What we're striving for is not something that can be given (or taken away). It's something that you can only take — it's a form of attitude. It is up to you, and you alone, to adopt and keep it. And while there may be no easy way to form your character into one that can do it, while you should expect that only constant work and effort will hold it up even once you've achieved it, something heartening is in that insight, too: just put your mind to it, become determined to get there, and you have made the first step already. It's a substantial step. If you got there, you've taken that attitude for the first time. And you can make it all the way. Take care.

Reflect systematically

Systematic reflection and study of philosophy, the views of the masters of the field, will help you to improve the way you're leading your life. But it's not primarily rules and recipes you are looking looking for. Good philosophy, and reflection, won't give you a prescription directly for how to act or feel in a given situation, although they certainly shape your ability to figure out such things. More importantly, and more fundamentally, they'll give you a background of insights — an extensive, coherent, reliable web of views and attitudes, attuning you to appropriate feelings, guiding you towards effective actions and coherent beliefs.

How does one get there? Skimming philosophical (and other insightful) writings for outstanding quotes that stir some feeling of depth is not a good strategy. Even if insights sometimes are crystallized in a slogan, be wary of those. Good thought can't rest in aphorisms alone (however well-known the name of the author next to it may be). It gets its strength out of careful, systematic coverage of the whole subject, a set of methodically connected elements, put together consistently and elegantly.

Sometimes philosophers sum up insights in pointed and memorable formulations. These can of course only really be understood after working through the arguments and explanations that precede them — they are summaries helpful mainly for keeping the main points in mind when the discussion moves on. So they are just a kind of shortcut, a summary that needs unpacking. Those who have worked through the topic that is summarized so know how to unpack them; but without investing that effort, your understanding remains incomplete and shallow. (That doesn't apply only to this particular sort of knowledge: being able to recite a physicist's formula and actually using it to predict the movements of a physical body are two very different sorts of thing.) What's worse: you're also deceived about your own progress. Being able to quote some catchy one-liners is not yet the same as having the insights expressed in them, even if the one-liners seem plausible to you.

If you're serious about reflection, and philosophy, they way to go is via systematic study. The rewards are plenty, but it takes effort and determination. It also takes courage: you will quickly find that even a long tradition of clever people hasn't so far exhausted all the paths of thinking through things. What those aphorisms mentioned earlier, in their overt well-roundedness and terseness, hide from view is that there still are many questions, more than there are answers, and that your own reflective insight is at least as helpful and important as that which has already been found and written down centuries ago. Take care.

Living longer

Desires are always desires for something — normally something you currently don't have (or don't have enough of, in your view). What you desire is also something that you value, that you think is good for you, that is worth having. You can desire something even when you know you can't get it; but you never desire something you do not really want. A case in point is the desire for a longer life. It is very common, but that doesn't make it sensible, of course. And that, in turn, throws a dubious light on the supposed value of living longer.

The trouble is: when you are in a situation where you desire a longer life, it is typically very late already. You're looking back on a stretch of your life time that you now think should have been different; you'd now like to rewind to its beginning, and relive it. If you were satisfied with your life so far, you wouldn't want to have any time from it back for living through it again, and differently.

You might want to object to this: it does seem conceivable for someone to look back fully satisfied onto their past life, not wanting to change a single day of it, feeling that it was the best life they could possibly have had — and simply want it to go on, fulfilling as it has been so far. What could be even better than being able to look back on a fulfilled life, if not looking at a future that will be equally fulfilling for quite some further time (instead of being over sometime soon)?

Imagine someone who has dedicated his life to experiencing as many pleasures as possible, an adventurer in life style, a lover of good meals, pleasant places, exciting company, a hunter of the most exquisite tastes, a collector of beauty, a connoisseur of the joys of life. Would not someone who has arranged his entire life around this goal, and successfully, wouldn't someone like that plausibly just wish to be able to experience it for some more time? Wouldn't the most plausible desire in that situation be to be able to continue with it?

I don't think so. In part, that is because pleasures aren't infinite — they can't be prolonged indefinitely without loss of intensity and attraction. (This applies both to single episodes of pleasant experience and series' of tasting the same kind of pleasure again and again.) Part of what makes pleasures appealing, especially those of the sensual type, that is, the pleasures of food, drink or sex, is the charm of the new, the allure of the unknown, the surprise factor. But once you've had them, and had them twice, thrice, and often, they quickly lose much of their attractiveness and become stale, gray and heavily in need of replacement, or some supplement of new stimulants.

Increasing the intensity may help for a while, but the potential of this move is equally constrained. At the latest, when biological limits come into play even the most pleasant feeling can tip over and transform into pain or disgust at what has been sweet and agreeable just before. (It's not by accident that the heroes of the aesthetic life are inevitably pictured as ending in ennui and disgust with their surroundings after pursuing it too long, and too exclusively. And that is not to mention the physical exhaustion and damaged health that tend to come with it as well.)

Partly, then, the life of pleasure is not of the sort that one will likely wish to go on with — quite the contrary. Since it arises out of neediness and the longing for ever more and higher intensity, it is virtually guaranteed to end in deep dissatisfaction. The painful craving for the new and the stronger will increase up to the point where it can't be stilled any more. (And neither, at that time, can there be any viable path back to a modest level.) More generally, something very similar goes for lives that center around the striving for money, fame or power.

Partly, also, someone who has aimed all his life for things which depend as heavily on good fortune and a favorable environment as pleasure, wealth or celebrity would have to admit to himself that he must have been lucky to the extreme if he can say that he was even mostly successful with it. We all know only too well how unreliable the circumstances of our lives normally are, and it's really unlikely that, in the real world, anybody can enjoy the best of luck for most of his time. If someone actually did look back on a long, lucky life with not even a distraction by the accidents that usually happen, the least thing on his mind would be the expectation that this extraordinary exemption could be prolonged for another extended period, tempting fate just further.

If it isn't for the prolongation of a misdirected life built on the pursuit of external things, what motives could one have for desiring to live longer, to get some more time? Except for the short phases in our lives when we actually know how long we still have (such as in cases of terminal illness, or more generally when we get to the point where we feel that our last moment has arrived), it seems not even a coherent idea. Consider: "I don't know how long I still have; maybe decades, maybe just a couple of years, or I might even die tomorrow in a car crash — but however long it is, I wish I had six months more." That doesn't make any sense.

People may have such a desire at the end of an unsuccessful life. Looking back, it may seem to them that they still have unfinished business, that they haven't reached their goals, that there are mistakes to be corrected, bad deeds to be rectified. But how realistic is that? If what has gone wrong was due to external circumstances, then once more: Why do you suppose a few additional months or years wouldn't just give you more of the same? Chances are mostly against you. You behave like a compulsive gambler, standing at the roulette table, after having lost everything, and just trying to extract some loan from a friend. "I just need a few more tries, I'm so close..." (evidently, you aren't). On the other hand, if the failures in your past were of your own making, if you have made the wrong choices, taken bad decisions, indulged your weaknesses too much and too often, then again: you had so many chances already to become better in leading a life. Why didn't you? You knew from the beginning there wouldn't be a second take, you knew there was only one life, you knew it had to end some day. If you hadn't ignored all that studiously as long as you could, your standing would be much better now. Your chance was then; but now it is gone.

From all this it seems that the desire for a longer life, widespread though it may be, invariably emerges from a misguided approach to leading one's life. The question remains, then, if and how those who do it right, and do it well, will be free of that desire. I think it must be so. Living a good life is not something that scales with its length: it won't become better just by taking longer; nor is there anything to fear about its end, whenever it comes. Take care.

What's in a wish

The world is full of well-meant wishes. We receive them from our parents and children, our lovers and friends, from our colleagues and from distant relatives. What they wish is normally something they deem good for us (although they may sometimes not expect us to also see the goodness in question — sometimes people know better, or think they know better, than ourselves what is good for us). And there are wishes of the opposite kind: those for something bad to happen to us. You can tell your enemies from what ills they hope your future will have in store for you. (Strictly speaking, there is a third sort of wishes: the kind that isn't really advantageous for you, but rather for the person who does the wishing. But even though they have the formal structure of wishing something, these are really a form of manipulation rather than genuine wishes. Let's not consider them here.)

If the content of a wish, that which is wished to someone, is either a good or a bad thing in the view of the wisher, then those wishes show us much about what people think is good for us, or bad. They do not tell us, however, what really is good or bad for us. How could they? They're just a mirror of people's opinions. (And the most common cause for those are yet other opinions; even in cases where at the end of such a transmission through many heads there was a genuine insight once, that's most likely been watered down, distorted, and connected with many wrong ideas on the path on which it was passed on.)

So what should we make of those commonly wished things: a long life, a successful career, beauty and fame, influence and power, status and wealth? If they are what people's wish implies, then they must be good for us. And likewise: death and disease, failure and poverty are they then as bad for us as our enemies's ill wishes would mean?

All these wishes are for something uncertain and unstable, their fulfillment depending on accident, on people's whims and prejudices but rarely on yourself. What's worse, they turn out to lead onto the wrong track often enough. Have you never met one of those unfortunate enough to have sacrificed everything for their career, only to realize how much their loved ones mattered to them when it was too late? Have you never seen the bitter remorse of someone who destroyed his integrity for the all-overriding goal of being at the pinnacle of getting the top job, making the front page, beating them all and be champion? Whatever it was, it's highly probable that it was once the content of some benevolent wishes; repeated often enough, it came to look like a real good, something worth achieving, something precious, more valuable than anything else. That was what it seemed to be. (And it's not just the sirens of friendly wishes; we're just as prone to take the furies of enemy wishes to mean too much to us. The path away from fearful things can become as treacherous as the path towards questionable goods.)

Curiously enough, it's rarely that people include such things as a good character, successful relationships, and insight in the nature of things with their good wishes. If nothing else makes us suspicious, this should. (Suspicious of the goodness of what's in their wishes, of course; not suspicious of your friends. They certainly do not intend to harm you; but we can honor their intention to wish something that is good even when we understand that, contrary to what they think, it isn't.)

As so often, you better trust in your own judgment, your considered thought, when trying to figure out what in fact is good and what is bad. Don't take received opinion for granted, even when it flows from the good intentions of your loved ones. Take care.


Sometimes, when we want to help someone to find into a reflective mode, we ask questions such as: "If you knew you had only three weeks more to live, what would you do?". Of course, this is not about what people actually plan for their last days in life (who would have that sort of a plan?) — it's rather intended to encourage them to reflect on what is really important to them. The assumption is that, with only a few weeks more to go, they will get clear about their real priorities, and no longer spend any of that precious time on anything but that which matters most to them. (And thinking a step further, having found an answer to that question, they might realize that the same applies to the last year, or the last decade of their life, and in the end, they should treat the entire rest of their time that they still have left in the same way: figure out their real priorities and pursue them, and nothing else.)

Thinking about our own death has this power to forcefully remind us that we only have a limited stretch of time, and so it can help us concentrating our minds on finding the best possible way of living. There are many stories of people for whom a close encounter with death has changed, and focused, their lives: an accident they barely survived, a dangerous illness that left them hovering in uncertainty whether they would die from it for a time, the untimely death of a close friend or relative. These episodes make a deep fact about us more vivid than theoretical considerations could. They blast away the illusion that we often build (supported by many social habits that ensure that we don't reflect much on these things): that we are safe, at least for now; that we still have time, much time; that we may ignore the awful fact about ourselves — that our turn will come, and possibly sooner rather than later. Even the events in these stories, however, leave different paths open to people. Some of them revert soon to the old illusion; some, the more admirable of them, don't, and apply the lesson they have learned to the remainder of their life.

But then, there comes a moment when all the additional paths are shut down, one by one — there is a final stretch of time in all our lives when death is imminent, and inevitable. For some, it arrives quickly and as a surprise, in the middle of some activity; for others, it approaches quite predictably with old age, and usually with many frailties of the body. In any case, for everyone, there is a phase of dying in our lives.

Although people sometimes reflect on the possibility of their death, few seem to think about dying. (If they do, that's usually dominated by fears; and even those fears are probably less concerned with dying itself but rather with the pain that may be involved.) A bad sign is it when people even at that time suppress all thought of death. Trying to continue life as usual, anxiously avoiding all occasions for thinking about one's last moments, displaying studied outward lack of concern — in fact they surrender to an illusion. And how could living under an illusion be a good thing, in fact, how could choosing to live under an illusion be a wise choice? If in all the other phases of your life the best attitude is one of constant reflection, of actively shaping the developments in your world, then must this not also apply to this particular stage? Deceiving yourself about what remains in store for you would be the opposite of everything you might have achieved in your efforts to live a good life; now of all times you abandon your will to be in charge, and leave yourself over to cheap self-deception?

Being able to think and talk about death in this last period of one's life is a sign of strength of character, and courage. It's certainly not easy; living well is particularly hard during that phase. It is probably no exaggeration to say that this needs life-long preparation: part of this preparation is the continuous effort to reflect, and navigate your life as optimally as possible (under whichever circumstances you encounter); another part is getting clear about the nature of death, and its meaning for us as beings whose time is limited. Only so you can build the ability to endure those final moments calmly and serenely. The way you're dying will tell a lot about the way you have lived your life. Take care.
Copyright © 2007-2012 by Leif Frenzel. All rights reserved.