The last term for consideration in our lexicon of purpose is “vocation” which Webster’s dictionary defines two ways: “a strong impulse or inculcation to follow a particular activity or career,” and “a divine call to God’s service or the Christian life.”7 This term seems to split the difference between free choice and divine command and between simple occupation and purposive drive. Because of its ambiguity, I will avoid using the word “vocation” in these discussion.
Now a few clarifications are in order. First there is quite a bit of overlap in all of these terms, for example, the role of teacher on the ground as it were may be the result of feeling called to education and by love of children or young people. Lifework, even the same career , can be highly meaningful to some, but dreary necessity for earning a living to others (consider two differently minded teachers).
Second purpose has two qualities of meaning. There is the logical relationship of a role or activity to its implied goal – i.e. all parents have a role or purpose in raising their child or children. Then there is the reflexive meaning where the parent feels an internal impulse to bring a child into the world and raise it as a component of a more meaningful life. Therein rests a key insight – that our work or activity is purpose-based is a subjective impression rather than implied by the specific activity. In thinking about the meaning of life, it is this subjective essence which is central.
Last, so far we have used the word purpose in the existential sense, either as function at the ground level of an existing entity or as the self-directed goals of human agency. There is perhaps a third context of purpose – the intention of the agent responsible for our existence. At the level of our parent, purpose could be a goal our parent or parents had for us when bringing us into the world. It seems this is most likely equivalent to a role, but if subjectively embraced could become a mission or calling. Nonetheless we still choose to fill their intended purpose or not so the distinction is of limited significance.
Alternatively if we, humans in general and ourselves as individuals in particular, were created by a divine power, the implication is that a fixed purpose was intended. Purpose in this setting remains subjective however – we may choose to see ourselves simply filling a role in divine creation or consciously seek to identify and assume the calling of the creator. The same circumstances apply if we assume there is a self-emerging direction to the universe in which teleology is implied in our existence. We will take on these difficult questions in later blogs.