If I don’t play Clash of Clans for some time, the game pops up notifications that say, “Chief, your village needs you”. Needless to say, this is a tool that game makers use to bind you to the game. What is more interesting is that this very chord, called purpose, is also the one by which we are bound to the world of action. Most people are addicted to purpose, and this high-level addiction drives most of their actions.
Sense of purpose qualifies as an addiction because it creates a dependence such that without it you can get depressed. People feel a need to be needed by others, and this is how most people find purpose in life. As they get older, or when they feel that they are no longer needed or deemed useful to others, they start losing this purpose. This manifests in ways that are comparable to withdrawal symptoms for chemical addictions.
The reason I classify this addiction as high-level is that even those with strong willpower and those who successfully resist most of the accepted temptations of body and the senses often succumb to this one. As hard as this addiction is to notice, it is even harder to identify as something that needs to be fixed.
Why do I want to help my village in the Clash of Clans? Because it gives me a sense of purpose. It is not really for the sake of that village (which in this case does not even exist). This is equally true in other instances where we think we are helping others. Most of the time we do it for ourselves because it helps us feel good.
Sometime back, I had got a forward on WhatsApp that talked about a woman who felt that she lived her entire life for others (husband, kids, family) and regretted that she did not live for herself. What she failed to see is that whatever she did for her husband and kids is that which gave her a sense of purpose. This applies to most people who end up thinking that after all they did for the world, the world did not treat them as well as they deserved.
Some spend their time “for their loved ones”, others use it to earn money “for their family”; some sacrifice their lives working tirelessly “for the society”, others even lay down their lives “for their motherland”. But if we look deeply enough, it is difficult to miss that whatever they do, they are actually doing it for themselves.
This is by no means an effort to establish that since all these actions are driven by selfish motive at a very deep level, they are all equal. While we may call the underlying motive as “selfish”, how noble the motive (and therefore the actions that follow from it) depends greatly on what is considered self and how purpose is derived from it.
At the lowest level is what is commonly recognized as a selfish motive, which is expressed through sentiments such as “I look after my kids so that they will look after me when I am old”, or “I work for the less privileged in the society so that people recognize me for the good work I do”. They are also the most easily disappointed because the laws of karma are not so easily fooled!
Then there are those who say “It makes me happy to see my kids happy, so I strive to make them happy”, or “I want my nation to be safe even if it costs me my life”. These are cases where you consider your family or nation as a larger identity. It is for the sake of this larger self that you are willing to sacrifice your lesser self. The larger this identity, the nobler the motive, even though it is still technically selfish. At some point, when this identity becomes universal, the motive becomes selfless.
To say that when you are motivated by the happiness of others you are less selfish is great, but there is an important nuance here. Does it make me happy to see the other person happy, or does it make me happy to know that I am the reason for his happiness? The difference is subtle, but it is all the difference between selfishness and selflessness, between evil and good, and between frustration and contentment.
When I want to be the reason for another’s happiness, it would likely frustrate me when they are happy by themselves and have no dependence on me. This can go to an extent that deep within, I wish the people around me to have problems and misfortunes so that I can help them and make them happy, thereby reaffirming my self-worth. This is exactly the case of being addicted to purpose, that we started our discussion with.
This also the reason that many relationships grow weaker as one (or both) of the parties become more independent. If the only value a man can bring to her wife is to give her money or buy her gifts, it would hurt him to see her become financially independent. Similarly, a person who is good at giving emotional support to and uplifting the spirit of their partner will be happy to have a partner who has the need for that support. Parents who find happiness in being needed by their kids will find it hard to derive the same level of happiness and satisfaction from that relationship when the latter outgrow that stage.
If we look at such a relationship that thrives on need and dependence alone, it is easy to see that the only love involved is for oneself. This is no different from how pharma companies would like you to fall ill so that their medicine can cure you! Though painful to realize and difficult to accept, a clear understanding of this aspect can often greatly improve the quality of our relationships, enable us to sincerely love those around us, be their true well-wishers, and be genuinely happy for them. Even more importantly, it will free us from the addiction to purpose and action. When we do act, it will be more from choice than compulsion!