Living without purpose

Alex Lewis underwent extensive surgery after contracting a flesh-eating disease

Back in 2013, Alex Lewis had symptoms of the common cold which he dismissed as “man flu”. It turned out he had septicaemia, strep A and necrotising fasciitis which are life-threatening. The only way to stop the illness from spreading and keep Alex alive was to amputate both his arms and legs. Following surgery, Alex was left without limbs and permanently disfigured from where the disease had spread to his face.

Alex’s remarkable story was captured in a Channel4 documentary which was originally aired in 2016 — it’s now free to watch on Youtube and has racked up over 78 million views.

What struck me most about Alex’s story was how he became grateful for how this terrible disease changed his life. In Alex’s words: “Losing my limbs made me realise what I had”. Before Alex became ill he was a self-confessed alcoholic and “Wasn’t very happy”. Alex’s wife, Lucy (who’s a pub manager) described how Alex lived his life: “Alex loved drinking. He was in one of our pubs all day and he would drink too much. Where I’d come in from work every day and been working and Alex would have been having a drink at the bar. I just felt like he was taking the piss”.

After getting sick, Alex never went back to his alcohol-fuelled way of living. With no limbs and no way of taking care of himself, he had a burning desire to regain his independence and get back what he had previously taken for granted. The Guardian Newspaper when reviewing the documentary described Alex as: “[A] feckless, directionless young man [who] suddenly found an inner strength and purpose.”

I can’t relate to the extreme example of what Alex went through, however, I can relate to his purposeless way of living before his illness. I know exactly what that directionless feeling is like. When you lack purpose, you lack motivation, it’s an empty feeling inside.

You have no purpose when life is easy

Nothing makes you feel more alive than when you’re trying to stay alive.

I can only imagine what it was like living as a hunter-gather. One thing I’m sure of is that it was more interesting than the drudgery of 9-5 or with nothing to do other than aimlessly scrolling social media.

For most of human history, every human had a purpose: find food, find water, stay warm; in general, try and stay alive. No one was pondering their purpose in life. Nowadays, close to no one has their basic survival needs to worry about. It’s incredibly rare to die from a lack of food or being mauled by a tiger. We no longer wake up with a burning desire to do anything. In prehistoric times it would have been a death sentence to lounge around all day and do nothing, today it really doesn’t matter.

Many of us try and find a purpose in an effort to make ourselves feel motivated like we once were. Some of us try and find it in our work, religion, or bringing up a family, others through a hobby or interest. And of course, there are many that choose moneymaking as their purpose.

Too much money makes you useless

As you obtain more wealth you become less useful, that’s my belief. You no longer need to do things yourself so you pay someone else to do it. Those with a lot of money might pay for a driver, a chef, or a maid. Those that can’t afford a chauffeur can buy the latest car with self-parking, pre-prepared food from the supermarket, or access the abundant home delivery services that cover everything from a cleaner to a masseuse. And regardless of where you sit on the economic ladder, nearly everyone is paying someone else for the most basic of DIY tasks.

Being a useful/capable individual allows you to act with purpose. It makes you resourceful. For most of human existence, we had to be resourceful otherwise we wouldn’t survive. We would have been the equivalent of a polymath in resourcefulness: making tools, catching food, and building shelter. There must be something innate in all of us that gives us a sense of satisfaction (reward) for accomplishing tasks ourselves. Without a desire to become more skilled, we would have perished.

I receive a small bit of satisfaction whenever I see my clean car knowing that I washed it but none after paying for a carwash. The same holds true for any cleaning vs paying a cleaner or eating food I cooked vs buying a takeaway. These micro feelings of accomplishment boost our mood whenever we complete purposeful tasks. This is especially pertinent when the concept of modern-day (office) work has become meaningless. Without purpose, we feel useless.

Animals in captivity

I was watching a documentary recently about gated communities. One of the wealthy American residents being interviewed described living there, which for her meant making regular use of the onsite fitness facilities. Other facilities included a restaurant, a bar and playgrounds for the children. There were also ground staff that took care of all the gardens — so no need to mow your own lawn. Needless to say, security was tight so living there was incredibly safe. She went on to say that there aren’t too many reasons to leave the development. At the end of it, I wasn’t sure if she was trying to convince the audience or herself that it was a nice place to live.

I see modern-day human life as an analogue of animals living in a zoo. Zoo animals have all their survival needs taken care of; they are given food and don’t need to worry about predators. Because of this, animals in captivity live longer. It’s the same for humans — we live in a safe environment and no longer need to worry about food or predators which has a positive effect on our mortality rate.

A question worth asking yourself is whether you think zoo animals are happier than their wild counterparts. On the surface, you could argue that a life without needing to hunt for food or worry about predators is a better one. However, if I were to bet, I’d say animals in captivity are bored.

It’s easy to forget that we are animals too (and domesticated ones at that). As far as our DNA is concerned, we are in captivity too. We have hardwired desires that can’t be satisfied by sitting at home or in an office. If our prehistoric ancestors were told how we are living today it would probably sound like paradise to them. Linear thinking suggests that a life without hunting for food and worrying about predators is surely a better one.

However, linear thinking is often wrong. The side effects of modern-day convenience are; the omnipresent stress caused by technology and the media, a breakdown of community and no real purpose for the overwhelming majority of us.

As yourself: how much of a difference is there between a zookeeper hurling a hunk of red meat into a lion’s cage and a human ordering food on a smartphone? When life’s not challenging us it becomes a malaise. Alex found purpose when recovering from his illness. While Alex’s example is extreme we can take something from it and ask ourselves how can we can put some struggle/challenge back into our own lives.

As alluring as it may be, the constant push for making life more convenient is fool’s gold that ends in dissimulation.

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