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.
Copyright © 2007-2012 by Leif Frenzel. All rights reserved.