Ernest Becker, toward the end of his influential book, The Birth and Death of Meaning, offers up a bold suggestion regarding what he perceives to be the “great tragedy of our lives” in modernity:
The great tragedy of our lives is that the major question of our existence is never put by us–it is put by
personal and social impulsions for us. Especially is this true in today’s materialist, objectifying, authoritarian society, which couldn’t care less about a person answering for himself the main question of his life: “What is my unique gift, my authentic talent?”
As the great Carlyle saw, this is the main problem of a life, the only genuine problem, the one that should
bother and preoccupy us all through the early years of our struggle for identity; all through the years when we are tempted to solve the problem of our identity by taking the expedient that our parents, the corporation, the nation offer us; and it is the one that does bother many of us in our middle and later years when we pass everything in review to see if we really had discovered it when we thought we did.Very few of us ever find our authentic talent–usually it is found for us, as we stumble into a way of life that society rewards us for. The way things are set up we are rewarded, so to speak, for not finding our authentic talent. The result is that most of our life is in large part a rationalization of our failure to find out who we really are, what our basic strength is, what thing it is that we were meant to work upon the world. The question of what one’s talent is must always be related to how he [sic] works it on the world: “Into what hero-system do I fit the expression of my talent?” (187).
That quote reminds me of another quote from Kierkegaard, who deeply influenced Becker. In a famous journal entry from 1835, Kierkegaard wrote:
What I really need is to get clear about what I must do, not what I must know, except insofar as knowledge must precede every act. What matters is to find my purpose, to see what it really is that God wills that I shall do; the crucial thing is to find a truth which is truth for me, to find the idea for which I am willing to live and die.
While I’m sure we can find plenty to quibble about in these quotes, they might also give us some inspiration as we reflect on our own sense of self and purpose, as we boldly face into another new year.