Seeking purpose in life

This week saw Ash Wednesday mark the first day of Lent. In churches across the country, priests admonished the faithful to “remember that thou art dust and to dust thou shalt return.” These words offer a salutary reminder of what awaits all of us. In the meantime, we spend our years trying to give meaning to our lives.

There was a time when religion and communal traditions provided answers to those who questioned life’s purpose. In our secular age, when religion has waned and many of our communal traditions are crumbling, answers to life’s eternal questions become ever more difficult to find.

Without a set of touchstones or guidance, it is all too easy to fall into the black pit of nihilism.

Almost 100 years ago, the eminent historian Sir Keith Hancock said that “Australians look upon the state as a vast public utility” designed to solve life’s most difficult problems. Nothing has changed.

As a society, we have made a Faustian bargain. We have traded our souls and consciences for a trivial and inconsequential government paternalism.

Many, perhaps most, Australians reject the traditional answers to life’s purpose, but they still keep asking the same questions. Why am I here? How should I live? Governments cannot answer these questions, and it seems our public schools and universities have given up even trying.

Lent is a period of sacrifice but also of contemplation and reflection. In the lead-up to Easter, as the government contemplates how to legislate for religious freedom, it should eschew the pretentious bombast and manufactured outrage that has sadly become the routine mode of our political discourse. Politicians should admit that there are limits to what governments can do to provide people with a purpose in life.

This is an edited extract of an opinion piece published in Quadrant Online as ‘No Longer at Ease … in the Old Dispensation’