dream of this man, one of the greatest enemies of mankind, and one of the wickedest, but that the Lord should teach me that I must love my enemies, and I must love the wicked as well as the good?
Isn’t that why we’re here? Isn’t that why the gospel exists, to lead us to that point? Isn’t that the purpose of life? To love, to forgive, to embrace, without reservation or complaint, all our brothers and sisters?
We’ve mastered survival. Now we have to do something impossible, extend ourselves unimaginably, genuinely love our brothers and sisters. We start with our children, and we love them, impossible little pills though they sometimes are. And we love our families. That’s practice; that’s the easy part. But eventually, we have to find it in our hearts genuinely to love. Everyone. All of mankind, all living creatures. All. Is it easy? No, it’s impossible. It cannot, cannot be done.
So we have to do it. And that’s God’s work and his Glory. To get us to the point where we rely on His miracle; the miracle of Love, the miracle of at-one-ment. Because He is Love. And His Love is equal, and it’s full, and it’s unrestrained.
The purpose of Life is Love. And it’s impossible. And it’s necessary. The gospel is built on paradox, and that’s okay. Only by doing what can’t be done can we fulfill our purpose. Best if we start now.