Prepare for losses

The world around us is a pretty unstable and unreliable place; circumstances that we took for granted yesterday simply don't hold anymore today, things or conditions we relied on break away, and people may come into our lives and then drop out of them again. While some of these developments can be foreseen, we must expect surprises all the time as well. And in particular when people are involved, these surprises have the potential to hit us heavily. An unexpected encounter with someone for the first time can change much of the world around you (just think of falling in love); but equally can sudden loss of someone whom you loved and met with much affection tear the universe apart.

This sort of risk inheres in any kind of relationship, in fact, in any sort
of attitude towards what's outside our own control. And obviously, there is no way of avoiding that risk, short of avoiding attitudes and relationships at all — which would leave us in an impossibly impoverished situation. Taking a stance towards things and circumstances, and getting engaged in relationships with people (on a broad range of types of relationships) is part of what makes us what we are: rational agents, beings capable of thinking about, feeling toward, and acting upon our environments, communicating and interacting in innumerable ways (not least of the affectionate sort) with fellow humans, those who find themselves in that very same condition. If that is what we are, then risk is unalterably built into everything that goes on between ourselves and the world around us. Nothing there is stable or reliable, or if it is, then that is merely relative and tied to some condition; in general, there is no guarantee for anything we may assume. And while we often have to act as if we could take things for granted, while for many stretches of our lives we can more or less safely ignore the pervasive risks inherent in our condition, and while that assumption frequently is even borne out by the events, still we must be clear that sudden loss will come over us, from time to time, with or without warning, and sometimes where it hurts incredibly much.

If risk is what we have to accept, is there anything to be said, or to be
done, then? Being aware of it can help you, in at least two ways: you can, in the event of loss, react properly and with strength; and you can prepare yourself (which is something that you can only achieve by constant awareness of the fact, and by moulding your responses deliberately). The latter is, of course, requisite for the former. It's very difficult to respond in a decent way to a great loss if you haven't worked beforehand to facilitate just that kind of response.

The emotion triggered by loss (especially loss of a person we loved) is grief;
and compared to many other emotions, it is a very strong and intensely felt one. However, your should be aware that the intensity of your grieving is not a measure for how deep your love was; and neither is its duration in time. I know this may sound cold and cruel, and perhaps you'll find it also counterintuitive. You may think that the depth of your relationship, the strength of your affection, the importance of the lost one, should show itself proportionally in the intensity of the emotions that result from your loss. And conversely, would not a relatively calm and composed emotional condition rather indicate a similarly passionless antecedent attachment?

Tempting as this line of thought may be, it doesn't hold in the face of
psychological fact. Scientific studies have shown that most people get over deep loss after a relatively short time. There is variation, but also a discernible mean period after which grief symptoms recede and the impact on feelings cools down substantially. Given the variety in relationship importance, this comparatively invariable resilience seems to suggest that there isn't that much of a correlation after all between how important someone was for you and how long you're entangled in grief.

And if you think about it, why should we assume that an acknowledgment of
someone's importance in your life would have to be expressed primarily in an inability? Why should we think that it is appropriate and sensible to no longer think clearly and feel appropriately, to stop and cut back engaging in important projects in our lives — in response to an event that has disrupted us already? Why increase that effect by giving in to its tendency and letting it grow? Any loss will touch us; if we have appropriate feelings towards someone, then we will feel deeply at the sad news that this person is no longer, and that we won't enjoy their presence any more. Still, feeling this and giving way to the emotion are two separate things: we might refuse to be controlled by what is, in the end, a feeling only. And even though it's difficult (quite possibly an almost unreachable ideal, something that only few might attain at all, and something that we possibly can only reach in an imperfect way), is it not important to decisively counteract that feeling in all the places where it doesn't belong? Of course, in a period of grief, after a heavy loss, there are moments when we meditate and perhaps open up ourselves to that feeling of loss. At other times, however, life must continue, and then a proper attitude would rather call for strength and self-control — for, after all, it is your life that continues here, and it's no good wasting it for what, on reflection, isn't much better than self-pity or indulgence in weakness.

There's not much point in trying to convince you (and others) how excessively
you loved someone after they're gone. If your own stance towards them was consciously appreciative, you know how much you loved them; and if that love could manifest itself in any outwardly discernible behavior, it could have done so only while they were here. You can't gather affection points, as it were, in retrospect. (Neither before yourself nor in the eyes of others.) And obviously, you will remember them as long as you live — not just as long as you grieve. In fact, keeping someone in loving memory does not require you to be intensely distressed. (If it did, your loved one, if they loved you likewise, would probably have wished not to be remembered at all, don't you think?) Quite the contrary: if anything, a loving memory should be a positive one, one that appreciates all the goodness in your relationship, and its value. As soon as you can save that value from being eclipsed by emotions of grief, you'll give your love a more appropriate tribute. Take care.


There is a curious thing about freedom: you might think that it is something that depends on how things are around you, that it is not up to you whether you are free to do something or not. But that's not so.

So you're sitting on a commuter train for hours every day; you have to attend to mundane details of live, such as shopping, cleaning your home or doing pointless paperwork to please the bureaucracy; your day is full of little waiting times, much too short and inconvenient to do anything useful within them. You just don't have the option to do something more fruitful with much of your time; it simply is not possible; you are not free to do so. And it's not just that. Because of the tedium, the paralyzing monotonousness that drains all motivation, it's not just that you cannot do the things you'd rather do, you're even blocked from thinking and reflecting; it's the leaden routine of everyday life that makes your thoughts and feelings become stale and pale — and again, this isn't something you could do anything about.

Well, really? What does it mean to be free in this context? It seems to refer primarily to the ability to decide on how to act, what to make of a given situation. That includes also, in some sense, what to think and how to feel. (We may not always be able to control that in a given event, but at the very least we can work towards a character that would dispose us to slide into the right thinking, the appropriate feeling, as often as possible.) And of course, the ability referred to must also go further: namely, it must cover actually succeeding with what you've decided to do.

Let's get this clearer with an example. So you would love to get into philosophy; into studying the theory of what it means to live a good life; into reflection on what truth is, or beauty, on how to tell the difference between real knowledge and mere opinion, on what the fundamental structure of reality and the world around us turn out to be. But you can't. You are not free to do so. (Because, let's say, you actually do sit on a commuter train every day for hours.) And what we mean by 'freedom' when we use the word in this sense is exactly that the constellation that we find ourselves in, the whole setup of our life, job and family simply must allow an occupation like that. Yet for many of us, it doesn't — so we are not free (in the sense we're reflecting on here).

And the interesting aspect of this sort of thinking is that it makes your freedom fully depend on external circumstances, on how things happen to be, on that, precisely, in your life which you supposedly cannot change. You're basically saying that you don't have a choice here, that you might have tried to get into philosophy had the situation of your life been different, but that this simply isn't an option. The idea of a choice is crucial here, for if there is no choice, that means there is nothing to decide; or at any rate, even if decided, there wouldn't really be a way of acting after that decision, so it would be futile. Likewise you might think that being able to reflect, to think carefully and concentratedly, is dependent on your environment as well. You may well be not free to do so, even if you tried, in many of the circumstances that you're usually in, day by day. And finally, it takes such a lot of hard work to form your character and develop into a better person, doesn't it? Surely that's something that is simply not possible if you have an overwhelming load of daily concerns to take care of? Perhaps it's something you might do a bit for on vacations, or when you are retired. But as things stand, you're not at liberty to focus on that.

Compelling as this line of thought may be, it's self-deceptive. You do have choices, here as everywhere. And one of the first steps to developing a better character is to get clear on what those choices are. When you think that you'd rather reserve some later time for caring about your person, the decision that you in effect take is that your job, your career, or whatever prevents you from doing so, is more relevant — you are assigning it a higher priority. You may object that it isn't just the job itself: remember that commuter train? In order to make a living, you have to do something, and that will take time from you one or the other way. Perhaps; but even so, what keeps you from making good use of these dead times in the middle of everyday business? You can use any free moment wherever you are, and be it only for pondering something useful in your thoughts. If you don't do that, you're not only wasting time (and make no progress with your important projects), you've again silently taken a choice: you might have made an effort wringing something out of even an inconvenient situation — but you put a priority, at that moment, on the more convenient, the easier alternative, the path of less resistance.

You may not actually revert those choices; but it would be some progress to even recognize that they are your choices. It's not the world around you that has decided that you can't make more out of your life. It never is. If that choice is taken, it's always you who takes it — whether you realize it or not; whether you acknowledge it or not; whether you can justify it before yourself or not.

Choices are pervasive: you can start making use of every single moment of those waiting times; you can put a time management system in place in order to streamline the mundane and necessary tasks you have to do; you can rearrange a lot of your life to make room for what you think is important. You do not have to linger around with those who are in your company just because of an accident of the moment; you can choose who you want to be with yourself. You can also reflect at any time on what is important: what are the real goals of your life, and what kinds of character qualities would you have to develop to reach them? These questions are hard, and it takes a long time and much effort to merely get a first and tentative answer, which then must be refined over and over again — not to speak of starting to actually pursue those goals, and develop those character qualities. But difficult though it may be, it's your decision, and yours alone, whether you embark on that path.

All these are choices, and it's you who must decide: your path is not yet set and fixed for you by circumstances. With every day, with every hour you let pass and do not choose yourself, you're leaving your life to the general drift it's got from whatever influences the world exerts to it. And that may in the end not be what is best for you. Take care.

Being young again

Have you ever wished to be a teenager again? That's a conventional manner of speech (and perhaps, as such, it is mostly innocent). But have you actually desired to be young again from time to time? Have you believed this would be a good thing? But why does it look so attractive? What did you have as a young person that you don't have now? A healthier, stronger, more attractive body? Unfailing enthusiasm and unlimited energy? All the options still available, all the choices still open?

Think twice. Wasn't that just an illusion, because you didn't know, at that time, what failings and limits are like? Wasn't that just the world as it looks through the eyes of someone inexperienced, someone who hadn't really figured out how to tell the important things in life from those that aren't truly relevant? Wasn't that someone mistaking shallow fun for something valuable, intensity of feeling for emotional depth, lack of control for passion, the inability to determine your own good pace for an infinity of options and a boundless playfield?

And what makes you think you won't make all your mistakes again? You made them precisely because you didn't have the experience of them. Now you have that experience, you can avoid them.

Freedom and creativity can only be exercised within a given frame of constraints, and they need a sense of direction. (Some artists have described their own process of creating exactly like that: they have to set themselves definite restrictions, even arbitrary restrictions sometimes, and they are then working towards a creative vision, within that setting; I think there is some deep insight in that description.) And the same is true for freedom and creativity in living your life. Just going off into the blue won't lead anywhere; and having no goals at all is not freedom, but arbitrariness.

Finding worthy goals, and learning what to value and what to discount, then, are essential. If you haven't put any effort into this during your life, going back to your inexperienced days wouldn't help at all (by far a better option is to get started now, at least.) If, on the other hand, you have, then you could only lose by winding back. Moreover, if you merely desire back your physical health, and the prospect of a long life still before you, what do you think would you do differently if you'd get those once more? You had all that once — do you really think you would be able to put it to different, better use this time? What makes you think so? Doesn't it rather seem, if you're not content with where you are, that you sailed with a questionable set of priorities then? Instead of longing for doing it all over again the same way, better start revising those priorities. Whatever being young again might give you: it's unlikely that on reflection it will be highest up the list. Take care.

The well-meaning

It may not seem so, but receiving good wishes from others is a complicated business: they always get you into conflict.

One the one hand, they're well-intentioned, and we should appreciate that. The mere fact that someone takes the time and care to express a good wish indicates that there is some value they see in your relationship, and that's something to be honored. (Leave aside those cases where the motive is selfish; if you can't trust someone as far as whether their good wishes for you are based on a calculation that you may be of some use to them, then it's presumably not a complicated task to decide how to respond.)

On the other hand, however, the wishes of nearly everybody else around you will express what they think of as valuable, and given the sparse distribution of really hard thinking about this, of consistent reflection and willingness to decide on the basis of reasons, not received opinions — given this rareness, then, what most people see as valuable are most likely just the things commonly seen so: a long life and health, probably; happiness (in the prevalent sense that means not much more than just feeling good and easy, having fun); professional success and reputation; being well-off and proud owner of an imposing collection of status symbols (a house, a car, a private jet — just fill in what is current in the circles you are frequenting).

These things may be what we often go after; they're not always highest on the list of priorities, though, and it's precisely not a good idea to accept what's implicit in such wishes: that things like that are valuable, something that would be good to have (in a strong sense), something that makes a difference for whether you're leading a good life or not. Were that the case, then we should simply go after them always, and independently of what the situation is like and what our goals and plans may be. But that's not so. Whether you should go after things of that sort is a decision, and one that can only be taken by yourself, one that depends on both the respective circumstances and your ability to recognize what goes on in them, to figure out what's the right thing to do. And you may well decide, in a given situation, that there are more important things to take care of than your own long life and health (how many risk their lives and health for the good of others every day!), your feeling good and having fun (if you've ever spent some time with a needy person, someone too old or ill to get along on their own anymore, you'll see immediately what I mean), your career (you hopefully don't belong with those who sacrifice being together with their loved ones simply for doing longer hours at the office, risking a breakdown of relationships or leaving your children unhappy and alone), or money (not in need of elaboration, isn't it?).

The point here is not that it is wrong to care for your own health etc., of course. It's rather that these things have only a relative value, one that hasn't always primacy. (And you'll notice quickly that the examples I have given can be added to indefinitely; once you start thinking about it, there are many occasions where these things count less than it looked like at first glance.) The most important thing to have is the ability to choose, at any given time, among them and other options; it's a decision, and if there is anything to wish for, then it is for you to make the best possible decisions, to choose well and act right. And that is up to you, of course: thus in a sense it is something that you can wish for, rather in the sense of a resolve, or an intention; it's actually not clear where the point would be for others to wish for your acting well. Still, that would at least express the right values in a wish of them, and thus even show that they've successfully reflected on what would be really good for you, instead of merely propagating a common belief.

It's not by accident that we struggle for such a long time to tell the difference between what's truly of value in our lives and what's merely preferable on occasion; part of what makes that struggle so difficult is the overwhelmingly widespread false opinions on that question. Error of judgment in value questions is viral: it is transported by the good wishes, and well-meant suggestions, of those who want to do you some good. When I started by claiming that receiving good wishes is complicated, that was what I had in mind: you have to be careful to separate what's really good in a good wish (that the other person cares about you, which is invariably valuable) from the reference to what doesn't have a value of its own (which means almost any content of all those wishes you probably receive). And that's not easy, given the positive inclination to what we're receiving. It's crucial to make sure that this positive response picks out the right component: namely, the intention, and not the content of the wish. Take care.


Falling short of ideals is common. There is a widespread sense that ideals are anyway nothing we can actually achieve, that they're for envisioning only: they give our strivings a direction, but it's not expected they'll ever be arrived at. The phrase 'an unreachable ideal' seems redundant and tautological — as if ideals were unreachable by definition already.

And yet does this not sound a little like a pretext to you? Doesn't it amount to half giving up on your ideals even at the outset? Why is it that we suppose it excusable to not attain what we agree would be a worthy goal?

There is no such thing as an imperfection without a corresponding conception of perfection: a norm failing which means to be less than perfect. To rank a meal as unsatisfactory, for example, you must be able to recognize the taste of a perfectly satisfactory one; to judge something as deficient piece of music you need an idea of what a flawless composition sounds like; observing a weakness of character requires you to know how an excellent person ought to behave, and to see where you're still short of reaching the goal of living your live well you have to reflect and find out what it would mean to reach that goal.

Once you do have a conception of the ideal, you may have to learn to live with instances of imperfection around you. You will encounter food and drink that comes not even near your idea of a perfect meal (and much more often than you'll have something you'd award that title to); you will hear music that is not in every respect as flawless as you'd like it — and that is only natural, since there are so many influences capable of spoiling perfection here that it must be very rare indeed. At least that's so for things like meals and music: they are the products of practices which in their very setup include a myriad of details that can only be controlled by the most sophisticated masters all at once. (And even they may not be always capable of getting simply everything completely right.) Yet that is only so because outside influences are in play. A single missing spice that wasn't within reach of the chef might spoil what otherwise had been a perfect dish; a sudden siren of an ambulance nearby may break into the quietest passage of a hitherto perfect chamber concert and kill the atmosphere. And as I said, there's nothing we can ever do: we simply must accept that these perfections are as rare and fragile as they are.

It's not like that with matters of character, and of living well. If you find yourself falling short of acting as you know you should, the proper attitude is not to sigh and resign yourself to the idea that you're not perfect — not at all. How you behave is fully under your control. (At least in the long run: even if you cannot change each of your reactions at once, you can always change your dispositions over time. It just requires will, and discipline, and no external circumstance short of your own end can prevent your eventual success.)

Why then, again, is it supposed to be fine not to strive for ideals, at least in that respect? Is it because we have lost sight of clear priorities, because we have unlearned that things like meals and music are no paradigms of what to value, and what to strive for? It's true enough, when we start looking closer, we may find that excellence of character is even harder to achieve than that of cookery, and that accomplishing perfection in the way we're living is an even steeper task than gaining it in making music. (And note that no-one said that most of those who try will meet that goal within the short amount of time we typically have.) But that will not invalidate it as a goal, nor should it frighten us away.

An important thing to recognize here is that our conceptions of perfection are of different kinds for meals and music on the one hand and for excellence of character and a well-lived life on the other. While the former includes at least as one component a happy coincidence, a junction of favorable circumstances, the rare coming-together of all those elements that enable a subtle composition in which even the minutest detail fits with all the others, the latter doesn't hinge on external luck in the same way: still, there are a great many details that you have to get right, and all must come together; but none of them is put beyond your reach, none of them is of a kind that you eventually can't control. If that is true, then it is not a question of possibility or impossibility whether ideals of that second sort are reachable — it's a question of your choosing. Take care.


Have you ever pondered where the borders between reality and unreality run?

There are the obvious cases of the fictional and the mythical: the worlds of
a novel or a movie are not real, they are constituted by stories in a way that may bear more or less resemblance to the real world (depending on the genre), but what is narrated in those books and films did not actually happen as it is depicted there. And thought-up scenarios are on reflection much more common than it looks at first glance: think of illustrative stories that you may use in a speech or presentation; think of scenarios used for simulation of the effects different strategies may have in business, warfare or disaster prevention; or think of the thought experiments, hypotheses or assumptions used in almost any activity that requires planning and deliberation. Even more frequently, we encounter untrue descriptions or depictions of states of affairs of a more fragmented sort: quick lies and unintended deceptions, legends and rumors, illusions and hallucinations, fantasies and dreams — the varieties are endless, and in general these have little more in common than the fact that they refer to something that isn't so in reality. The realm of what we can talk about (we might say) is much larger than just the real.

We often use the language of 'real' to indicate this fact: we say things like: "I thought I saw him, but he wasn't really there, I mistook someone else for him." — "I was lying, in reality things went differently." — "This isn't the real story, it's just a movie." (That seems to be the main role played by these expressions in our language: they're mostly used when recognizing occasions where we didn't get to the truth of the matters; they appear when we want to mark something as an instance of unreality.)

Unreality is as much part of our lives as reality; we deal with forms of it every day; and while we certainly have some appreciation for select forms of it (think of the carefully crafted works of beautiful fiction), we are generally wary, or should be, of accepting the unreal as if it were real. (Note that where we do appreciate something unreal, that appreciation requires us to recognize its status as unreal in the first place, so that we can see and evaluate the art and skill that were applied to create it.) Take lies or illusions as the primary example: we have an interest to find out whether and when we are subject to those, even though it often is more painful to face the truth than it would be to remain deceived. We're not content to live in a dream world; we'd prefer reality to it, even if it turns out to be drearier.

We need to be conscious, then, of all the forms of unreality around us, and of their character. Especially in our beliefs and our emotions we tend to react to unreality in much the same way as we respond to actual fact — and this is something urgently requiring correction. Fine perceptiveness and subtle judgment are what is called for here, and it certainly helps to study unreality in all its manifestations (a field that makes for fascinating study anyway). Take care.


Darkness is special: of all the senses, vision is so dominant that its absence is felt immediately and acutely. In some people darkness causes fear (which is foolish), in others it fosters a focusing: we instinctively strain our remaining senses. (We do the same in related situations of impeded vision, such as foggy mornings or badly lit rooms.)

Still, darkness tends to leave us less in control, since it so severely limits perception and reduces the effectiveness of our actions — and paradigmatically so. Thus it has come to stand symbolically for hostile or at least unfavorable environments. With respect to people, it can sometimes signify evil or desperate streaks within their psyche, such as when we refer to the 'darkness within someone's heart', or the 'dark corners inside a person's memories'. (We might speculate that, by analogy, it is those people's lack of power over some of their bad character traits that makes the metaphor an apt one.) And though all this belongs in the poets' toolboxes of figurative speaking, there must have been something in darkness that has inspired associations of that sort.

The naturalist account that I've alluded to, the view that darkness is simply associated with situations of powerlessness, situations which we have a built-in aversion against (presumably developed in an evolutionary way), seems unlikely to be the whole story. It explains our instinctive caution and dislike of darkness by assigning it to a long-standing reaction to what from experience is characterized by heightened danger — something to get away from, and quickly. It doesn't account, however, for the emotional intensity that darkness generates, especially in comparison with other forms of impaired perception and impeded action. As an empirical description, moreover, such a view may well state that people tend to value dark surroundings negatively, but that many people do so (even when it is a habit that has evolved) doesn't make it necessarily a good thing to do. Values, in general, should result from rational reflection, not from instinctive habits. (Not that instinctive habits are useless — they're certainly good to have in many other contexts; but again: we're talking about valuing things, and the actions, feelings and beliefs that flow from such valuations.) Mere descriptions of behavior, even behavior that expresses values, aren't sufficient where reasons are needed for seeing something as good or bad.

Where can we locate, then, the ambivalent attitude to darkness with respect to our views of what's good and bad? Fear seams inappropriate; for fear is a negative emotion that takes its object, in this case darkness and what may result from it, such as our inability to recognize dangers in time, as something bad or evil. A better reaction toward unfavorable or dangerous external circumstances is caution: realizing and weighing the imminent threat or unpleasantness, and taking suitable measures if possible. Likewise, even though darkness may have a focusing effect, that seems not a sufficient basis for counting it among the things valuable.

A border case is perhaps that of people who have to accept permanent blindness, for instance resulting from an accident or illness. For them, lasting darkness will become the shaping condition of their future lives, and they may well take it as a chance as well as a curse: the world of their experience will be reduced by one dimension, the dimension of sight, but in exchange the sensitivity of their other senses might increase, and so compensate at least for part of the loss. Might someone in that situation then take the perpetual darkness to come as a good thing, a blessing that enables such an enrichment? Certainly, if they take such a view, that's an admirable strength of character, and there must be something very valuable involved here. But it seems wrong to locate the goodness, the real value, in the external circumstances that have merely brought the opportunity for excellence; clearly, what's admirable here is how the blind person has sustained her attitude. (Someone else, in an identical setting, may have despaired and sunk into weakness and helplessness — and since the situation is by hypothesis the same, the role of blindness is invariant; it's the attitude taken, and the excellence of character or the lack of it, which made the difference, and that's where we should look for what is goodness or badness in these examples.)

As with many things that happen in the world around us, darkness is something we have to deal with sometimes, and here we have a range of attitudes to choose from. As ever, the real goodness or badness lies in which of them we take, and what that tells about us. Questions of good and bad are questions about ourselves, rather than about darkness (and light). Take care.


One of the most preferable states is silence — or should be, if quiet reflection and focused attention were as highly rated as they ought to be. Our attitudes to silence, however, are ambivalent.

Continuous noise can spoil concentration, irritate and make us nervous; this makes many long for silence, thirsting for getting rid of the unordered sounds we are exposed to (which have a tendency to mercilessly grab our attention, eating away our mental energy) — and the relieving effect is in fact tremendous when all sound suddenly stops. Deep silence, on the other hand, seems to have a disturbing effect on some (and especially in social contexts it can be quite meaningful when everybody refuses to talk). As with many things related to sound and hearing, silence interacts with the weight of time: its effect seems to build up and increase with its duration. The same applies to noise, of course; the overwhelming desire to escape is probably the reason for attempts to drown it in loud music streamed in via earphones, as we can observe people doing every day in crammed train cars or in the busy streets of our cities. (Although that only seems to replace one sort of noise with another, there is some attraction to the idea: at least this makes it an ordered soundtrack that fills our ears, and one of our own choosing.)

If there is such a variety in what we feel about silence at different times, we should make a fine distinction. The external circumstance, silence, may be congruent or not with the inner condition of calmness, of harmony within your thoughts and feelings, of being focused and capable of remaining so and keep on track with the paths of action you've chosen. Calmly following through with what you have decided is best is not merely more successful (usually), it also brings a feeling of satisfaction and generally relieves from tensions and nervousness. But it doesn't stem from external conditions, such as silence; it's often rather the other way round: being able to keep focus among turmoil and noise is a sign of strength of character and a well trained, focused mind. Although complicated environments can be trying for anybody in this respect, it's not true that this ability depends on silence and more friendly conditions. And as we have seen, the converse does hold as well: silence itself can be both conducive and obstructive; whether it makes you nervous or helps to concentrate has more to do with yourself than with what goes on around you. Take care.


Interaction with others, fellow human beings, is generally valuable, and the more so the deeper your relationship with them is already. We spend time with our lovers and friends, our children and parents, and the mere being together with them has some value: it's their presence, interacting with them, that makes a difference from other occupations (such as being at work, talking to relative strangers).

Absence, the inverse of presence, seems to have a corresponding negative value. But where do either valuations come from? In what sense is presence as such desirable? (It's not so difficult to see why it is their presence, rather than that of others, that we care about. But exactly how valuable is direct presence, and why?) It seems that it is not merely a matter of quantity, that the value we see in the presence of those we care about does not scale with its duration: it's not necessarily so that being together for a longer time is therefore already more valuable. And a relationship can be healthy and deep even over long periods of absence, be it punctured with small phases of being with each other, or even entirely without them. (Of course, relationships often cool down and even vanish after some time without any contact at all; it's a tricky question whether that is because the relationship wasn't so deep, then, after all, or whether its value has legitimately changed over time and thus has been reduced normally.)

From all this it seems that it's not presence or absence as such which have value: they're merely containers for what is actually important (and it doesn't even depend on the size of the container how we value their contents). And in the case of absence, it's not something bad in itself that's in the container, but a deprivation of something good: your life over these periods is lacking something that would be valuable if you just had it.

The presence of any one person in your life is an external, depends on external influences (influences, that is, which we cannot control). Certainly, it is up to us, to some degree, to nurture our relationships; not doing so is a neglect that invariably results in a reduced quality of our lives. (This comes to be felt most severely when we lose someone permanently; but it is clear enough also in the case of simple absence, which is characterized by some good chance to meet the respective person once more, get closer again to her or him.) The vagaries of life, however, tear us apart from those we care about often enough without leaving us a chance to prevent it. It may be for a few hours every day, or for a few days every once in a while, very much depending on your life's setup — usually this sort of absence results from the demands of professional life. It may be for long uninterrupted periods, such as when our children leave home for some distant place to live and work there. Periods of absence of these sorts we simply have to accept.

Absence, I have said, is a deprivation: you're not able to enjoy something that you might have enjoyed (if circumstances had been different, presumably). And although it is something dispreferred, it's not bad in a strict sense: it's something that depends on external fortune, on events and circumstances you can't control; in all situations which you can control, it would be less than excellent, to say the least, for you to act in a way that causes a deprivation of that sort to both you and your loved ones. What is bad in these cases, of course, is not the deprivation as such, but that you've produced it by our actions, or at least that you've let it happen and be. (Acting so as to deprive yourself of some good thing means to act in a way that harms you, reduces your fortunes; it's unwise, and acting unwise is something bad — especially if it becomes a habit.) On the other hand, a deprivation caused by external events you can't control, or often even influence, wouldn't actually be bad in that sense. Certainly, you disprefer it; and that precisely means that if you could control and influence, you would, or at least should, do as much as possible, as much as you can, to prevent such deprivation. But if, as per hypothesis, you can't, then in your actions there is nothing bad. Mere external happenings don't count as bad (or good) — for good and bad are that which makes your life more or less a good one, one worth living, and one worth having lived. (And what else could count as a criterion here?)

(Note that this does not merely include what you think is good, what feels good, at a given moment — the criterion is whether what you do actually is good: and that is not exhausted by your subjective perspective on things; for instance, it will certainly include the good of other people as well as your own, and in particular that of your loved ones.)

Absence of those we care about is not in itself bad; it's what you haven't done about it that makes it so — if there was anything you could have done. If not, then there's no point in whining (or complaining). In any case, and fortunately, there are always plenty of occasions where you can do something to enrich and deepen your relationships. Take care.


Why do we have this fear of our own death? Why are we scared by the thought of being annihilated as a person, of no longer existing at all? If it really is our own non-existence that scares us, it is a fear of not being there. But what exactly would that be like — not being there? Would it be like anything at all, experientally? Or isn't that rather a confused notion? After all, if you aren't there, what could it mean to experience anything?

According to a popular view, it is the sheer unimaginability of one's own inexistence that induces this seemingly unbearable fear. But this can't be quite right: we haven't existed before we were born either, and that's not something we have any bad feelings about; it's also not a quantitative matter: we wouldn't think, on reflection, that those who've been dead for decades now are in some sense worse off than those who died only recently.

And, more curiously, shouldn't there be a similar emotion directed at the sense of not being yourself, not deciding on your own actions and views? Isn't it something to avoid, to actively prevent: not being in charge of what you do, being driven (by whatever else, like cultural determinants, education, childhood experiences and so on)? So while there seems a natural fear of death, why isn't there an equally strong tendency to get in charge of our own lives and personalities, a caution not to waste that precious resource, your life time?

Some philosophers have thought that the supposed badness in death is one of deprivation: you'll not be able to enjoy the goods of life, or you'll not be able to reach those goals you still have set before you. (The latter point seems to be progressively weaker for people in high age who have already achieved much of what they set out to achieve. It's graver if someone dies prematurely, as we say: as a relatively young person, with many goals and projects interrupted that might have been completed otherwise.)

And again, if that theory is correct, and it is primarily our not receiving what we might have received from life had it been longer, why isn't there a similar emotion toward our weaknesses and faults? After all, these are responsible for many missed opportunities; quite a few spend their lives wasting days, weeks and years, and never seem to have any deep feelings regarding that (until perhaps very late, when they look back and regret).

We know we all have to die. With that fact in the background, it is reasonable to care about the actual physical process of dying, taking precautions to make it as acceptable as possible (by arranging health insurance, for instance), and obviously, avoiding mortal dangers. Moreover, it would be unwise to exclude the thought of one's own end (at some future time, of which it is unpredictable when exactly it will be) from all consideration about one's life. It's a basic element in all such reflection, and ignoring or suppressing it would be a distortion. (Of course, that's not a plea for overdoing it and falling into morbid melancholy. It would be a deficient sort of reflection that allowed you to let thinking about the bounds of your life hamper your activities and the pursuit of your goals.)

Yet from all this doesn't follow that inexistence, annihilation as a person, is something to fear, or even to be concerned about. Fear of inexistence, then, is perhaps rather about that confrontation with yourself: never having reflected and so made the best out of what in your situation was attainable, it's tempting to try to delay the final moment of truth until later rather than sooner. Had you faced it earlier, it would not just have been easier, but also better for you (there would still have been some room for change, some chance to really do something with your life). Conversely, if you make the most of your possibilities, and live a good life, there won't be any need to fear that final transition to inexistence. Take care.


Self-knowledge is hard to achieve; it is also double-edged: beneficial and dangerous at the same time. Once gained, it can't be lost, which is good if you want to improve and make progress, build on what you've managed so far. But it will also persistently display your own faults to you until you've straightened them out. It will show you, that is, where you are; and that sort of insight is rarely pleasant (most often, we will just realize how little progress we've really made).

Perversely, that makes it look attractive to avoid looking too closely at yourself, blunt your perception of your own personality traits and keep away from scrutinizing your motives all too directly. Attractive it may seem, but obviously such a recoil isn't good for you. Thus many people, rather than simply avoiding self-knowledge, fall into a self-deceptive pattern: instead of self-knowledge, they go for something less disturbing, but superficially similar-looking. To immunize against that mistake, let's look closer at what self-knowledge is not.

We should distinguish between self-knowledge and mere awareness, observation and interpretation of our own psychological states. We're in certain moods, have emotions, and we accept or refuse beliefs — and though we do all this consciously frequently enough, we also do it sometimes without realizing it. You can be in a given mood for quite a while without being aware that you are; people often experience emotions (in particular, those of the nasty variety, such as jealousy, anger or fear) and only recognize at an already far developed stage where they have led them; and many of our opinions (or blind spots that prevent us from considering alternative ones) are so deeply entrenched that we're not always aware that we hold them, although they may express themselves in our behavior and others do observe the attitudes which reveal them. So becoming aware of your own mental states is an ability that needs training. In that respect it is like self-knowledge: it isn't something that comes for free. And like self-knowledge it has both a helpful and an unhelpful side: being aware of your psyche's contents will increase your ability to actively shape them, but it will also show you how much of your time you're enduring rather unpleasant states (for instance, that of boredom). It also will demonstrate to you how even pleasant feelings get stale and weak after just a short while.

Self-awareness in this sense is not the same as self-knowledge: mere perception of how it feels to be in a situation is no substitute to evaluating your being there. Real self-knowledge is reflexive character assessment: having reflected on what you want to do with your life, what sort of a person you want to be, and knowing where you stand with respect to these goals. That's not something that comes easily; it's a hard-won achievement. It requires sharpening your perceptiveness; but it's not nearly enough to just observe how you feel, to merely accompany your thoughts and actions with some situational awareness. That's a start, of course; it then must be supplemented by sound judgment (including, and especially, of the self-critical sort) and the ability to mature your emotional responses and build up your decidedness in taking action. Self-knowledge is not of the easy, empirical sort: it takes some attitude, and will. Take care.

Live by your philosophy

If you act, think, feel in a way that is incongruent with your deepest convictions, then something is wrong. Your philosophy is the result of your reflections on what your life should be about and what sort of a person you ought to be — it's your considered opinion on these questions, and if you find yourself acting contrary to that, this means you're doing things against your own best interest; if you observe you're holding opinions that are in contradiction to it, this manifests an inconsistency in your views; and if your feelings take you on a ride far away from what they should be if your affections and attitudes were sound, this shows a rift between what you were aiming for and what you've achieved so far in educating them.

To live by your philosophy means a lot of things: for one, you have to really
follow through on what you think is best for you. It's not enough to have the right insights — they're worthless if they are not manifest in what you do. And likewise, if you stop doing all those things you know you should do, just because you realize that you can get away with not doing them, that should give you pause. It's not just the visible actions, but also your inner stance that counts. If those thoughts and feelings that no-one can see are not in tune with what you do, then you are giving merely a show, a surface performance that may fool some others, but in the end you'll only deceive yourself (and how foolish it is to even invest effort into that!). Contradictions of that sort are the very thing that philosophy wants to correct.

Another thing that is meant is that you live by your philosophy, not
by somebody else's. They may coincide, but then it's still your philosophy that you live by; not that other one — or put differently, what makes a philosophy the one you should live by is that it is your philosophy, nothing else. This is not a call for a high-flying, speculative mindset that results in 'your philosophy', as if you'd have to write a book with ideas in it that were never heard of before: but when you think about it, what can count as a philosophy that guides your life, all your actions, thoughts and feelings, must be something that has its roots in your own reflections; it must be arrived at by your own reasoning; and no engagement in changing your life will be sound if it is not founded on attitudes which aren't in a deep sense your own. Needless to say, your reflections will be informed by a long tradition in ethical philosophy, your reasoning will have to seek its touchstone in the arguments of others who also reflect and take a stance on those important questions, and your attitudes must be formed in an active engagement with the world around you. There is no such thing as cooking up 'your philosophy' just by stewing in your own intellectual juice. But unless you have reflected, thought through, and accepted something yourself, it won't do as a basis for living your life according to it.

Once you have started investing thought and effort into this, you will notice
that the consistency of your actions with your views improves, that your judgments become more sound and you feel in an appropriate way more often than not. Constancy and personal integrity are a mark of a developed philosophy by which you can live. So is a continuously taken reflective stance of self-examination. Take care.

Avoid a vicious environment

Indulgence, weakness, failure — those are bad enough themselves, but even worse are occasions, and locations, when and where they are celebrated, praised and practiced as if they were something good. If circumstances are favorable for seeing excessive eating and drinking, careless hunts for pleasures, thoughtless speech and senseless intoxication as desirable, all this naturally becomes much harder to resist — especially when everyone around you chimes in with the incitation.

But obviously bad example, blandishment and other forms of leading you into doing something you'd resist from a more considered perspective are not exclusively found at orgiastic sessions that cater to the senses. If, for instance, many of the people whom you deal with on a daily basis haven't any courage, if most of them from time to time act timidly, and everybody seems to just accept it as admissible way of doing things, it will be difficult, to say the least, to train and cultivate your sense of what's courageous; your courage will itself be weakened by that constant deficiency around you. And it's the same with all the qualities of character.

There's nothing wrong with pleasant surroundings — unless they make you soft. At many times, we simply choose to be where it seems most agreeable to be; but then again, that shouldn't keep us from the more important things we want to gain in our lives: when pleasantness of surroundings, and niceness of the landscape or the people reaches a status with us that makes it the most desirable thing, and even more important than who we care about, and what we want to do with our lives, then we have reached a point where feeling good has virtually replaced any other goal. And how degrading would that be!

Just think: if it is that important for you to feel well, to taste the pleasures of good food, to sense the softness of a mild climate, if you have come to see such mere conveniences as really valuable, then anyone and everything that's capable of causing pain to you, of even merely subtracting from your pleasures, finds a widely open door to blackmail you. Just about anything that's nasty could be used to cause you trouble. (And this is not as far-fetched as you now may think; I bet there is among the people who you know a number of that sort who are the slaves of one or the other of such tastes. Indulgence has a strong grip on those who've given in to it.)

Another bad effect of softness is a growing lack of energy. If everything that counts is feeling well, then why start working, or pursuing goals? In fact, not having any goals would be just fine, provided that a maximum of pleasantness is still ascertained to be had.

So, living for the pleasures makes you weak and lazy, and a plaything of all circumstances that have any power to reduce them. Just as you should care to resist this as a bad idea of what to do with your life, it's similarly wise to learn to recognize when many voices are about to coax you into a relapse. If you should find yourself in that sort of environment, be mindful not to be seduced. Take care.

Educate your feelings

In our time, there seems to be a widespread tendency to blame: others, circumstances, or simply things in general. In many cases, that's just a technique to deflect attention from what actually should be one's own responsibility. And while this is easily recognized when what is under scrutiny is people's actions, the same applies to feelings. Let's look at an example.

Nobody likes being bored, isn't that so? Boredom is unpleasant, it makes us uncomfortably feel the weight of time, lets us experience ourselves as inactive, incapable even of doing anything useful with ourselves.

But many assume that feeling bored is merely the proper reaction to an environment that fails to entertain us — or fails to fascinate us, engage us, occupy our thoughts, in a word: fails to grab our attention. So it is really the world around us that is to blame for the nasty feelings we must endure. Or so it seems. For let us ask: why should it be that feelings of boredom are the proper reaction to things that go on around us? Does it seem the best way to behave, in circumstances that you take to be boring, to just remain inactive and, well, feel, that is, concentrate on what your senses tell you (i.e. nothing of interest, since by definition we are talking about a situation that you find boring)? Wouldn't it be equally possible to try and make some use of the situation? Whether you are in a waiting room or listening to a lecture you were forced to attend, whether you have to remain in company that you wouldn't have chosen if it was up to you or whether you are alone when you'd rather have someone around you: why not take the initiative and get something useful done? At the very least, there's always the option to do some thinking: reflect. Review the last few hours, this whole day, the past weeks; think about your goals in life and where you are with respect to them; even think about what's brought you into that situation you are in now. Perhaps you can identify some mistake you've made that brought you into it? Should you have taken more care of yourself so you wouldn't end up in a doctor's waiting room? Should you have dropped studying a subject that gets you into lectures you really don't want to listen to? Should you do more for the relationships to other people in your life — so you won't need to spend time with people you don't like, and you'd have the chance to be with those you care for?

Am I recommending, then, to take that feeling of being bored as a signal, an indicator to get active (or contemplative)? Not quite. That feeling is improper: it's bad for you; feeling that way is already to have taken a wrong turn somewhere. What I suggest goes deeper: you shouldn't have to feel bored at all. In all those situations, instead of having an impulse to become bored ("Oh, now I'll have to wait for the train for another ten minutes, and there is nothing of the slightest interest here!"), you'd better have an impulse to do something, or start reflecting ("Well, that gives me another ten minutes; fine, so I can continue reading that novel I've just started."). Instead of letting your surroundings determine what you might do, or even worse, of leaving it to the situation what you'd feel, start making that decision yourself — and train your feelings to tune in with more sensible options (and habits).

More generally, why should any feelings be merely a function of the goings-on in our world? True, once you have developed certain habits, you can't immediately control how you feel. There is an automatic pilot in place that drives much of them, and it's not easy to even notice, much less change them once that pilot has decided on a course. In the long run, however, you can educate your feelings; you can to a certain degree re-program the autopilot to steer more sensible courses in a given type of situation. Granted, that takes a lot of work, and even when successful there is no guarantee that your feelings will always be what you'd like them to be: in the complicated emotional interactions that we have every day with the people around us, so many things can still trigger unexpected behavior. And it is very hard to know yourself so well that you'd be able to foresee all that. The variety of situations we might encounter is infinite. All that, of course, is no excuse for not working on yourself and correct your affective responses, the ways you feel in given circumstances. Your feelings are your responsibility, much the same as your actions and beliefs are. There is no need, at any time, to feel bad (or bored). The fault, as always, is not in our surroundings, but in ourselves. Take care.


When we use the phrase 'the time of my life', most often retrospectively, we refer to a period that we remember as one of deep happiness, intense feeling, an acute awareness of ourselves — a period we recognize, at the time we're remembering it, that was unique and will never come back. The middle (and late) stages of our lives are full of such insights to the effect that something was there in our youth that is now irretrievably lost.

(The phrase is also often used more loosely to express one's had some fun, but of course that's not the interesting usage; we're not talking here about simply the equivalent of saying that one's had a good time, but of saying it was the one time in one's life. That's what these reflections are about, even though it may not always be what people mean when they use those words.)

A good portion of our sense of self depends on our attitude to such memories: some get melancholy, others get dreamy; and there are those who quietly treasure them, and love to recall them from time to time at a peaceful hour when they are by themselves. Me, I often feel a wave of sadness sweep over me: it's a fresh shock every time to look back and face the facts of missed opportunities, failures from half-hearted pursuits, neglect of others that I subsequently came to regret bitterly; and although there are those episodes of a deeply satisfying happiness, too, they strangely trigger the same poignant sense of loss: they're a recollection only, of something that's gone forever. (That latter impression needs analysis: if the loss is one that actually came about as a consequence of my own actions, if it was up to me and I just messed it up, I'd rightly feel regret; though still it should rather be directed at my actions instead at a felt loss. In other words, if regret is appropriate, it can only be about what I'm responsible for. Else it isn't regret, but pointless whining.)

How should we deal with these feelings about our memories? They are taking us back to something unique, I have said: they're about parts of our lives — and not just in the trivial sense in which every portion of our past, every episode we've lived through could be called a part of our life. These episodes we're talking about are singular. Each of them has the character of something that you know will never happen again in that same way, and with that same intensity. Uniqueness implies loss — if it wasn't unique, it might be repeated; so when you remember it as unique, then it is already a thing of the past, of the kind that you can't have back.

There is something special about every stage in our lives, in fact, about every single stretch of time in them, especially our youth (with all the spirit, passion, and the recklessness typical of it). It's not the only time that is engraved in our memory. However, it's the first in the sequence, and so naturally it's what we will recall during all the later parts of our life. There is a certain asymmetry here: you can't get rid of all the memories of your past when you're old, though you can ignore your future to a certain extent when you're young. And memory, of course, does not just keep the happy, but equally the sad experiences; it makes no difference where the goodness (or the badness) came from: whether it was from within yourself or from an external source; and it generally seems the vividness and strength of our recollections has to do with how important and how deeply felt those experiences originally were.

Unless you are forgetful, the events of your past won't change (though your attitude to them may vary somewhat from time to time), and they will never disappear from what you remember to have been. And wouldn't it be shameful to forget? If what you did in those past times was the right thing to do (then), if you did well, if your stance was appropriate, then forgetting about it would be a foolish regress, a step in the direction of losing hold of your very self; if those past things are rather regrettable, distancing yourself from them seems like trying to avoid taking responsibility and wasting a chance to improve. So we'd better never forget. Take care.
Copyright © 2007-2012 by Leif Frenzel. All rights reserved.