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