When we reflect we quickly notice that much that happens in our lives is at best partly up to us. As long as I'm free to pick my surroundings, I'll select pleasant ones over dire ones; when it is open to me, I'll select being with interesting people who help me get along better over those of the boring, self-centered or deceitful kind; if I can choose, I'll select peace and stability over a life of strife and uncertainty — who wouldn't? But we're often not in a position to choose with respect to such external circumstances (external in the sense that they're outside our own control). Whatever depends on them is subject to risk and uncertainty.
The only thing we can choose, and in effect have to choose, are we ourselves; that is, we choose our own selves. (We cannot not choose these.) Still, 'choosing' here means setting a goal and then working for it — there is no free ride in these matters; choice doesn't mean here that you simply choose and automatically are guaranteed to receive. Yet if we choose here we can achieve those goals, and whether we do achieve them is in our own power. That's a deep difference between choices in matters of character, of our own selves, and choices in external things. And this means, among other things, that choosing carefully and well here is vital.
A choice in matters of your own self has a higher impact on the success of your life than any choice in externals. In a sense, it has a more direct impact, for how you exercise choices in external things depends on who you are, and which goals you have set for being the person that you should be; thus choices in external things are better or worse in how well they fit with those primary choices. And from this it should also be clear that choices in external things shouldn't dominate choices in matters of character. They're secondary. Doing your own thing is more important than whatever else may happen to you from the accidental circumstances around you.
However, doing your own thing isn't a license to be careless or arrogant with others and what they do. Remember that attitudes such as these are elements of your character too, and thus part of those primary choices that shape your character and, in effect, your life. And you don't want to have your character influenced by carelessness and arrogance. Moreover, there's another, deeper point here.
When we select, there normally is a positive gain. For example, when you can choose and select a pleasant environment for your day; say, you decide to spend it in a beautiful park just outside town; then there's an option that's more pleasant for you than other options, which is why you choose it. But of course the set of options often isn't fully random. It's no accident that there are beautiful parks to spend some time in. (And they must be kept in order, safe from animals, chemical pollution, criminals or whatever else might spoil it as a place of recreation, and so on.) Similarly, if you can choose being with people who inspire, or living in peace and prosperity, that will partly be because someone keeps up these options. Many of the positive gains which are there for you to select come from the work of other people; sharing in the fruits of their efforts constitutes an interpersonal relationship with them: you owe them a debt of gratitude. (Some other gains are just given by nature or the result of blind circumstance, and of course there's then no point in being thankful for those.) Gratefulness then is a counterpart to the freedom to select. As other attitudes, this one should also be a part of your character; it's a primary choice as well. Take care.

Constancy in reflection

When we reflect is up to us (generally, the more often the better). And there is good reason not to accept delays.
It seems to be a fairly common tendency to postpone reflecting on what you want to do with your life to some later time: when you have the requisite leisure, say, or when you've made sure that your career is well on its way. Sometimes people who have this tendency make that decision expressly, but mostly it just remains implicit in what they do (and in what they don't do). But it's easy to see the error in this choice. If you postpone reflection on your character and on the whole of your life in order to do something else first, then whatever it is that you do first has a higher priority for you, whether you admit it even to yourself or not. What's worse: because you haven't even thought about it, it is very likely that your choice is a result of some influence (who says that building your career is the best and most valuable thing to do with your life?) rather than your own considered views. In other words: whatever reasons there may be for choosing as you did, they were not really the reasons for you to make that choice. There may always be better or worse choices for what you could do with your life than the one which you actually made — but not choosing at all is certainly one of the worst.
If, on the other hand, you do choose, and if you take care to reflect well, the reward will be a sense of direction for the whole of your activities, an overall state of control of your life, a calm and conscious enjoyment of the best possible condition you could be in: a state of excellence, of having actualized your potential, of happiness that grounds in your own self and not in accidental turns and twists controlled by chance nor lucky gifts from fate and fortune.
But obviously it can be stable only if you do something for it. It needs a certain constancy and some determination to keep up reflection; it's essential that you never cease to think about your life afresh, to scrutinize yourself and ask what you can do to get more closer to becoming the person that you want to be, to check if all your actions, views and feelings correspond to what they should be if you'd reached that goal. There is no such thing in life as a premature decisive win. Once you are committed to a life of excellence, with every new day you will have to find out where you stand and work on steadying and improving that current status. Every time you don't, you'll just fall back and have to win the lost ground back in what will be an uphill struggle. It is wise to not get there right from the start. You can avoid predicaments like that by never tolerating a delay in that vital reflection on your life and character. Take care.

Ground your life in excellence

When we reflect about the whole of our lives the question we ask ourselves is whether there is a way that makes them worthwhile, something that is a ground for a life's being a good life, a way for someone (that is, for you and me) to be the person we should be, the best we can make of us and of what's being dealt to us by blind fate and the accidental circumstances of our lives. Once you've found an answer to that question (even if it's only a tentative one), there's a new project for you, one that grounds your life.
Not all kinds of project are well-suite for playing this role in your life, however. You neither know when and where your life begins nor when and how it ends, in the relevant sense of beginning and ending: it begins only when you start reflecting on the whole of your life, when you figure out what to do with that life, what sort of person you want to become; it ends when all your actions have played out and their consequences are felt and consumed in the world (part of which might well happen even after your death). But the crucial thing here is that you cannot know. No-one ever can. And that imposes a constraint on the grounding project of your life: it excludes a certain type of project, the type that has a structure stretching over time, builds up and ends in a climax, reaching a high point which serves as a focal point: projects such as winning a championship, or becoming the CEO. There is nothing wrong of course with such projects in themselves; but they aren't suitable as grounding projects for the whole of your life.
Partly that's because in a project of that sort you can fail simply by succeeding. Your life is not a movie that can end with the images of the climactic moment — there is always a period after it, and though that may be fine if all this only was a project among others (you might enjoy being the CEO even more than you enjoyed becoming it, or use your status as the champion to work on training the young or become an ambassador for the environment), it's bad for you if it was the sole, defining purpose of your life, for this would mean that now you have a meaningless life on your hands.
And if your project fails for some external cause (external, in this case, means outside your own strength and activity), then stupid circumstance has had the power to defeat the purpose of your life. Thus it is not a good idea to make a project that depends on a certain structure playing out in time a grounding project.
The grounding project, then, must not be something that's exhausted in a single climactic moment. It has to be something that results in a stable condition — something that can't be taken away from you by causes external to your control. So, if we can choose, we should choose something with which we don't run that risk: a condition. Excellence.
(And of course we can choose. Remember: the starting point was reflecting on what a good life would be for you, what sort of person you would want to be. If there is anything that you can choose yourself, this is it. Everything else may be subject to an unlimited variety of factors outside of your control. This single thing is what's in your control entirely. You decide.)
Excellence of character is the condition that you're looking for. It provides a general purpose, a ground for your life. It's got the potential to make your life a good life, and successful (for success consists in achieving this goal, and if anything is, this is in your control); it can give it a primary direction, and guide decisions in specifics; it will make it worthwhile, and one worthy of a good person.
Of course, in pointing to excellence as the condition that grounds a successful life, I am merely gesturing at something that is not yet very specific; it has to be refined partly in response to the particular situation you're in. (That is, both to the circumstances around you and the current state of your character.) Just calling it the grounding project of a good life to achieve this condition doesn't make it really clear what it would mean for you to get there. So far it's just a slogan, not yet an idea that simply can supplant some serious reflection of your own. Take care.

The end and the beginning

When we reflect, we take a stance to our lives as a whole; as a whole, a life has a beginning — and an end. There are things that don't have a beginning and an end: circles, the universe perhaps, and the boundless possibilities of human freedom. But your life, as a whole, has a beginning and an end.
Contrary to first appearance, the relevant beginning and end of a life don't have to be very definite. Let's start with the beginning: when does your life in the relevant sense start? That's difficult to pinpoint: is it the moment of your birth? Or your conception? Some time in between? Most would agree today that our existence as a conscious being sets in at some time between our conception and our birth, but only somewhat after our biological existence begins we become a person, with an awareness of our surroundings and a capacity to interact with our environment. Even then it will take some time until we are sufficiently capable to make our own decisions, and that is a capacity which we reach at different stages in our early lives with respect to different sorts of decisions.
For formal and official purposes there is the notion of legally coming of age; but for the question we are concerned with here, that stipulated point in our biographies is too late to count as the starting point. Think of someone who gets interested in music early in her childhood and pesters here parents to buy her an instrument, say: a violin. She starts learning it, receives lessons, enjoys performing at school concerts — and it grows so important that she already knows she wants to do this all her life, discover the endless repertoire, become a professional musician, be on stage every day... Sure enough, for many of us that sort of thing may just a passing fancy, or a mere stage in our youth that phases out later and loses its seriousness and relevance. But that's not so for all people, and many of those who achieve admirable heights in the sports, arts or sciences actually have had this sort of childhood determination. And isn't that an exemplary form of taking charge of your life? At least for cases like these, the relevant beginning of a life as a whole is much earlier than the legally fixed one. And probably the same applies to most of us: the beginning, in the relevant sense, of our life as a whole, the life we choose and shape when we reflect, is when we take it in our own hands. For some, it's a momentous decision at some definite time in their youth; for some, it may be a continuous process; and it can set in much earlier, or somewhat earlier, or for some it might even come later than the legal coming of age. (For some, that moment never comes, and that is certainly a bad thing: for if you never take control of your own life, ever content to be defined by whoever happened to have influenced your ways, if you are simply drifting lazily and indecisively along, that is a life that doesn't justice to your potential as a human being, endowed with reason and the freedom to choose and direct yourself where you're going — however 'normal' and developed you may appear to those around you, it'd be quite as good if you'd never even been around; it would be justified to say that in a certain sense, the sense that we're discussing here, you haven't really lived your life at all.)
The moment when our live ends is not that definite either. In a strictly biological sense, your life ends at your death; however, there can be extreme conditions (such as a coma, or a radical deterioration) which put a stop, often a final one, to everything that matters. What remains then is a continuation of life only in a biological sense: can this count as still being in charge of your life? Doesn't the relevant period in which you are in charge rather end with the loss of your ability to take your own decisions? (Although it is a matter of considerable debate exactly where to draw the line, there is general consensus of a distinction between someone's being a living person and their merely being alive in a biological sense; a human being can lose the ability to function as a person before ceasing to function in a biological sense.) This would not mean your value and your status as a human being, and with them the respect that we pay to any human life as a matter of principle, would be lost. But once again we see that legal rights, moral worth, and ethical relevance do not have to coincide with respect to their timing, and in fact they rarely do.
Thus, paradoxical as it may sound, your life can end before your death (in a strict sense) — or it can extend till after your death (in the same strict sense). Think of lasting works which may outlive you; or examples of heroic action: you might die while you explore the unknown territories (nowadays these might be space, perhaps, the arctic or the deep sea), and still, as long as you reach the goal of your expedition, then your life as a whole has fulfilled the purpose that you chose, whether or not you can yourself enjoy the success, its fruit and recognition by the world and others.
What applies to achievement can apply to failure, too: in the same way in which the whole purpose of your life can be fulfilled after you have died, it can also be defeated. Imagine, for example, you have dedicated all your energy to the single goal of building a school in a poor region. When you're dying after years of effort, and you take a final look at your work, it seems to run now on its own steam; you have left it to capable successors whom you trust; you have recently noticed how it's generally appreciated in the village — and yet, by a cruel turn of fate, just a couple of days after your own peaceful death, a stupid strife destroys the school in a single bomb drop, along with most of the village, and kills or drives away many of those you had hoped would have a better future thanks in part to your contribution.
So, with the end of your life (in the relevant sense) it is just the same as with the beginning: it is not necessarily a definite moment in time, such as your biological death. It can be earlier or later than that; it can even draw out over quite some period. And unsurprisingly, just as with the beginning, there's a lot about your end that cannot be controlled.
A first important step to get a grip on your life as a whole is to accept that there will be an end: that yours is only a limited amount of time, that you will, sooner or later, have to take stock — but also that for all that, it is not generally under your control just when the end will be, or how it comes about. How much time is left to us, how long the period remaining will be between now and the end (whenever it is), is never known to us.
Nobody can choose to be born, of course, but what about your death? Don't we have at least some control about the end? Let's assume that in some cases it makes sense for you to decide that the end should be brought about right now. Whether that means to sacrifice your life for some higher purpose (as countless martyrs have chosen to do, though often in decisions that seem open to question from the point of view of calm reflection) or to end it in the face of some unbearable condition (illness, perhaps, or political repression), it is obviously possible: you can decide to put a stop on your life, and act on that decision.
Of course, you can only stop it in the biological sense. But as we've seen, this is not an exercise of control over the end of your life (in the relevant sense discussed here). Whether your life is successful or not, whether in the end it is a good life or not, is determined only in the end, and that end may not coincide with your biological death. A decision to bring about your biological death about is an act of control within your life (and as such is a decision that must be responsibly taken; it is probably one of the hardest decisions at all to take, for its irreversibility and the enormous significance it will have, not only for yourself, but also for many of those who know and love you). It is not, however, an act of controlling your end. There's no such thing. Take care.
Copyright © 2007-2012 by Leif Frenzel. All rights reserved.