Why do we have this fear of our own death? Why are we scared by the thought of being annihilated as a person, of no longer existing at all? If it really is our own non-existence that scares us, it is a fear of not being there. But what exactly would that be like — not being there? Would it be like anything at all, experientally? Or isn't that rather a confused notion? After all, if you aren't there, what could it mean to experience anything?

According to a popular view, it is the sheer unimaginability of one's own inexistence that induces this seemingly unbearable fear. But this can't be quite right: we haven't existed before we were born either, and that's not something we have any bad feelings about; it's also not a quantitative matter: we wouldn't think, on reflection, that those who've been dead for decades now are in some sense worse off than those who died only recently.

And, more curiously, shouldn't there be a similar emotion directed at the sense of not being yourself, not deciding on your own actions and views? Isn't it something to avoid, to actively prevent: not being in charge of what you do, being driven (by whatever else, like cultural determinants, education, childhood experiences and so on)? So while there seems a natural fear of death, why isn't there an equally strong tendency to get in charge of our own lives and personalities, a caution not to waste that precious resource, your life time?

Some philosophers have thought that the supposed badness in death is one of deprivation: you'll not be able to enjoy the goods of life, or you'll not be able to reach those goals you still have set before you. (The latter point seems to be progressively weaker for people in high age who have already achieved much of what they set out to achieve. It's graver if someone dies prematurely, as we say: as a relatively young person, with many goals and projects interrupted that might have been completed otherwise.)

And again, if that theory is correct, and it is primarily our not receiving what we might have received from life had it been longer, why isn't there a similar emotion toward our weaknesses and faults? After all, these are responsible for many missed opportunities; quite a few spend their lives wasting days, weeks and years, and never seem to have any deep feelings regarding that (until perhaps very late, when they look back and regret).

We know we all have to die. With that fact in the background, it is reasonable to care about the actual physical process of dying, taking precautions to make it as acceptable as possible (by arranging health insurance, for instance), and obviously, avoiding mortal dangers. Moreover, it would be unwise to exclude the thought of one's own end (at some future time, of which it is unpredictable when exactly it will be) from all consideration about one's life. It's a basic element in all such reflection, and ignoring or suppressing it would be a distortion. (Of course, that's not a plea for overdoing it and falling into morbid melancholy. It would be a deficient sort of reflection that allowed you to let thinking about the bounds of your life hamper your activities and the pursuit of your goals.)

Yet from all this doesn't follow that inexistence, annihilation as a person, is something to fear, or even to be concerned about. Fear of inexistence, then, is perhaps rather about that confrontation with yourself: never having reflected and so made the best out of what in your situation was attainable, it's tempting to try to delay the final moment of truth until later rather than sooner. Had you faced it earlier, it would not just have been easier, but also better for you (there would still have been some room for change, some chance to really do something with your life). Conversely, if you make the most of your possibilities, and live a good life, there won't be any need to fear that final transition to inexistence. Take care.


Self-knowledge is hard to achieve; it is also double-edged: beneficial and dangerous at the same time. Once gained, it can't be lost, which is good if you want to improve and make progress, build on what you've managed so far. But it will also persistently display your own faults to you until you've straightened them out. It will show you, that is, where you are; and that sort of insight is rarely pleasant (most often, we will just realize how little progress we've really made).

Perversely, that makes it look attractive to avoid looking too closely at yourself, blunt your perception of your own personality traits and keep away from scrutinizing your motives all too directly. Attractive it may seem, but obviously such a recoil isn't good for you. Thus many people, rather than simply avoiding self-knowledge, fall into a self-deceptive pattern: instead of self-knowledge, they go for something less disturbing, but superficially similar-looking. To immunize against that mistake, let's look closer at what self-knowledge is not.

We should distinguish between self-knowledge and mere awareness, observation and interpretation of our own psychological states. We're in certain moods, have emotions, and we accept or refuse beliefs — and though we do all this consciously frequently enough, we also do it sometimes without realizing it. You can be in a given mood for quite a while without being aware that you are; people often experience emotions (in particular, those of the nasty variety, such as jealousy, anger or fear) and only recognize at an already far developed stage where they have led them; and many of our opinions (or blind spots that prevent us from considering alternative ones) are so deeply entrenched that we're not always aware that we hold them, although they may express themselves in our behavior and others do observe the attitudes which reveal them. So becoming aware of your own mental states is an ability that needs training. In that respect it is like self-knowledge: it isn't something that comes for free. And like self-knowledge it has both a helpful and an unhelpful side: being aware of your psyche's contents will increase your ability to actively shape them, but it will also show you how much of your time you're enduring rather unpleasant states (for instance, that of boredom). It also will demonstrate to you how even pleasant feelings get stale and weak after just a short while.

Self-awareness in this sense is not the same as self-knowledge: mere perception of how it feels to be in a situation is no substitute to evaluating your being there. Real self-knowledge is reflexive character assessment: having reflected on what you want to do with your life, what sort of a person you want to be, and knowing where you stand with respect to these goals. That's not something that comes easily; it's a hard-won achievement. It requires sharpening your perceptiveness; but it's not nearly enough to just observe how you feel, to merely accompany your thoughts and actions with some situational awareness. That's a start, of course; it then must be supplemented by sound judgment (including, and especially, of the self-critical sort) and the ability to mature your emotional responses and build up your decidedness in taking action. Self-knowledge is not of the easy, empirical sort: it takes some attitude, and will. Take care.

Live by your philosophy

If you act, think, feel in a way that is incongruent with your deepest convictions, then something is wrong. Your philosophy is the result of your reflections on what your life should be about and what sort of a person you ought to be — it's your considered opinion on these questions, and if you find yourself acting contrary to that, this means you're doing things against your own best interest; if you observe you're holding opinions that are in contradiction to it, this manifests an inconsistency in your views; and if your feelings take you on a ride far away from what they should be if your affections and attitudes were sound, this shows a rift between what you were aiming for and what you've achieved so far in educating them.

To live by your philosophy means a lot of things: for one, you have to really
follow through on what you think is best for you. It's not enough to have the right insights — they're worthless if they are not manifest in what you do. And likewise, if you stop doing all those things you know you should do, just because you realize that you can get away with not doing them, that should give you pause. It's not just the visible actions, but also your inner stance that counts. If those thoughts and feelings that no-one can see are not in tune with what you do, then you are giving merely a show, a surface performance that may fool some others, but in the end you'll only deceive yourself (and how foolish it is to even invest effort into that!). Contradictions of that sort are the very thing that philosophy wants to correct.

Another thing that is meant is that you live by your philosophy, not
by somebody else's. They may coincide, but then it's still your philosophy that you live by; not that other one — or put differently, what makes a philosophy the one you should live by is that it is your philosophy, nothing else. This is not a call for a high-flying, speculative mindset that results in 'your philosophy', as if you'd have to write a book with ideas in it that were never heard of before: but when you think about it, what can count as a philosophy that guides your life, all your actions, thoughts and feelings, must be something that has its roots in your own reflections; it must be arrived at by your own reasoning; and no engagement in changing your life will be sound if it is not founded on attitudes which aren't in a deep sense your own. Needless to say, your reflections will be informed by a long tradition in ethical philosophy, your reasoning will have to seek its touchstone in the arguments of others who also reflect and take a stance on those important questions, and your attitudes must be formed in an active engagement with the world around you. There is no such thing as cooking up 'your philosophy' just by stewing in your own intellectual juice. But unless you have reflected, thought through, and accepted something yourself, it won't do as a basis for living your life according to it.

Once you have started investing thought and effort into this, you will notice
that the consistency of your actions with your views improves, that your judgments become more sound and you feel in an appropriate way more often than not. Constancy and personal integrity are a mark of a developed philosophy by which you can live. So is a continuously taken reflective stance of self-examination. Take care.

Avoid a vicious environment

Indulgence, weakness, failure — those are bad enough themselves, but even worse are occasions, and locations, when and where they are celebrated, praised and practiced as if they were something good. If circumstances are favorable for seeing excessive eating and drinking, careless hunts for pleasures, thoughtless speech and senseless intoxication as desirable, all this naturally becomes much harder to resist — especially when everyone around you chimes in with the incitation.

But obviously bad example, blandishment and other forms of leading you into doing something you'd resist from a more considered perspective are not exclusively found at orgiastic sessions that cater to the senses. If, for instance, many of the people whom you deal with on a daily basis haven't any courage, if most of them from time to time act timidly, and everybody seems to just accept it as admissible way of doing things, it will be difficult, to say the least, to train and cultivate your sense of what's courageous; your courage will itself be weakened by that constant deficiency around you. And it's the same with all the qualities of character.

There's nothing wrong with pleasant surroundings — unless they make you soft. At many times, we simply choose to be where it seems most agreeable to be; but then again, that shouldn't keep us from the more important things we want to gain in our lives: when pleasantness of surroundings, and niceness of the landscape or the people reaches a status with us that makes it the most desirable thing, and even more important than who we care about, and what we want to do with our lives, then we have reached a point where feeling good has virtually replaced any other goal. And how degrading would that be!

Just think: if it is that important for you to feel well, to taste the pleasures of good food, to sense the softness of a mild climate, if you have come to see such mere conveniences as really valuable, then anyone and everything that's capable of causing pain to you, of even merely subtracting from your pleasures, finds a widely open door to blackmail you. Just about anything that's nasty could be used to cause you trouble. (And this is not as far-fetched as you now may think; I bet there is among the people who you know a number of that sort who are the slaves of one or the other of such tastes. Indulgence has a strong grip on those who've given in to it.)

Another bad effect of softness is a growing lack of energy. If everything that counts is feeling well, then why start working, or pursuing goals? In fact, not having any goals would be just fine, provided that a maximum of pleasantness is still ascertained to be had.

So, living for the pleasures makes you weak and lazy, and a plaything of all circumstances that have any power to reduce them. Just as you should care to resist this as a bad idea of what to do with your life, it's similarly wise to learn to recognize when many voices are about to coax you into a relapse. If you should find yourself in that sort of environment, be mindful not to be seduced. Take care.

Educate your feelings

In our time, there seems to be a widespread tendency to blame: others, circumstances, or simply things in general. In many cases, that's just a technique to deflect attention from what actually should be one's own responsibility. And while this is easily recognized when what is under scrutiny is people's actions, the same applies to feelings. Let's look at an example.

Nobody likes being bored, isn't that so? Boredom is unpleasant, it makes us uncomfortably feel the weight of time, lets us experience ourselves as inactive, incapable even of doing anything useful with ourselves.

But many assume that feeling bored is merely the proper reaction to an environment that fails to entertain us — or fails to fascinate us, engage us, occupy our thoughts, in a word: fails to grab our attention. So it is really the world around us that is to blame for the nasty feelings we must endure. Or so it seems. For let us ask: why should it be that feelings of boredom are the proper reaction to things that go on around us? Does it seem the best way to behave, in circumstances that you take to be boring, to just remain inactive and, well, feel, that is, concentrate on what your senses tell you (i.e. nothing of interest, since by definition we are talking about a situation that you find boring)? Wouldn't it be equally possible to try and make some use of the situation? Whether you are in a waiting room or listening to a lecture you were forced to attend, whether you have to remain in company that you wouldn't have chosen if it was up to you or whether you are alone when you'd rather have someone around you: why not take the initiative and get something useful done? At the very least, there's always the option to do some thinking: reflect. Review the last few hours, this whole day, the past weeks; think about your goals in life and where you are with respect to them; even think about what's brought you into that situation you are in now. Perhaps you can identify some mistake you've made that brought you into it? Should you have taken more care of yourself so you wouldn't end up in a doctor's waiting room? Should you have dropped studying a subject that gets you into lectures you really don't want to listen to? Should you do more for the relationships to other people in your life — so you won't need to spend time with people you don't like, and you'd have the chance to be with those you care for?

Am I recommending, then, to take that feeling of being bored as a signal, an indicator to get active (or contemplative)? Not quite. That feeling is improper: it's bad for you; feeling that way is already to have taken a wrong turn somewhere. What I suggest goes deeper: you shouldn't have to feel bored at all. In all those situations, instead of having an impulse to become bored ("Oh, now I'll have to wait for the train for another ten minutes, and there is nothing of the slightest interest here!"), you'd better have an impulse to do something, or start reflecting ("Well, that gives me another ten minutes; fine, so I can continue reading that novel I've just started."). Instead of letting your surroundings determine what you might do, or even worse, of leaving it to the situation what you'd feel, start making that decision yourself — and train your feelings to tune in with more sensible options (and habits).

More generally, why should any feelings be merely a function of the goings-on in our world? True, once you have developed certain habits, you can't immediately control how you feel. There is an automatic pilot in place that drives much of them, and it's not easy to even notice, much less change them once that pilot has decided on a course. In the long run, however, you can educate your feelings; you can to a certain degree re-program the autopilot to steer more sensible courses in a given type of situation. Granted, that takes a lot of work, and even when successful there is no guarantee that your feelings will always be what you'd like them to be: in the complicated emotional interactions that we have every day with the people around us, so many things can still trigger unexpected behavior. And it is very hard to know yourself so well that you'd be able to foresee all that. The variety of situations we might encounter is infinite. All that, of course, is no excuse for not working on yourself and correct your affective responses, the ways you feel in given circumstances. Your feelings are your responsibility, much the same as your actions and beliefs are. There is no need, at any time, to feel bad (or bored). The fault, as always, is not in our surroundings, but in ourselves. Take care.
Copyright © 2007-2012 by Leif Frenzel. All rights reserved.