This article was adapted from a Forum at MIT in 2011. Watch the full talk here.
I’m here to tell you a bit about where I find meaning and purpose. The where question is very important, because if I look in the right place for meaning, then my hope is that it will make me a better person. I’ll feel more secure. I’ll be more joyful. I’ll appreciate beauty more, and I’ll be more at peace. However, if I look in the wrong place for meaning and purpose, then ultimately – even if I reach the goal I set out for myself – I’m going to be disappointed.
The Popular Geek
When I was in high school, I was too smart for my own good. I was socially awkward, and to compound matters, I grew too quickly. At my high school, there were the popular kids, and then there were kids like me. And I was one of those unpopular kids who wanted desperately to be cool. I wanted desperately to part of the “in” crowd. I thought that if I could be accepted I would be content. It didn’t make me a nice person, because one of the ways to move up in the social ranks is to shun everyone you think is lower on the ladder.
I sacrificed all of this, and in the end, I was disappointed. Even when I attained some sense of acceptance or some small amount of feeling cool, it didn’t bring me peace. Even when I felt cooler, I still wanted to be more popular. That was all I wanted, and I worried what would happen if my newfound sense of coolness was taken away–which it always was when people found out I was on the chemistry Olympiad team!
The Wisdom of Fight Club
Life outside of high school isn’t really all that different. We just take popularity and substitute something else, something that sounds more “grown up” in its place. We want to get good grades and graduate from a good school. We want to be successful in our work, or to be wealthy and famous. The result is exactly the same: if you define success by getting ahead, you’re going to be disappointed. You won’t find the peace or the joy that you seek.
I like the line from the movie Fight Club: “The things you own will end up owning you.”
Maybe some of you are more mature and more realistic. You read US Weekly and you know that fame and wealth won’t make you happy. You choose something more mature, like science, your family and friends, or seeking justice for the oppressed.
I think all of those things are risky too. These are all good things, but investing them with ultimate value is dangerous because they’re intended to be partial values.
I’ll give you an example. In my research group, we work on solar energy. One of our goals is to try to create a form of solar energy that’s cheap enough that it can be used across the world to provide energy for everyone without producing greenhouse gasses. Most people would agree there’s nothing wrong with that. But I think there would be something wrong if I said that’s the aim of my life: to bring solar energy to the masses, to make the world a solar energy world. It might not pan out. It might be that I work on this for 40 years and after 40 years, we still can’t do it. Or, it might be that I work on this for 20 years, we get really close, and then some other technology comes along and does it better and faster and cheaper than we can.
If that happens and my life purpose was to provide solar energy for the world, I’m going to be disappointed. Let’s be honest, if I set my purpose as some career goal or some family goal, my ultimate purpose isn’t just to see that thing happen, but to be the one who makes it happen. If that opportunity is taken from me, I’m going to be bitter and feel like my life was wasted.
Bit by Bit
So, where do I find meaning and purpose?
I believe that our deepest needs, things like our thirst for justice, our hunger for security, our search for answers, and our desperate need for hope–all of those things are met for me in the person of Jesus Christ. Fundamentally, I believe in Jesus’ power to change me, to change who I am, to make me different, to make my life different.
Ultimately, the line between justice and injustice, the line between evil and good, the line between popular and being an outcast, isn’t a line between me and some phantom group of people. It’s a line that goes right through myself.
We want to do what’s right but we can’t get the strength to do it. I think that’s strange. It seems like we need someone stronger than us who can change the way we are. I believe that person is Jesus. And the story of my life is me being made, bit by bit, more like Jesus. It’s a microcosm, to me, of the universe. The story of the universe is the story of God, bit by bit, changing the universe into his just kingdom.
Troy Van Voorhis is the Haslam and Dewey Professor of Chemistry at MIT and a regular Veritas Forum presenter.