In his essay “What is your purpose?” (York Times, May 5, 2015) David Brooks, a distinguished writer for the New York Times addresses the vision of great thinkers of some fifty years ago — persons who asked, and persuasively answered “the ultimate questions” of what one’s life is all about, what a person should and can aspire to be. Brooks bemoans the fact that nowadays we don’t have profound moral leaders — such as Reinhold Niebuhr, Abraham Joshua Heschel, Harry Emerson Fosdick (who gave us the book, “On Being A Real Person”) and a number of others, all of whom produced real moral guidance that millions of persons found compelling and vitally relevant to their own life. Nowadays, Brooks accurately tells us, we don’t have such eminent moral leaders to guide us. Instead, we seem to be side-tracked into far more trivial immediacies of daily living.
Should we be looking for new leaders to help us formulate and answer “the ultimate questions” in our life as Brooks seems to imply?
Perhaps this is the wrong question.
Perhaps we should recognize that the venerated leaders of fifty years ago — and their less eminent followers of feel-good psychologists — are the last hurrah of an overly psychological vision of human life. It is time to recognize that theirs — and David Brooks’ “What is your purpose?” — is a vision of the individual finding one’s “inner self”, “one’s purpose” that does not recognize some fundamental facts of how human life is lived. Specifically, that as human beings, we are saddled with this biological duality:
(1) From the moment of our birth all of us begin a life-journey as separate, identifiable creatures.
(2) Yet, we are not self-sufficient! We are connected to our surroundings — from the air we breathe to the bonds with other persons that nurture us.
(3) Both of these — our separate identity as functioning individuals and our vital connection to surroundings — are part of what I call Social Space. It has distinctive, knowable attributes of its own. For the past several years I have been trying to help jump-start science about that Social Space. The Blog you are reading is devoted to it. My most recent book is OUR QUEST FOR EFFECTIVE LIVING: HOW WE COPE IN SOCIAL SPACE. Its website is: http://www.questforeffectiveliving.com