Humans are agents of change.
From the moment we are conceived, our body begins to evolve. It grows until we’re born, and then it grows some more. Our bones, cells, muscles, even our brains — they constantly renew themselves. Day after day, month after month, year after year. It all changes until it can’t change anymore.
In time, we start to decay. Decay, too, is change. It’s not a bad thing, you know? As Steve Jobs said, “Death is very likely the single best invention of life. It clears out the old to make way for the new.”
We don’t change just on the inside. Between birth and death, we change everything we interact with. We change nature, culture, and others. Throwing a rock is change. Discussing remote work is change. Patting a friend on the back is change. Even sleeping is change.
Change is the most human thing we do — and the most powerful way to enact change is through purpose.
The Clearest Lens on Life
Most people’s ultimate goal is to have $10 million in the bank. The freedom of not having to do anything is their idea of perfect, ever-lasting bliss. It’s a trap, of course — as evidenced by the world’s countless rich yet miserable people.
Purpose, on the other hand, is an all-powerful source of inspiration anyone can attain. It takes time to find, but once we do, it easily dwarfs the allure of our margaritas-on-the-beach aspirations. When you have purpose, you’ll gain more satisfaction from struggling towards something than others will from never needing to risk anything.
Purpose infuses life with meaning. It gives significance to commitment, patience, and sacrifice. Purpose turns impediments to happiness into sources of happiness — because meaning is our greatest driver of long-term joy.
Purpose is a matter of perspective, but it can’t be seen. It’s invisible to the eye. Purpose must be felt, not observed.
I often write on weekends. Many people might look at that and say: “Wow, he works so much. Poor guy.” They don’t know that I don’t have to do it, and if they did, it’d only confuse them more. “Why work if you don’t have to?” The answer is that I’m writing for a mission, a purpose, and a lot of the time, it makes me much happier to take the next step — to write the next thing — than to sit idle or pursue other goals, even if I have all the freedom to do so.
To the unaware outsider, someone shouldering more responsibility than they need to looks irrational. To the purpose-driven individual, said responsibility is simply the next stage of their mission, and no amount of leisure or worldly pleasures would make them feel more fulfilled than trying to complete that stage.
Purpose is the most empowering lens through which we can view both ourselves and the world, for it reveals the former’s place in the latter. When you treat purpose as the universal backdrop of life — both your life and life in general — you’ll be convinced your actions make a difference — which they do — and that, therefore, every action counts. There’ll be almost nothing you feel you can’t do, and what you must do will always be clear.
I have never heard a better explanation of how to find, embrace, and live by your purpose than the one given by The Boss in Metal Gear Solid 3.
Who’s The Boss?
Metal Gear is one of the most successful video game franchises in history. Over the past 36 years, Hideo Kojima and his team have published 20+ games, selling over 60 million copies and grossing more than $2 billion. They have done so mostly on the back of great storytelling — the whole series is a tale of epic proportions. Think The Odyssey or Lord of the Rings. Also: Spoilers ahead.
Seeing as she is dead for most of the timeline, The Boss is not the character at the center of the grand Metal Gear saga, but she is the foundation on which all of it is built — or, rather, her philosophy and purpose.
For much of the 20th century, The Boss was the world’s #1 soldier, a US elite warrior and secret agent. At nearly six feet tall, with ash blond hair, a short ponytail, and a signature white sneaking suit, The Boss was a striking figure — and not just in her appearance. She and her Cobra unit helped the Allies win the Battle of Normandy. She conducted many covert missions, some involving the Manhattan Project and stealing space technology from the Soviet Union. The Boss was also an instructor and inventor of the fighting technique CQC, close-quarters combat. Finally, she participated in atomic testing and was the first (unofficial) American in space.
In 1964, The Boss went on what would become her final mission: Operation Snake Eater. This assignment marks the backdrop of Metal Gear Solid 3, and in that game, she has three pivotal conversations with her best student and most beloved disciple. Inside those conversations, you’ll find the best explanation of what it means to live for something bigger that I’ve ever come across.
The Purpose of a Soldier
Initially, The Boss’s task seems simple enough: Support her former apprentice of ten years, code-named Naked Snake, in extracting a Soviet weapon scientist from a military facility in the USSR — mainly via the radio. The scientist wants to defect to the US, and it’s Snake’s job to bring him home safely. The Boss is just here to advise.
Throughout the game, we learn how The Boss’s understanding of purpose has changed over time. If we follow the story to its inflection points, we can retrace her steps — see the world through her eyes — and thus go through our own evolution of purpose. The first of these moments happens mere minutes into the game.
For a time, The Boss’s idea of purpose was grounded in the definition of a soldier. In their first interaction, she shares said definition with Snake:
“A soldier is a political tool, nothing more. Right and wrong have no place in his mission. He has no enemies and no friends. Only the mission. Politics determine who you face on the battlefield — and politics are a living thing. They change along with the times. Yesterday’s good might be tomorrow’s evil. Just because soldiers are on the same side right now doesn’t mean they always will be. A soldier has to follow whatever orders he’s given. It’s not his place to question why.”
As a young Boss once would have, Snake immediately gets defensive when hearing these words: “I follow the president and the top brass. I’m ready to die for them if necessary!”
This is the first, naive stage of purpose: Loyalty to an individual or group of individuals.
If you make your sole source of meaning another person, what will you do when that person’s gone? Some people pour all of themselves into their relationship. They live for their partner, and when their partner dies or breaks up with them, they are devastated. A friend of mine talked about her grandpa being a shadow of his former self once his wife passed away. “He never even entertained the idea that she might go first.” Two years later, her grandpa died too, probably more from loneliness than anything else.
When she was 20, The Boss founded the Cobra Unit, a band of six elite soldiers, each specialized in a certain skill, such as sniping, camouflage, or psychological manipulation. Under the command of a group called “The Philosophers,” the unit decisively contributed to the Allies’ victory in World War II, for example by destroying German V2 rockets. As a result of their many missions together, the unit grew close, like a family. The Boss even fell in love with The Sorrow, a fellow member, and became pregnant with his child.
Due to growing tensions among the Philosophers, The Boss disbanded the unit post-WWII. She feared their arguing commanders might use her family’s loyalty to play its members against one another. The Philosophers did worse: They took away her child right after she gave birth. They also did exactly what she had expected: They put her and The Sorrow on opposite sides of the same mission, coercing one into killing the other, using the kidnapped child as leverage. Ultimately, The Boss had to shoot her lover to keep their son alive.
Having survived such traumatic events, The Boss became wary of “loyalty to a person.” Naturally, she offers an instant, obvious rebuttal to Snake’s devotion to the president:
“The president and top brass won’t be there forever. Once their terms are up, others will take their place.”
The Boss tells Snake he’s a natural-born fighter but not quite a soldier. On the surface, there seems to be little difference between the two. After all, both of them fight. There is, however, a subtle but important distinction. To make this distinction apparent to Snake, The Boss contrasts what a soldier does with what he stands for. She calls it…
Loyalty to the End
During the time Snake and The Boss went their separate ways, the former, too, became a military veteran. Snake served in Korea and Vietnam, fought with the Green Berets, and even received the Distinguished Service Cross. A seasoned soldier in his own right, he tries to brush off The Boss’s comment: “I do whatever I have to to get the job done. I don’t think about politics. I follow the will of the leader, no matter who’s in charge.”
This marks the second, professional stage of purpose: Loyalty to a system.
Imagine being a presidential advisor. If the president you chose to advise was swapped for another, could you still do your job? Or would you go down with her, insisting she’s the only one deserving your support? That’s the difference between a fighter and a soldier: The former needs an immediate reason or specific person to fight for — not just any president but their president. The latter will show absolute, unwavering faith in the system they signed up for, regardless of what it requires them to do. The Boss describes it as follows:
“There’s a saying in the Orient: ‘Loyalty to the end.’ It means devoting yourself to your country. People aren’t the ones who dictate the missions — the times do. People’s values change over time. So do the leaders of a country. There is no enemy in absolute terms. The enemies we fight are constantly changing with the times.”
That’s why “having personal feelings about your comrades is one of the worst sins you can commit,” The Boss explains. Who knows who you’ll oppose tomorrow? A soldier’s loyalty must be a question of what, not who. What are you loyal to? The United States? Buddhism? Free markets?
Whichever banner you may choose, loyalty to a system takes a great deal of maturity. It’s hard to have faith in the big picture, especially in times when you can’t see it — or when those around you seem to completely upend it and everything you hoped to stand for. If you’re religious, you will wonder why some people commit atrocities in the name of God. If you’re a party member, you may doubt your leader’s intentions. As an employee, you can be unsure whether your team has agreed on the right strategy. What do we do when we can’t be loyal to our people and our system at the same time? We must decide: Do we keep the faith, keep our heads down, and press on? Do we sound the alarm, raise the bar, and cut some ties? Or do we abandon the ideology we used to believe in because we can’t bear to hurt, or be hurt by, the people who are close to us?
Knowing Snake to be the hothead he is, The Boss doubts he can hang up his personal ties in service of something larger. “Sooner or later, your conscience is going to bother you,” she tells him. But a soldier without conviction in their organization is likely to become “just another man with a gun.” A desperate, disillusioned individual who, torn between principles and relationships, may be overcome with doubts about their system, go rogue, and pass their own form of twisted judgment with their rifle.
Perhaps afraid she might do exactly that, The Boss abandoned all personal relationships after the post-WWII fiasco. Having lost her friends, partner, and child, she vowed to never again succumb to “loyalty to a person.” Instead, she devoted herself to her country. The system called “The United States of America” became The Boss’s North Star, and she fought to preserve and perpetuate its values as best as she could. She did so by contributing her knowledge — like the close-quarters fighting moves she developed or the HALO parachuting technique she helped pioneer — but also by training a young Snake, recruiting Russian double agents, and participating in the atom bomb testing exercises both in the Nevada desert and on Bikini Atoll.
Logistically, much of The Boss’s work was tied to the CIA. In 1964, together with the agency’s director, she devised a mission that would not only allow her to serve everything under the star-spangled banner but also require her every skill and ability…and that’s when it all began to fall apart.
The Dark Side of Allegiance
The Philosophers, the group that had funded and directed The Boss’s Cobra Unit in WWII, were a secret society consisting of high-ranking officials from the US, China, and the Soviet Union. During the war, the three allied parties gathered a slush fund of a staggering $100 billion, later dubbed “The Philosophers’ Legacy,” in order to ensure the Germans would be defeated.
After the war ended, however, the countries fell out with one another — and back into their individual, nationalistic factions. Instead of splitting the money three ways as they had intended, each party wanted the entire pot for themselves. Ironically, none of them succeeded, as the guy in charge of the funds, a distinguished officer in the Red Army, laundered, distributed, and hid the money in bank accounts all over the world, with only a single microfilm containing all of the records needed to access the capital.
That money then landed in the hands of the thief’s son, a GRU colonel named Volgin, and that’s why both Snake and The Boss actually find themselves on Soviet soil — not merely some weapon scientist’s defection. Unbeknownst to Snake, however, The Boss has long befriended the enemy, infiltrating his ranks and gaining his trust in hopes of recovering the Legacy for the American Philosophers.
Initially, the “Virtuous Mission” is going peachy. Snake reaches the meeting spot without incident. He also manages to shield the researcher from enemy attacks as they make their way to the extraction point. Mere steps before their destination, however, The Boss suddenly appears — with two portable nukes and the GRU commander. As part of her own — albeit feigned — defection, she returns the weapon expert to the Soviets and hands the a-bombs to Volgin as “welcome gifts.” She also throws the flabbergasted Snake off a bridge, leaving him for dead. For good measure, her new host spontaneously tests one of his nuclear toys as they fly off into the distance — and that’s when things get complicated.
As the radioactive heatwave rolls over the Soviet jungle, casting everything under the mushroom cloud into the golden light of death, The Boss’s life is changed forever in a moment. She doesn’t know it yet, but she will never come home. Her final lesson about purpose, she won’t see through to fruition. Only a few hours earlier, she warned Snake of this very danger. On the radio, she revealed the dark side of loyalty to a system. “You follow the orders you’re given,” The Boss said. “That’s what being a soldier is” — and that’s the price we pay when we are “loyal to the end:”
“As long as we have ‘loyalty to the end,’ there’s no point in believing in anything…even in those we love. The only thing we can believe in with absolute certainty is the mission.”
As mature and honorable as it is to show unrelenting commitment in the face of uncertainty, we must acknowledge that every light casts a shadow, and that nothing in life stays the same. Whether it’s our leaders that will change, our mission, or — and this is where our faith in systems really begins to crack — us, holding on to anything means that, eventually, we’ll have to let go of something else.
For The Boss, that “something else” turned out to be “everything.”
The Fallibility of Systems
In what feels nothing short of a medium-sized miracle, Snake survives the entire ordeal and, only a week later, finds himself in yet another airplane headed towards the USSR, facing a revised and much expanded mission: Rescue the scientist from the communists as before, but also destroy the nuclear-ready tank they’re forcing him to build — and kill The Boss in the process. That’s a tall order, not just because The Boss is superior to Snake in every way, but also because, even for a soldier, murdering your mentor is an inhumane task. Sadly, The Boss’s death is the only proof of innocence the Soviet government will accept, given the American-made nuke launched in their country, even if it was one of their own, colonel Volgin, who pulled the trigger — and so, no matter how begrudgingly, Snake once again sets off.
Left in the dark yet again by the top brass, Snake still has no clue the Philosophers’ Legacy even exists — just as he doesn’t know that The Boss’s original mission of recovering it has, like his own, also been greatly revised and expanded — into “Operation Snake Eater.” Instead of merely faking her defection to get her hands on Volgin’s war chest, The Boss’s superiors have now ordered her to maintain her villainous appearance until the end. In other words, The Boss is to comply with Snake’s mission, to die a traitor at the hands of her dearest disciple, so that her country might clear its name and once again persevere — and the CIA, the long arm of the very system she put her entire faith and being into, had planned this plot twist all along.
For all their structure, efficiency, and consistency, systems are created by people, and so systems, like humans, are inevitably fallible. What happens when a system can no longer achieve its desired ends in its current form? Will it adapt or break? How is it going to react to shocks, both from within and without? Most of all, what happens to us when we can no longer support the system we worked so hard to become a part of? The Boss paid the ultimate price for the answers to these questions.
The Boss was an icon to soldiers around the globe, a legend in the world of military leadership. In the 1960s, someone like that quickly became a thorn in the CIA’s side. How could one person — a woman, no less — receive all the credit for America’s achievements on the stage of history? But if her devotion went far enough, perhaps it could also be used to architect her demise. That’s exactly what a pseudonymous director in the CIA did — all under the guise of “this is for America,” of course. By making The Boss look like a traitor, in a single instant, he turned the system on its own strongest part. And so, rejected by the very order she sought to uphold, The Boss would learn in the hardest of all ways that, in the end, “loyalty to a system” is still too fragile a source of meaning to sustain us.
As we may doubt our loyalty to the people in our elected system, we may also doubt the veracity, purpose, or goodness of the system itself. Being a Catholic won’t make you immune to questioning the existence of God. A Republican can still be against the wide availability of guns, and just because you work in an AI company does not mean you’ll blindly support the use of AI in all imaginable applications. Would you die on the hill of democracy? Christianity? Privacy? Many have throughout history, but that doesn’t mean we should. After all, no system — just like no human — can ever be perfect.
What ultimately, definitively dismantles systems as a lasting source of meaning, however, is a different kind of doubt. It originates neither in what others do to undermine our chosen systems — like a suicide bomber blowing themselves up in the name of Allah, or a dictator overthrowing a democratic system under the pretense of safety — nor in the flaws of the systems themselves — like the unprovability of a higher being’s existence, or the fact that, in a company of almost any size, you’ll never get everyone to agree on a single direction. It lies in us. The Boss said it herself: “People’s values change over time.”
That’s why the third and final stage of purpose is one we can only reach once we stop deferring to others — be it by relying on individuals or the systems they create — and start using our brain.
All-Powerful — But Not All-Good
The second Snake re-arrives in enemy territory, The Boss ambushes him, once again defeating him in battle, once again lecturing him about purpose — if only in words so cryptic to him, they might as well be in a foreign language. When Snake asks her why she defected, The Boss merely says:
“I didn’t. I’m loyal to the end. To my purpose. What about you, Snake? What’s it going to be? Loyalty to your country or loyalty to me? Your country or your old mentor? Your mission or your beliefs? Your duty to your unit? Or your personal feelings? You don’t know the truth yet. But sooner or later, you’ll have to choose.”
After giving him more questions and no answers, The Boss leaves Snake stranded in the jungle — no means of transport, no backup, no weapons — threatening to kill him should they meet again. While at this point in the game, The Boss’s true intentions are clear neither to us nor to the lost, broken, and abandoned Snake, there is a hidden message in their second encounter: Our journey of purpose is unique and deeply individual. We can’t always make sense of it in real-time, let alone constantly inform and persuade those around us. Sometimes, purpose means loneliness. It can force us to burn bridges, to confuse our friends, even abandon those we love. Purpose is all-powerful but not all-good. It may be the purest form of embracing our humanity, but in said embrace, we also hug all the pain and suffering that come with it.
In the case of Snake and his mentor, neither can reveal their quest to the other, even though both know its ultimate outcome: One must die, and one must live — just as in The Boss’s confrontation with The Sorrow years before. Both are suffering greatly for their purpose, for even in success they are guaranteed to lose, and yet both relentlessly march on, compelled, almost doomed, to continue their journey at all costs. And though costs will be paid in currencies that can never be regained, there is a ray of light piercing the fog of fate — and it is thanks to a different ray piercing a different substrate that the flowers it nourishes may yet bloom.
Loyalty to Change
Despite his rough start behind enemy lines, Snake somehow manages to infiltrate the enemy base. While it’s too late to save the scientist, he succeeds in destroying the Soviets’ civilization-threatening weapon, their evil leader, and any foundation of a future coup d’état. Before he can board his plane home, however, The Boss forces him into a final, live-or-die standoff. As he stares his mentor turned mortal enemy into the eye for the last time, Snake only has one question: “Why?” Finally, he gets an answer:
“Why? To make the world one again. The world used to be whole. But the foibles of politics and the march of time can turn friends into enemies just as easily as the wind changes. Ridiculous, isn’t it? Yesterday’s ally becomes today’s opposition. Enemies change along with the times — and we soldiers are forced to play along.”
Having reminded Snake again and again — “a soldier is a political tool, nothing more;” “a soldier has no enemies and no friends;” “a soldier has to follow whatever orders he’s given;” — it turns out The Boss fundamentally disagrees with these ideas:
“I didn’t raise you into the man you are today just so we could face each other in battle. A soldier’s skills aren’t meant to be used to hurt friends. The world must be made whole again. I will devote my skills to that purpose. And with the Colonel’s money, I will achieve that end.”
The Colonel’s money? “I?” Could it be that…? Yes. In what can only be described as the mother of all plot twists, The Boss finally shares her true intentions with Snake. Rather than return the $100 billion Legacy to her corrupt superiors, The Boss hopes to resurrect the Philosophers in their original form: a group of globalists working toward world peace, economic equality, and a blossoming exchange of cultural ideas across the planet — a group co-founded by none other than her own father, a man who had both lived and died for his ideals.
This represents the third, enlightened stage of purpose: Loyalty to change itself.
What is the world you want to live in? Forget other people’s opinions for a second. Forget trying to do right by your friends, family, and coworkers, let alone pleasing your boss or even strangers. Forget the institutions and systems you’re a part of. Forget that you’re American, a Londoner, or a democrat. Ignore your church community, your gym membership, and even your Booking.com Genius Level status, if only for a moment.
What should life be like as you see it? How should it feel to live that life every day? Not just for you or the people close to you, but for everyone. What does a world look like in which everyone can live that life? Is it a beautiful world? An open world? A kind world? What is the ideal version of reality, seen from your unique, singular-in-history perspective? And what steps will you have to take to bring about that vision? Now that’s a starting point for finding true, lasting purpose: listening to the deepest depths of your heart to unearth a genuine, meaningful desire for change — and then acting on that desire every single day you are alive.
The Boss saw that world — her ideal world — literally. Forced into a space race by the Soviets with the launch of Sputnik 1, in 1960, a just-founded NASA was desperate to catch up, even overtake the competition, she explains:
“America threw everything it had into its own manned space flight project, the Mercury project. Even as the Soviets seemed poised to send their first man into space, America was still experimenting with chimpanzees in rockets. The government wanted human data. So they secretly decided to send a human being into space.”
Guess who they chose? Picked not only for her stellar reputation and excellent physical condition but also her previous exposure to heavy radiation during atomic testing, NASA put The Boss into a tiny capsule and blasted her into orbit. It was up there and then, as the cosmic rays eroded much of her health and whatever was left of her fertility, that the first, never-recorded astronaut in history witnessed “a vision of the ideal future:”
“I could see the planet as it appeared from space. That’s when it finally hit me. The Earth itself has no boundaries. No East, no West, no Cold War. When I was leading the Cobras, America and Russia were fighting together. A world without communism or capitalism…that is the world I wanted to see.”
As she had hinted at before, The Boss never really defected. She was still faithful. Dedicated. Loyal to the end. To her purpose. It just wasn’t the purpose her government, her leaders, her system had served her on a silver platter. After returning from space, The Boss was no longer a soldier, spy, or secret agent. She wasn’t an instructor, explorer, or military legend. She was a human being on a singular mission, a mission she had chosen entirely by herself, for herself, and that yet involved everyone on this blue planet we call home. The Boss fought for universal peace, economic win-win situations, and a cross-cultural pollination of human values and wisdom — and the Philosophers’ war chest would simply be one of many means towards those ends. Her mission was no longer political. It was personal. Hidden behind the veil of serving her country, yet aimed at something much bigger.
Imagine how it must have felt to uncover this vision. To gloriously, finally see the light — both literally and figuratively, in The Boss’s case. Can you picture such a revelation for yourself? Can you see yourself following a dream, bringing about a self-fulfilling prophecy through the sheer force of meaning erupting from your soul? Perhaps you already have a photograph of that dream hanging on your wall. Perhaps you’ve tasted tiny pieces of it when you were seven years old, pieces now waiting to be excavated and put together once and for all. Maybe you don’t. Maybe you’ve never felt that sense of purpose. Maybe you’ve been drugged and dragged away by false idols. Lured into letdowns, frustration, even despair by individuals and systems, entities boldly promising significance yet too frail to deliver on their now hollow-ringing words.
Regardless of where you currently stand on the personal-purpose-spectrum, for now, it’s only important you trust that somewhere, somehow, attaining such aspiration is possible. Will you entertain that idea with me? If not for me nor yourself, then at least for The Boss? Because while you and I can still muse about what our grandest mission might yet be, The Boss no longer gets to choose. In what must be fate as much as a freak accident, the Soviet warlord launching a nuke on a whim made it impossible for her to come home. Her death became part of the mission, and now, facing Snake for the last time, she was about to be swallowed by the same system that killed her father — a system she had willingly signed up for, only to be “set up by the very country I’d sacrificed so much for, by the very government I’d dedicated my life to defending.”
Of course, The Boss is aware of the gravity of the crossroads at which she is standing. Having originally planned to use Snake as a mule to smuggle the Legacy out of Russia, she now finds herself forced to either try and kill Snake, escape with the money, and become an enemy of the state to both America and the Soviet Union — a rogue agent wanted all over the world — or lose the battle, enter the history books as a traitor, and pray that Snake will find his own mission, will do the right thing.
A sad smile hushes across The Boss’s face. Despite their distance over the years, she knows Snake better than anyone else. He, too, has been irradiated more than once. And he, too, must have grown weary of the machinery in which he can never be more than a cog. Referring to the radiation as much as their tired allegiance to their once-so-shiny systems, she tells Snake:
“You were an atomic test subject, weren’t you? On Bikini Atoll. That’s part of the reason I was drawn to you. You and I are alike. We’re both slowly being eaten away by the karma of others. We’ll never have the chance to die peacefully of old age. We have no tomorrow. But we can still have hope for the future.”
The Boss sacrificed everything for her country. Her health, her time, even her lover and child fell victim to the plots she executed for those in power; all missions for a soldier to complete without asking questions, a soldier who would be loyal to the end. By the time she realized she had served under the wrong banner — that of a nation instead of mankind itself — it was too late. Now, all she could do was roll the dice and see where it lands — except for that one, last ace up her sleeve.
The Great Paradox of Purpose
“The Lake of Destiny,” they call it. In a field of white lilies swaying in the wind, The Boss stands across her former protégé. From the ensuing fight, only one winner will emerge. Before the fates collide, however, she has one lesson left to teach: Our purpose may be unique to us, but in working towards it, we fulfill a much larger, much more universal cause.
Even if we pick our own purpose, what if we fail to fulfill it? What if we’ll never see the change we so faithfully believe in? How can loyalty to a cause be loyalty to change? The Boss recognized too late that she had clung to a broken system for too long, but even if we understand that holding on to something means we’ll have to let go of something else, if nothing truly stays the same, how can we embrace anything at all?
The Boss’s self-elected mission was globalism. A peaceful cultural, political, and economical convergence. Whether that mission was the right or wrong one to choose, who’s to say? But her biggest lecture lies not in reminding us to extricate ourselves from the flawed guidance of individuals and systems, but in remembering that, for all its grandeur and worldwide impact, even her mission was small. Thankfully, she set that mission into an even greater context, a context she also first perceived from space, and then passed it on to Snake: Not only were there no borders drawn across the continents, there was also nothing to correct. Our beautiful planet is already perfect as it is:
“Space exploration is nothing but another game in the power struggle between the US and USSR. Politics, economics, the arms race — they’re all just arenas for meaningless competition. And the irony of it is, the United States and the Soviet Union are spending billions on their space programs and the missile race only to arrive at the same conclusion. In the 21st century, everyone will be able to see: We are all just inhabitants of a little celestial body called Earth.”
Why do we change? We change to preserve. Life is a never-ending cycle of birth and death, blossom and decay, rise and fall. War becomes peace. Peace becomes war. Families rise. Families fall. Nature ails. Nature recovers. In the end, we’re all running circles inside a great big zero, and there is beauty and calm in this perspective. Change may be the only constant in the universe, but in embracing it, in pushing ourselves and humanity forward, we actually do our part in keeping it the same. That is our larger purpose — to maintain our world in its naturally evolving state — and the only way to do so is to try to leave it better than we found it.
Why is that? Why must purpose be such a paradox? Why must great ambition come with great contentment, and why must everything ultimately return back to where it began? The answer comes to us when we look around the world — look around and really see — perhaps not from space but from an empathetic, human point of view. At least it came to The Boss, despite or perhaps because her chosen system was so incapable of providing said perspective:
We live in a perfect, enemy-less world. There is no one to point at and nothing to fix. And yet, even if we concede these hard-to-believe, harder-still-to-admit truths, there is always a lot to do. A lot of man-made suffering to be healed. A lot of human connections to be made. A lot of purpose to be pursued.
Initially, The Boss believed purpose was to serve a strong leader, to execute the commands of someone with vision and determination. Eventually, she expanded that understanding to aiding a system, in her case her country, namely by extending its influence upon the world. “America first!” she once might have said. It took a literal one-million foot view for her to realize: We are one. One planet. One species. And America is just one of many places on a map drawn arbitrarily — imagined lines separating people only insofar as they are willing to uphold them.
The Boss learned that purpose means respecting the will of others while believing in your own. It is not about leaving a permanent mark on the world, for those only come with scorches. Instead, it is about spearheading a change you truly believe in, not by force but by example. Thus, irrelevant of success and somewhat ironically, you’ll play your role in nature’s great cycle of permanent impermanence: forever pushing the world forward, yet forever returning it to whence it began.
It would take Snake years to understand this. In fact, not until his dying breath, standing at her grave, would he realize — and finally admit: “You were right. It’s not about changing the world. It’s about doing our best to leave the world the way it is. It’s about respecting the will of others and believing in your own. Isn’t that what you fought for?”
But back then, standing in a field of flowers with a forty-five in his hand, Snake comprehends none of what has taken The Boss a lifetime to learn. How could he? When his one-time instructor radios in the reinforcements, all he can hear is Russian jets in the distance, about to bomb the living hell out of the very ground on which he stands.
Ten minutes. That’s all the time he has left with his mentor — perhaps all the time he has left in this life. He shakes his head, he grits his teeth, but in the end, there’s no room for reflection, processing, or reconciliation. Only for gut instinct, and that, as he glimpses his teacher of old casting away her coat and charging right towards him, makes him do what any good soldier would do in that situation: He ducks, jumps to cover, and cocks his gun.
Death of a Patriot
When it comes to living with purpose, you must understand both: the big picture of change and the tiny snapshot that is your life.
Your mission must be important to you, and what it entails only you can envision. Is it world peace? Nurturing a family? Making art for your peers? Discovering your purpose requires courage, time, and deep, honest introspection — but once you have it, believe in it with all your heart, no matter how quirky it might seem.
At the same time, you must accept that, in the grand scheme of things, your mission will always remain small. Its size matters not, nor does it supersede the mission of others. As long as you’re pushing the wheel of change, however, you’re doing your part — and your part is a role that will forever, endlessly repeat throughout the ages. It’s a role shared by every human who ever lived before you, every human alive today, and every human to yet be born, including the ones who will take their first breath long after you have left us. But only when you appreciate both its cosmic and individual significance, when you abide by the great cycle, can you truly fulfill this role, can the paradox of purpose bring us closer as humans. There is no timeless enemy, and there never has been — because any enemy you can think of — man, nature, or animal — came from the same earth as you did. All enemies are enemies in relative terms.
As the countdown timer ticks away the seconds until certain destruction, two of these relative enemies battle it out until the end. One must die, and one must live. Bullets fly across the flowers. Rustling in the trees, the wind covers the sound of both soldiers’ footsteps. Every now and then, a body slamming to the ground, seeking cover, breaks through nature’s symphony.
The Boss taunts and teases Snake, but really, it’s all concealed encouragement. “Let’s see what you’re made of!” Absurd as it may sound, in those ten final minutes, taking her last stand, The Boss undoubtedly felt it: the fire of passion burning beneath her mission, yes, but also the spirit of serenity, a cosmic calm delivered from the knowledge that, by the universe’s standards, she had already succeeded.
By the time Snake manages to disarm her, The Boss has passed on everything she knows. There are no qualms left to soothe — only one final score to settle. She hands him the microfilm — the $100 billion access card — and prompts him to keep it safe.
The fight was real, but its conclusion is just for show. No wonder Snake is hesitant to complete his assignment. But dying is part of the mission, and so, after seconds that feel like an eternity, Snake relents to his fate and pulls the trigger.
What It Means to Have True Purpose
Change is the only constant in the universe. That’s why humans constantly change. Evolve is all we do, and if we are to do it meaningfully, there is no better way to filter the world around us than through purpose.
When you look at life from a perspective of purpose, you’ll never lack inspiration. You’ll find significance in even the smallest of actions, and you won’t shy away from the parts of life most people spend their entire existence trying to avoid. You’ll have conviction in whatever path you have chosen, and you’ll be happier doing what’s necessary than even the luckiest lottery winner could be in savoring his ultimate freedom of not needing to do anything.
Intuitively, we understand the power of purpose to propel us, but pinpointing it is hard, and so we routinely outsource our ambitions. We pledge allegiance to people, organizations, and ideas, only to find our elected emperor standing naked before us in due time, time and again.
It took The Boss decades, a murdered father, a lost son, a killed lover, and, finally, the sacrifice of her own life to understand that, promised to an individual, weak construct, or fixed set of values, loyalty to the end will only lead to demise. If all you want is money, praise from your peers, or an industry award, your energy will run out long before your obstacles do.
Even humanity’s most compelling constructs — politics, science, technology, religion — are only as good as the ideas they perpetuate, and those ideas, like the people at the pinnacle of each construct, unavoidably change over time. No matter how high up on their tapestry you pin your devotion, once the ideas and people change enough, your loyalty will wane.
Therefore, it is better and, ultimately, inevitable that you choose your purpose yourself. Only you can give your life meaning, and only you can understand if said meaning changes. This is a matter of gut, values, and your unique life experience. It does not matter how that experience compares to that of others, and your chosen purpose does not require justification. It will always make inherent sense to you — and that’s exactly why it’s yours.
Even if your purpose is as perishable as anything else in this world, it is worth fighting for. You will accept, desire, even cherish making sacrifices for what you believe in. You’ll embrace whatever pain, loneliness, and difficult decisions will follow. This is not vanity. It is a fundamental aspect of being alive; of both feeling and knowing it.
In a world and life where nothing stays the same, not even for a second, what’s truly required — our real mission — will forever keep changing with the times, and so loyalty to the end can, ultimately, mean only one thing: We must be loyal to change itself.
Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. Everything we do will return to zero, including us. This is no reason not to try; it is a reason to try very hard. Only if we do our best to make change will we support life’s never-ending cycle. It matters not how long the change lasts. It matters that we were a part of it.
The Boss chose unity as her purpose. She dedicated herself to a world at peace, a world without needless war, political rifts, and meaningless competition. This was her vehicle of change. This would be her legacy.
Throughout history, the world has always alternated between peace and war, and so by choosing one of the two and committing fully to it, The Boss both fought life’s unrelenting current of change and helped to maintain it. She did so under huge turmoil and with great personal sacrifice. When you hear her words and really listen, however, you’ll undoubtedly conclude her life was full of meaning — not despite her pain but because of it.
Humans are agents of change, and purpose is the most powerful way we can enact change while we’re here. It is not easy to find and not free to embrace, but it is the truest expression of humanity I know. Purpose is the most authentic way to play our role in the grand cycle of life.
Go find your purpose. Fight for it. Remember there are no enemies in this world, and whenever you feel down, recall The Boss’s last words to Snake:
“You’re a soldier. Show your loyalty. Finish your mission!”
At nearly 8,000 words and around 30 minutes of reading time, this is the longest standalone essay I’ve ever written. It also took over three years and many sessions to complete. I could not have done so without the excellent work of the following fellow Metal Gear fans:
- GameFAQs’ full transcript of the game by CHamlin
- The Metal Gear Wiki on Fandom
- KefkaProductions’ MGS3 Movie
- Futurasound Productions’ The Lore of the Metal Gear Series
- Luffie Webster’s video on The Boss’s Will
I’d like to thank all of them — and everyone who loves a piece of art so much, no matter whether it’s a book, game, or painting, that they spend their spare time analyzing, recreating, and sharing it with anyone else willing to care.