The Importance of a Purposeful Life

An Alien World

Over my vacation, I read the science fiction novel, Return from the Stars, by Polish author Stanislaw Lem. This was the second time I read the novel. When I read it 20 years ago, it didn’t connect with me. However, now I see many parallels with the direction our society is headed with the one depicted in the novel. I think this book is worth exploring through the lens of faith.

Return from the Stars echoes many themes explored in Adulous Huxley’s Brave New World or the movie Logan’s Run. Lem tells the story of an astronaut, Hal Bragg, returning from an intergalactic space mission having only aged 10 years while 127 years passed on Earth. His experiences on this new Earth are like stepping onto an alien planet. Society has completely changed because people live without crime and fear due to a procedure everyone receives at birth which removes humanity’s tendency towards aggression. Robots handle all the dangerous work leaving humans to spend their lives pursuing leisurely activities.

The Tragedy of Comfort

It may seem like a utopia to live in a world without injury, crime, and fear. If you don’t know of any other way of life, a world of war, crime, and toil would seem downright barbaric. However, what type of life is it where your sole purpose is to exist and consume? There is nothing to achieve or fight for. That drive towards improvement via challenging yourself no longer exists. In the novel, this world drives astronaut Hal Bragg to the edge of insanity as he declares, “They’ve killed the man in man!”

We are starting to see the development of such a society depicted in the novel. It’s one bathed in the glowing screens of smartphones. One can spend his whole life watching TikTok videos and streaming Netflix, ordering everything online at the click of a button, and no one daring to tell him, “You should be doing more with your life.” As Hal realizes almost immediately, it’s a life without purpose. Humanity has regressed, not progressed. We are little more than packs of animals dressed up in the comforts technological advances bring.

Return from the Stars stays mostly in the sociological changes to society. It avoids explicitly exploring the political and religious structure of such a society. But I think Lem leads the reader to a similar conclusion that Hal discovers — such a world creates a shallow and meaningless life. Ironically, it is through our hardships and toil that we forge strong connections with each other and God.

Why We Need to Toil

Our lives need to include that spirit of adventure, danger, and toil. There needs to be a sense that we are working towards something. Specifically, we need to have that drive to always be working towards living in God’s grace and eventually spending eternity with Him in Heaven. And that requires hard work and taking risks to achieve something more than what we currently have. It means being thankful for what we have, but knowing that it’s incomplete.

Hal laments that humanity lost the will to explore the stars to instead bask in the immediate comforts technology and science brought them. I think the same sentiment can be said for faith. We lose that sense of urgency to practice our faith in an easy, “safe” world. Why is it, after a huge disaster like the 911 attacks, churches were full to the brim the following weeks? I think, when our sense of comfort is disrupted, we evaluate what is truly important and invest in it. Unfortunately, the last major world event, the Covid pandemic, made it even easier to seek comfort rather than seek God.

Seeking God through the Rosary

Mediate on the Fifth Joyful Mystery of the Rosary — The Finding of Jesus in the Temple. Picture Mary and Joseph looking for Jesus after they learned he was missing. They searched for three days in sorrow. Imagine the sense of urgency and determination they must have had looking for their lost child. Everything else took a back seat to find Jesus. Their search required dealing with fear, sorrowful, and hardship. But in the end, their persistence was rewarded when they found Jesus in the temple.

Look how tired St. Joseph looks

We too should show that same level of focus and determination to find Jesus in our lives. I’m not saying that you neglect other responsibilities such as work, family, and community for your faith. But we can’t become so comfortable that we lose the willpower to serve and honor God. We always need to remember that we have a mission and it’s not to watch Netflix and Disney+ (which I recommend you boycott on principle). To be fully human, we need to strive for something greater than what we have. We need to strive to deepen our love for God and our faith.