The purpose-driven life is a good idea for rational use

November 20, 2009|By ALLAN POWELL

It is not unusual in life to discover a really useful, helpful and substantive idea diverted like a boxcar off the main line to a side rail. There is no disputing that it carries important cargo. But can those who shipped the goods claim it should be moved because it is the only such goods carried by trains?

One of the very good ideas to burst into public attention was "The Purpose Driven Life" written by mega-church pastor Rick Warren. It quickly became a best seller that dominated conversation. However, it appears to have skipped notice that the general idea of a purpose-driven life had given way to an exclusive kind of purpose.

Warren, it can be argued, confines his purpose-driven life to what might be called a religio-centric or even church-centered life. His "God-ordained" purposes offer the key to effective living. These are: worship, community, discipleship, ministry and evangelism. Completely omitted are several really important purposes such as the search for useful knowledge, the development of a healthy lifestyle, finding fulfilling hobbies and developing a balanced world view.


Recommendations about the best driving purposes are probably as old and variant as the human race. Nonetheless, a very good primer of an open-ended study of the power of purpose is a small - but compelling - book published by Viktor Frankl in 1959. In "From Death Camp to Existentialism," Frankl uses his dehumanizing personal experiences in the squalid conditions in Nazi prison camps to present his ideas about the power of a purpose-driven life.

Survival, writes Frankl, was only possible if one insulated oneself from the horrid, gratuitous tortures inflicted by sadistic guards by the cultivation of a "will to meaning." Those who could endure the pain no longer gave up and died in their own filth. Those, who against all odds, found some source of purpose or meaning then had the inner strength to exist. Frankl, himself, found the key that made it possible to survive several years of brutality and despair.

Rick Warren disparages the power of philosophy to offer any useful purpose. Indeed, he avers that all of the philosophers together served up only speculation and that " even the wisest philosophers are just guessing." This is a deliberately cavalier way to belittle some of the world's best minds.

Frankl, on the other hand, is not afraid to quote such a controversial philosopher as Friedrich Nietzsche as a source of his insights. When faced with the all-pervasive confinement and attendant atrocities of a Nazi prison camp, Frankl came to realize that they could not take away one freedom - the ability to choose one's attitudes. From Nietzsche, he learned that, "He who has a why to live can bear with almost any how." Power is generated by the "will to meaning."

Suffering can push one toward a search for meaning, according to Nietzsche, because "That which does not kill me, makes me stronger." Frankl was well aware of that because of his own experience. He had found meaning by writing his ideas about a new concept of psychotherapy, which he called logotherapy (meaning therapy).

Several times, Nazi prison guards came upon his notes, which explained how his new theory was to be used. They, of course, destroyed them. Frankl would scrounge up more scraps of paper and write his thoughts all over again. This continued until the Allied forces captured Germany and brought about Frankl's freedom.

Frankl began a new life and started his own practice using his theories of logotherapy to restore meaning to patients who were severely disturbed. Each patient opted for their own choice of what gave meaning and purpose to life. For some, it was the need to repair relationships in failed marriages, for others, meaning was restored by giving to others such as working for the Red Cross or The Salvation Army.

Undoubtedly, some found purpose in the spiritual world offered at various houses of worship such as Saddleback Church. The purpose-driven life can be found in a literal floral shop of beauty, with many colors and smells to enjoy. With so many different choices and needs, it is inconceivable that a florist could assure customers which color or odor is the only suitable choice. Finding purpose is a very personal choice.

Allan Powell is a professor emeritus of philosophy at Hagerstown Community College.

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