Spotlight and circumstances

Don't invest effort in trying to manipulate other people's perception, or judgment, of your way of living. You had to do that when you went for a career, where others could influence how successful you would become. But this is exactly what you're getting away from now; make yourself independent of that. If your goal is to improve yourself and your decisions, beliefs, actions and feelings, then success depends on you alone, not on others, and therefore it's immaterial what they think about you.

What goes for the assessing eye of would-be superiors applies to more respectful recognition equally. If you've done something noticeable in your life, as most of us have in one way or another, then expectations may already weigh on you. Shed them. Don't invest energy in keeping up a prominence that would have been short-lived anyway (if history is any guide to such things).

We often get reflections about the whole of our lives going only when we are already in the middle of the action. We always start somewhere, and we're not responsible for where that is; but once started, we are in charge, and from there on it is our responsibility to get things right and steer the best course available, away from the more or less random starting point, towards the goals we have found, or are in the process of finding, when we reflect. Take care.

The winds of carnival

At certain times of the year, it's difficult not to be washed away by the exuberant festivities. Everybody is held captive by the flurry of activities; some rituals are so integral to people that you would be regarded as a social outsider in not recognizing them. Everybody does it, everybody enjoys it. What defective upbringing did you have that you don't?

These things ruthlessly demand our attention, time and energy; so if you have started reflecting philosophically on your life, meanwhile (and why else would you still be reading this?), then you're probably asking yourself what attitude to take towards them. Are these necessary elements of social life in which we have to engage? Or a nexus of pointless rituals and blatant excuses for yielding to bad habits, to drinking, bawling, wasting time? Should one try to be fully abstinent and thus exercise the greatest possible self-control; or should one take part demonstratively, but with good measure? Which ability is more valuable: to keep your ways even in the face of the strongest blasts, or to exercise balanced judgment and find the right degree of participation? Take care.

When to start doing philosophy

So you're going to start doing philosophy once you've secured your standard of living? You'll just make sure you have a sufficiently secure basis before you dedicate your life to reflecting, and improving yourself (as opposed to pursuing your career, and improving your bank account)? All in good time, I hear you saying: there is a time for action, and another for reflection (which is sometime later).

Let's trace our reasoning carefully here. If you think you should first secure a certain standard of living before even starting reflection on the goals of your life, then you have made one decision already: whatever else, whichever other goals might turn out to be important, that level of living well ranks higher. (You've also already taken for granted that the way you are building your career right now is the optimal way to do that.) Is that really how you see your priorities?

Consider also that all the time, energy and resources you've put into reaching your desired standard of living are lost for whatever those other goals might have been. Suppose your life happens to end just at the moment when you finally get there. Would you, in this case, say that you have spent your time wisely, that you've invested it in the most important cause that there was (namely, your standard of living)?

And are you sure that you can, and should, only then begin reflecting when these matters are settled? Imagine how things will look to you when you actually have reached that level, the one of which you now think that there you will stop, that there you won't want more, that there you will no longer postpone reflection on your real goals. What, in this situation, will compel you to actually stop, what will enable you to resist the desire for getting to an even higher standard before you get down to those other things, what will guarantee that you don't use the exactly same argument again which you're using now for not getting down to the real business of your life? (And what happens when, after you've started to reflect and go after your real goals, you fall back to some lower standard? Will you have to return to working on your career in that case?)

How was it some years ago: when you were on a lower standard of living? Since then, you've made progress in that area: you are now on a higher level than you were then. Why isn't that improvement enough, then? You might have said, at that earlier time, the same thing you're saying now. You might have argued that you wanted to get to some higher standard first, before starting something like philosophizing. Well — now you're there. So why not get down to it right away? Take care.

Don't substitute words for actions

Do you know that sort of person who is constantly pouring out advice, telling you all the time what should or shouldn't be done, and why? (You may suspect I'm of that sort, too - and presumably you're not that far off the mark. But at least I can say in my defense that I work quite hard on actually living by my views and put them to the test first, before I start recommending.)

It's far more easy to reflect and have some insights about how one should live than actually putting them into action. However easy or difficult it may be, though: it's what we're doing the reflection for. Remember why you started it: to live a good life means doing the right thing, as often as possible. And knowing what's the right thing (and knowing how often it is really possible to do it) is something to be supported and trained by philosophical reflection.

But just having those insights is not enough. They must be verified, and cemented by constant efforts, daily thought and action (which is actually more and harder work than just getting to the insights and agreeing to them). How can you be sure, each and every day, that you are still in tune with what you saw when you were reflecting? How can you satisfy yourself that you are actually following the guidance and principles of reason - unless you practice constant, close examination of all your views and actions?

And note that what you examine shouldn't be the things you're telling other people. That will only make you one of those talkers I mentioned. You have to monitor your actions, question your views, examine your feelings. Find out how you are, in fact, leading your life, and whether it matches what you'd tell others. Take care.

How to look into the future

It happens that I let an entire afternoon pass without getting anything useful done: because of something that is about to happen the next day, and that somehow looks very important to me, seizes my mind. It may be an important day at work, or a meeting with someone whom I'd really like to get to know more closely - generally something that will likely have some substantial influence on my life for at least some time. In such situations, it's terribly difficult for me to think of anything else but what will happen tomorrow. Even if I force myself to try and do something sensible, I quickly find myself back thinking about that other thing. (It's not something I'm proud of; sometimes I even get angry at myself later, but that's of course not helpful in the least.)

If you know that state of mind, you have perhaps wondered what is happening there. How can one actually know what one should do, have the time, be not blocked or hindered by anything - and still not do it? And it's not as if it would make any difference either. Tomorrow's events won't be changed by one's brooding for hours about them in advance. Of course, if the expected event is something that needs preparation, then one is well advised to prepare; but even if everything is prepared as much as it needs to be, there is no change in how it feels in those situations I'm referring to.

What holds us prisoners in such situations are emotions: we're hoping for something, or fearing something. They get their power from the importance that we assign those future events. (Remember, it happens only if it's going to have a considerable impact on how my life will go for a while.) And it's no accident either that they arise normally when we expect the outcome as something that isn't completely up to ourselves. A lot of painful emotion arises from our seeing ourselves as depending on events that we cannot control: those that come about by blind chance, or the actions of others, even things we might have been able to influence if we had only known about them earlier. Our fears and hopes are directed towards these.

This isn't good tactics: we should concentrate on the things that we can achieve: caution, and acting well when the moment comes. If you look back to similar situations in your past, you will notice that things happened which you couldn't influence, but those you don't take into account when you ask yourself how well you did, at the time. What counts is only what you actually did, given things were as they were. It will be the same in the future - what really is important is what you make of the situation, what you will feel, think and do.

So if you want to know how to best look towards a significant future event: instead of focusing on uncontrollable future things (hoping for or fearing them), you should rather focus on yourself, and what you're focusing on. Take care.
Copyright © 2007-2012 by Leif Frenzel. All rights reserved.