Death, pain and nausea

It can't be denied: when we think about life as a whole, we have to look some nasty truths in the face. (And despite the ugly grin we encounter, we shouldn't shrink from doing so.) Pain and suffering can befall us at any moment, and even without them, constraints and restrictions are placed on us wherever we go, whatever we do; the never-ending grind of everyday work and the numbing routine of our many duties can create a feeling of nausea; finally, there is the certainty that death will come (we don't even know when and how) and rob us of all the things we have vainly sought, all the fame and money, our reputation and good looks. (Death, in another instance, can also take away those who we love.)

When confronting the unfavorable elements of our lives, there is always a risk of doing too much, and a danger of doing too little. When future trouble looms, for instance: will you simply acknowledge the possibility, but then go on unimpressed? Or will you spend endless moments in fearful anticipation? There is no point, of course, in worrying about something that hasn't happened yet (provided that you do not have an effective means for preventing it from happening). But one thing is not to worry, another is having the strength not to repress all thought of it, not to try and convince yourself that this particular thing won't happen to you after all.

And again, does it seem a good idea to you simply to ignore the fact that you'll have to die, at some time? Do you believe it wise to keep up the illusion that you still have an infinite, or at least a very long time before you? Such an attitude will only provide you with excuses for postponing what you'd better start doing at once: getting your life on the best track that you can think of, with as much reflection as you can put into it, right now. Of course, don't paralyze yourself either; don't let the fact that your days are running out prevent you from making good use of them. (It's overdoing it by far to make it your every third thought.) However late in your life you've started the serious business of reflection, it's never too late to change yourself.

It's an equally important quality of character to endure life as it is. To accept reality takes courage, especially at times when reality is gray and monotonous. (There will be other times, when the seas of life are full of excitement and surprise — but how could it possibly be always like that?) It's also a responsibility. The world is not a show, and there is no program-maker, charged with entertaining you. It's not a mere spectacle for you to be consumed. It's a place where you have a part to play, a job to do, a helping hand to offer. If you don't make it worthwhile, nobody will do it for you; but once you've started, you will be surprised how much help you suddenly receive, and how often your efforts are appreciated.

Even at parties, if that analogy helps, the worst guests are of that bad-tempered variety who think they are entitled to being entertained, and see it as the host's fault if they don't enjoy themselves. They're not funny, they're not interesting, and they're no good party citizens. Consider carefully whether you really want to play the equivalent role for all the people in your life. If you are bored with reality, you ought to check your attitude; there's nothing wrong with the world, but quite possibly with your expectations. Take care.

Serious joy

Some pleasures leave a bad aftertaste. Or rather: almost every sort of pleasure can leave a bad aftertaste, often because you've had too much of it, or because you had it at the wrong time, in the wrong circumstances. So they are not unqualifiedly desirable all the time, are they? Strangely enough, although there seems to be some natural drive towards pleasant activities, there seems no equivalent tendency to stop at the right time, before the pleasure gets stale and flips into some sort of dégoût.

It feels good, however, in a deeper and more satisfactory way, when you're at ease with yourself, comfortable with what you're doing, when what you are doing is the right thing in the circumstances. It's not only that you are more successful in your undertakings. It means experiencing the world differently. And while this perhaps lacks the intensity and the thrill of the slightly uncontrollable that some pleasures could give you, it never becomes stale, and it doesn't have the unhealthy drive towards more and more.

Such steadiness and reliability is the mark of true value. A clear conscience, good intentions, well chosen actions, and a healthy disrespect for the fruits of chance and accident: you'll need these to actually plan and lead your own life, in contrast to those who are just letting themselves drift away in search of what is pleasant and nice. Reflect, and make it clear to yourself what you want to do with your live; and then go for it, and make sure you stay on course. You'll be rewarded with being at ease with yourself, your life and all the world, at any time ... and just feeling good with it.

This is a condition that goes deep (deeper than all the pleasures that there are). But even though it is a form of joy, you won't get it by throwing yourself where the fun is; you'll have to work for it. Take care.

Presence and vigilance

Are you actually present in your life? Or are you merely there, drifting, as it were, through it? Where are you, and what is your part, when important decisions that affect you are made? How often are you driving them, and how often are you being driven by someone or something else? And is it in your hands, and of your making, when things are taking place? Can you ascertain a timing that benefits you?

Living your own life, being in charge of it, requires your presence, and vigilance; take action only when you can do it appropriately and with optimal effect — but when the time has come, put your mind to it, and be decisive, quick and forceful.

What the right times and best courses of action are depends on many factors: you won't find a recipe for leading your life. There are no general rules prescribing for arbitrary circumstances what to think and do, there is no standard behavior that always fits, no attitude that's right no matter what happens. And just in case you were wondering: I'm not saying that there won't be a right thing to do, a correct view of what's going on, or an adequate way of feeling about it; there usually is — it's just that we have no simple and unfailing means to find out which it would be at a given time, in a given situation. Finding out requires judgment, good sense and a willingness to decide.

But just as the art of reflection is well worth studying and perfecting, so is the craft of putting the results of your reflections into effect. And possibly even more important than that: your actual responses must be consistent with what you've come to think from your reflections. Presence and vigilance must extend over your own actions, they're not just for what happens around you. Take care.

Quell ambition

There are worthier things to pursue than your career. Once you have started reflecting on the real priorities in your life, you will probably find that putting time and energy into your job excessively will hinder and harm your doing the things that really matter.

Ambition — the desire for higher career levels, for greater reputation and ever more power and influence — is insidious. It will never be satisfied; it is self-perpetuating; whenever you reach one of your career goals, that very success will breed more ambition. It's especially menacing because you're already deep into that spiral. You may have started reflecting on what's really important in your life, but your ambitions make it hard to follow through on the results of these thoughts. The voice of ambition within yourself constantly reminds you of existing demands, commitments you've made, goals you have already chosen (before you started reflecting on the bigger picture).

Ambition will never be satisfied. You must put a conscious stop on it. It's just as with all the other forms of desire: desires for sensual pleasures, material wealth, and celebrity. They're all insatiable, and become more and more so whenever you yield to them. Don't try to satisfy desires — correct them. If you suffer from unfulfilled ambitions — then better stop those ambitions; rein in expectations, your own and those of others. Replace them with a striving for something more worthwhile: turn all your efforts on reflection and philosophy; and bring any insights that you gain to bear on living well. You've only got that single life. Take care.

Sense of direction

There is something called an irritable mood: everything, even the smallest thing, irks you. It could be the grumpy behavior of your neighbor, a bill that turns out larger than you had hoped, unexpected rain, or simply something that somebody says. Whatever it is, when you're in that mood, it annoys you. But you know that there are other times when you greet all these things with a smile, and deal with them cheerfully. These are the times when you are happy, when everything is all right, when you are in harmony with yourself, the people around you, and the world on the whole. (If you don't like the 'harmony' metaphor, insert your own favorite one here.)

These conditions that we call moods have an equivalent when we look at our lives as a whole. What we're doing, day by day, belongs to a thousand different projects. Some of them are small (such as getting the car washed at the weekend), and some are bigger (finding a new job, for instance). And though we may succeed in many of them, we can't always win — so there are setbacks, and sometimes there's defeat. It doesn't really matter how often you win and how often you lose, however. In fact, have you noticed that some people seem to have everything, seem to be successful all the time, seem to win any fight they pick — and yet they're never really contented, sometimes get even angry when they can't get their way in some minor affair? What they don't have is this: a sense of direction in their life, something that gives their projects significance. Those who have managed to bring that sense of direction into their lives are in the equivalent of the happy mood I've talked about. It doesn't really matter to them if they cannot always win — but every time they do win they know and feel they have made a step forward in their life. As long as they can taste that, they're immune to the occasional knock back — they'll just stand up again.

You may have noticed that I didn't say that people 'find' a sense of direction. That's not by accident. A sense of direction in your life can't be found — it's not yet there, prepared for you by someone else. You have to build it for yourself. Take care.
Copyright © 2007-2012 by Leif Frenzel. All rights reserved.