When we use the phrase 'the time of my life', most often retrospectively, we refer to a period that we remember as one of deep happiness, intense feeling, an acute awareness of ourselves — a period we recognize, at the time we're remembering it, that was unique and will never come back. The middle (and late) stages of our lives are full of such insights to the effect that something was there in our youth that is now irretrievably lost.

(The phrase is also often used more loosely to express one's had some fun, but of course that's not the interesting usage; we're not talking here about simply the equivalent of saying that one's had a good time, but of saying it was the one time in one's life. That's what these reflections are about, even though it may not always be what people mean when they use those words.)

A good portion of our sense of self depends on our attitude to such memories: some get melancholy, others get dreamy; and there are those who quietly treasure them, and love to recall them from time to time at a peaceful hour when they are by themselves. Me, I often feel a wave of sadness sweep over me: it's a fresh shock every time to look back and face the facts of missed opportunities, failures from half-hearted pursuits, neglect of others that I subsequently came to regret bitterly; and although there are those episodes of a deeply satisfying happiness, too, they strangely trigger the same poignant sense of loss: they're a recollection only, of something that's gone forever. (That latter impression needs analysis: if the loss is one that actually came about as a consequence of my own actions, if it was up to me and I just messed it up, I'd rightly feel regret; though still it should rather be directed at my actions instead at a felt loss. In other words, if regret is appropriate, it can only be about what I'm responsible for. Else it isn't regret, but pointless whining.)

How should we deal with these feelings about our memories? They are taking us back to something unique, I have said: they're about parts of our lives — and not just in the trivial sense in which every portion of our past, every episode we've lived through could be called a part of our life. These episodes we're talking about are singular. Each of them has the character of something that you know will never happen again in that same way, and with that same intensity. Uniqueness implies loss — if it wasn't unique, it might be repeated; so when you remember it as unique, then it is already a thing of the past, of the kind that you can't have back.

There is something special about every stage in our lives, in fact, about every single stretch of time in them, especially our youth (with all the spirit, passion, and the recklessness typical of it). It's not the only time that is engraved in our memory. However, it's the first in the sequence, and so naturally it's what we will recall during all the later parts of our life. There is a certain asymmetry here: you can't get rid of all the memories of your past when you're old, though you can ignore your future to a certain extent when you're young. And memory, of course, does not just keep the happy, but equally the sad experiences; it makes no difference where the goodness (or the badness) came from: whether it was from within yourself or from an external source; and it generally seems the vividness and strength of our recollections has to do with how important and how deeply felt those experiences originally were.

Unless you are forgetful, the events of your past won't change (though your attitude to them may vary somewhat from time to time), and they will never disappear from what you remember to have been. And wouldn't it be shameful to forget? If what you did in those past times was the right thing to do (then), if you did well, if your stance was appropriate, then forgetting about it would be a foolish regress, a step in the direction of losing hold of your very self; if those past things are rather regrettable, distancing yourself from them seems like trying to avoid taking responsibility and wasting a chance to improve. So we'd better never forget. Take care.

Take responsibility

This is not a game (not an intellectual one, nor of any other kind). It's about serious matters, the most serious there are for any one of us.

Philosophy is good advice, a suggestion to reflect, a recommendation how to live. And it's not easy to give advice, much less good advice, don't you think? It's no big deal to talk a lot, of course; but do you also heed yourself what you say? Do you act the way you recommend, are your affective responses right in tune with what you tell others they should feel? You and I, we're both still far from being perfectly wise (or so I presume, I am, at any rate); so we fail to act as we think we should often enough. But could you with a clear conscience advise someone to do something you haven't tried yourself (and successfully)?

You, as a lover of philosophy, have a responsibility: you've taken a reflective stance on your life, you know what it means to examine and improve. You've been through the first few cycles of reflection; you've learned it's not a trivial thing to look at your life as a whole and figure out what it would mean to make it a good one, and happy; you know that taking the reflective stance can be disturbing, and yet it pays off: it lets you have a satisfaction deeper than what anything from outside yourself could ever give you. That's because it's your life, and everything you are and ever will be is expressed in that life — nothing else can have that sort of meaning for you. Now remember that everybody else is in the respective situation: for them, it's their lives which are at stake, and for them, the stakes are as high as they are for you.

You know that there is only as much to your life as you make out of it yourself. And while all those decisions (what to think, and do, and how you should be feeling at whatever happens to you) are yours, and yours alone, there is a plethora of help, suggestions and advice in the works of all the masters of the field. Being able to access them is an immense treasure, matched by only a few other things that depend on external circumstances: think of the few people you really love, and really are loved by; think of the luck of living in a society that gives you freedom enough to pursue your goals and provides the basic resources to be able to do so — not everybody is so lucky to have that, and while it would still be possible to be upright and make whatever is possible out of a situation where these conditions aren't fulfilled, even the best that could come out of it wouldn't amount to much, compared with other possible scenarios. So do not hesitate to make that treasure available to others as well. Study the works of philosophers thoroughly, and make sure you pass on whatever you were able to learn. Be careful, however, not to be carried away when you start passing it on to others. The receivers of our advice are worth that we give them all our attention: make sure that what you have to say is something that has value for them, helps them see what you can see — and never forget to respect their capacity to think and decide for themselves. In a word: deal responsibly with that treasure you've won. Take care.

Authority and aggressiveness

In many hierarchical organizations, such as businesses, bureaucracies, or academic institutions, there is power that comes from authority (that's exactly what the hierarchy is built from; though it's not the only kind of power, even in hierarchical organizations).

When you are in a situation of power, when you have the authority to tell
people what to do (and perhaps also how to do it), you have to be careful: power over people has strong catalytic effects on bringing character traits out in the open. A great temptation is to use people's emotions to manipulate them into doing what you want (using fears is particularly effective, but it works with other emotions too). It's clear (to most people) that one shouldn't do this. As usual, however, the first necessary step is to recognize situations of that sort — it's not always obvious when it is happening. It needs some sensibility, and of course you have to be clear yourself what's appropriate and right, and what isn't.

This is not just a pragmatic consideration, because the authority built on fear is ineffective and ephemeral — which it is: it is also harmful for your character. Using threats (however veiled or indirect) and feeling successful with it tends to build irascibility, a character weakness. People who are angered lightly can develop a despotic streak; they often take on the attitude of someone who has suffered injustice (in their anger, as an implied feeling) — and that doesn't fit reality. Playing the aggrieved party, they are in truth looking for an opportunity to inflict harm. Despotism is vicious because it lives the drive to hurt people, but under the disguise of being hurt oneself (as implied by the anger). Of course all this applies equally to similar behavior in other contexts than work: people can become despotic with their friends, or at home. Constellations of authority, however, have a tendency to bring these character attributes out more clearly into the open, or give occasion to develop them. Be cautious to avoid their traps!

A particularly dangerous type of situation is when playing on the emotions of others seems the only, or the most, effective means to reach some important goal. They're dangerous because they can make it seem that there really is a good reason, this time, to make an exception and do it. After all, it's the effectiveness of what you do that in the end will count. Or is it?

Acting badly cannot be justified by whatever end you may want to achieve. True, when we deliberate, when we decide to act, there are from time to time situations of conflict; in some of them, the effects of what you do would be the only criterion that can be sensibly used. And so, in these cases, you choose the course of action that promises the greatest certainty of success. But this can't be the right thing to do when acting badly is among the options. In cases like that, merely pointing to the greater effectiveness of some action for a desired outcome doesn't make it acceptable. In fact, there are many ethical limits to action that have the consequence of constraining effectiveness. That's a wide and debated field, of course; but there's a first couple of steps for everything. Make sure that you examine your choices, and consider whether they include a concern for treating everyone around you as a person, and not a mere means to some end; consider whether your first priority is integrity and acting well; test, especially, your awareness of the ambushes that authority can lead you into, and your vigilance and caution in keeping clear of them. Take care.

Build a coherent world view

Whether you form the correct opinion in a given situation, whether you do the right thing, and whether you experience adequate feelings (whether you are, that is, neither too cold nor work yourself up more than the occasion warrants) depends on many factors. For one, you must be able to take in your surroundings correctly: recognize all the relevant details, and discount what's irrelevant or misleading. But to look only at the situational elements is not enough. Since you are likewise part of the situation yourself, since you bring your entire personality with you, the overall soundness of your views plays a part as well.

Your views should fit together: what you think and say should be consistent, shouldn't be contradictory. And there is a connection between your beliefs, actions and feelings. What you do, and how you do it; when you feel strong emotions, and how you express them; what you think and say, and how you decide when to speak out loud your opinions and when to keep them for yourself: all these should fit together, and make sense in the light of each other. Your thinking can explain your actions, and feelings can express your thoughts — but only if they actually cohere. More generally, whenever you exercise your rational capacities, that is, whenever you form an opinion, decide how to act, or reflect on an emotional state you experienced, those who want to understand and make sense of you (and that includes yourself) only have a chance to be successful at it when they can assume that you do it in a way that is sound, proportionate and internally coherent.

(Put the other way round: if you are just inconsistent, what is anyone supposed to think? To the extent that you exhibit contradictions, you make it hard, if not impossible to understand; and obviously, not being able to rely on understandability, how could one come to trust you? And ask yourself: how could you trust yourself? For this is, as you certainly have guessed, not just about making you intelligible to others, but also, and perhaps primarily, to yourself.)

Obviously, this doesn't mean you should attempt to never ever contradict yourself: frequently enough, you'll learn something new that invalidates or at least relativizes some ideas you hold. In these cases, there is nothing wrong with changing your mind. It would be foolish to stick to an opinion merely because you have once claimed something that's at variance with it, or because you've once acted in a way that was not in line with it.

But be honest about that change of mind: don't try to give the impression that you've never thought differently. 'I used to think so-and-so ... I now think this-and-that.' is more honest than claiming 'Well, I've always said this-and-that!' (Even if you never actually said so-and-so, but merely thought it. Remember: giving a wrong impression is not in the least better just because nobody knows about it; and what does it matter, as long as you are aware of it yourself?)

To sum it up: the goal must be a harmony of opinions and beliefs (expressed or not) with actions and affections. How can that be achieved? Being cautious and vigilant, avoiding rashness and error is part of it. But it's not merely a passive affair: there is a lot that you must actively do in order to reach that goal. Of course, there is no such thing as explicitly taking stock of every bit that you know or believe. But that doesn't mean that you can't work on the consistency of your views. And again, don't remain too narrowly fixated on situational elements. Your opinions range from political, historical and religious views over aesthetic preferences, career choices, personal likes and dislikes, tastes and whims down to those hopes and desires, aversions and fears that we barely ever admit to ourselves. There may be some about people in general, but many opinions that we hold are about rather specific persons: your friends and family, your neighbors and colleagues, customers and business partners, long-standing companions and recent acquaintances, your allies and your enemies. And most important of them all, your philosophical views: what's good and bad, what's valuable and why, how reality is made up and where its borders with unreality run, how to tell knowledge from mere belief, truth from falsity, correctness in thought from the mere appearance of it. Look into all that, and especially examine these views when you come across them while reflecting on something that you have experienced or done. Can you identify some of the roots of your feelings and actions in those more or less deeply held opinions? Take care.

Develop a fine perceptiveness

In everyday life, we encounter many facets of people's characters (including our own). It's not always easy to discern which of the many possibilities we have before us: are you just witnessing a case of cautious behavior? Or is it timidity? Restraint? Or rather cowardice? The outward signs of what people do may be compatible with all of these interpretations. But depending on what you take to be the case, you're dealing either with an excellent or with a faulty character; depending on how you interpret the situation, you are looking at weakness or strength, something good or something bad. That's not to say that it is all just a function of what you think of it, that in itself actions are neither coward nor courageous and so on. They surely are. But since human interaction is so complex, and we cannot look into people's minds, there is a lot of uncertainty in judgments of this sort. And that uncertainty may easily be large enough to leave room for all those interpretations, different as they may be. (Again, this applies not only to what other people say and do; our own behavior isn't always transparent to us either, and we sometimes ask ourselves only later on precisely why we've reacted the way we did.) So there is no fool-proof method, or exact science, to distinguish between what looks like excellences of character and goods on the one hand and faults of character and bad (or indifferent) things on the other. Of course that doesn't mean at all that we shouldn't try; and since it is primarily a matter of a trained perception and a consistent view on what shows a good or bad character, on what's valuable and what isn't, on what is good and bad and what's indifferent — since it is primarily a matter of something that's up to us to develop and improve, we're responsible for doing so. It's not optional, merely a matter of taste or fancy. It is also in our own best interest: not being able to recognize bad behavior for what it is has obvious dangers.

It's not just that telling the good from the bad (or indifferent) is so difficult — it's also that most people, having the same difficulty themselves, misjudge, and then promote that error in judgment to others. You may realize, for example, that great wealth is nothing that makes one happy, or a good person; still in people's opinion, and that great magnifier, all those magazines, movies and websites that multiply people's opinion, the opposite will be claimed over and over again.

So one of the first steps must be to develop a critical sense and a scepticism about any opinions that aren't your own. Withhold judgment, don't rush into thinking of something as good or bad, especially not if the only reason to view it so would be that someone just has called it so. Rather, learn to take nothing as good or bad by default, and only accept those conclusions you've reached by your own powers of reasoning. Play the old 'Five Whys' game: 'He's a happy man.' — 'Why?' — 'He swims in money, he just won the lottery.' — 'Why's that good? Why does it make him happy?' — 'Well, having a lot of money is a condition for being happy.' — 'Why?' — 'Because you can buy whatever you like, you don't have to work that hard and endanger your health, you can have many more pleasures, and people will recognize and respect your higher status.' — 'Why is that sort of status recognition good for you?' — 'Because ... perhaps because it helps you to get even wealthier; or rather, because people take you as a successful person, having achieved such wealth; or maybe it's simply that it feels good to be adored a little.' — 'And why's that?' — Well, do you have an answer to this? At the very latest with the last 'Why?' question, it seems clear that at the bottom of such an ascription of happiness to someone with lots of money are questionable values. If everything comes down to being able to amass more of it, or to looking good in the eyes of the many (mostly on the basis that they know nothing about you save the fact that you are rich), then would you still think of this as an important good, something that makes your life happy? Drilling deeply into the reasoning behind common opinions helps to expose much of what we take for granted too easily often enough.

Children are notoriously good at the game of 'Whys'; many adults have dropped it somewhere along the way, perhaps because it can be so daunting. But half of it is not difficult at all: you just have to be obstinate and never stop before you've asked 'Why?' five times at least. What's difficult is the other half: finding the answers. (I've given only example answers of course, you'll have to find those which you take to be plausible yourself.) You'll notice that this is tough to get started with, since from our everyday experience, we're not used to ask that deeply for reasons.

But those reasons underlie our thinking, and our opinions, especially our views of what's good and what's bad (and what's neither, being either neutral or preferable at some times and not preferable at others, depending on circumstances). The answers to these questions are operative in what we do and feel, and thus we should be able to make them explicit in what we think as well. Don't be frustrated when it doesn't come easily at the beginning. It'll develop. The answers are there; what needs exercise is just your capacity to formulate them, to bring them out in the open.

One of the astonishing effects will be that your perceptiveness will greatly improve. You'll be able to tell cowardice from caution in the way people behave; you'll be less likely to mistake rashness or recklessness for courageous and decisive action; and you won't be fooled into taking flattery for friendship in the praise you receive from people. Take care.
Copyright © 2007-2012 by Leif Frenzel. All rights reserved.