When I was 12, I was religious. My family raised me Christian, of the fiery damnation variety.
My purpose was clear: find non-believers and convince them they would burn in Hell unless they changed their beliefs.
The hardest thing to overcome after rejecting religion was the nagging fear in the back of my mind that I would still burn in Hell. The second hardest thing was losing my purpose.
Without having been created, what gives me as a person meaning? What should guide my actions if there is no God telling me right from wrong? Why should I live a certain way? Why should I strive to achieve anything, when nothing matters?
(To clarify: I never wondered why I shouldn’t kill someone. That’s basic “don’t be an asshole” morality.)
It’s easy to get sucked into this kind of thought and spend a decade trying to get out. Here’s a thought experiment that I like to use to blow my mind: look at the stars in a clear night sky. Now realize that you can only see about 2000 stars. On the darkest night, you can see at most about 4500. On top of that, the stars you can see are almost all closer than 1000 light years away.
The Milky Way is at least 100,000 light years across, and contains at least 100 billion stars.
If that didn’t do it, you weren’t looking at the night sky. Go do it when you have a chance. Then think of this: there are at least 100 billion other galaxies.
(If you’re interested in this vein of thought, read about The Fermi Paradox.)
It’s easy to believe that you can’t possibly have any meaning, any purpose, if the universe does not care if you exist. Fortunately, someone smarter than me has given us a way out of nihilism: “… maybe meaning in life is something that you create, that you manufacture for yourself and others.”
Neil deGrasse Tyson said that when answering a question from a 6 year old on the meaning of life. He continued:
When I think of ‘meaning’ in life, I ask, ‘Have I learned something today that I didn’t know yesterday?’ Bringing me a little closer to knowing all that can be known in the universe. Just a little closer, however far away all the knowledge sits. If I live a day and I don’t know a little more that day than the day before, I think I wasted that day.
Finding Your Reason
What are you looking for? Your motivation, purpose, why, mission, path? In my mind, these are related, and finding one will spotlight a path to the others. Here are some ideas:
I’ve mentioned the StrengthsFinder exercise before. It’s possible you’ll find out something about yourself that reveals a path.
Go back to childhood; imagine your dreams. What did you think about doing for yourself before you got sucked into that cubicle? Was it writing? Going on adventures? Figure it out. I remember being passionate about writing short stories in 3rd grade, and programming QuickBasic text games on my black and white Macintosh.
Write down your most amazing experiences, the ones where you felt alive and complete and in the moment. Here are mine:
You have a responsibility to be the best version of yourself that you can.
It is your duty to find out what you’re doing here and pursue your passion. Be the person who achieves greatness, helps others, and serves as a role model. Be so great that the universe can’t help but take notice.