The ocean of vice

The journey of self-improvement is a lonely one in many ways. For one thing, obviously, you must go yourself; nobody else can do it for you. Nobody can even guide you all the way; for if they could do that, it would mean that this person knows the route all the way, has been there already — and how can that be if it's to be your itinerary, not theirs? There will necessarily be at least some segment that is for you alone to cover. (It doesn't have to be the final segment, as it is customary in adventure films and fantasy novels; it might well be the very first steps that you have to walk alone, picking up support only later as you go. The forms are diverse.) For another, whenever you make changes in your life, you will inevitably be deserted by some 'friends' who stand to lose from those changes, just as you might gain others who are willing to give their support. And finally, it is a lonely trip because it takes you through unwalkable terrain. Or rather, to choose a more apt metaphor: it leads across an ocean of faults and weaknesses, interests and opinions that run in all sorts of directions (and often enough no direction at all), and above all, your own tendencies and habits that have been with you for ages and look deeply familiar, but ultimately came from the same source. Your internal thought circulation is infused with materials from the very seas you want to get over; they're both continuous with each other.

There is, in short, in the world in which we live a massiveness of vice and a comparative rarity of excellence. Just like 'fate', 'vice' is a very old label. In the sense in which I'm using it here, vice is not the same as crime (or sin); it's not necessarily a legal or moral matter. You may have to answer only yourself for it; but still it's generally not a good idea: it diverts your attention and dilutes your focus, it saps your strength and takes your energy away, it makes you waste your time on it — in short, it's not good for you. But it's all around you, you'll find it everywhere. The ocean of vice washes around you all the time, and it's a safe bet to suspect to yourself that you have been long and deeply influenced, too — misled by others' example. (Just as those others have been misled by the example of again others, and so on.) Vice doesn't need to take the form of outrageous debauchery; there are subtler forms that might even be largely accepted (or indeed encouraged) and still will make you drift away from your own best interests. Falseness and manipulation will find you wherever you go, weakness is everywhere, foolishness has many forms.

Where does it all come from? In general, it's much easier not to be on a journey of self-improvement than to be on one. Many people don't even realize that there is a path to go for them in their lives; some don't understand that they must choose it themselves rather than letting others dictate where it runs; and even though different people's paths can be similar to each other, only a very small number know that an individually chosen path cannot be found by emulating another one, or by following a recipe. (The specifics of your route can only be found by using your imagination to create a goal and vision, and by reflecting upon what reality confronts you with.)

Add to this ignorance and unawareness that many are deceived by vice's apparent desirability, its overt attractiveness. The insidious thing is that there is a short-term reward for all kinds of weaknesses and faults; more often than not, people then boast about their short-term gains and hide where they came from (and what their costs were), thus creating that false impression of desirability in the eyes of others, and so feeding the ocean. Moreover, once you've given in to some weakness, the next time it becomes even more alluring, and correspondingly it gets harder to resist. (There is a reason why people speak of 'vicious' circles and spirals.) All waters run downstream, again towards the ocean. And finally, there is also always the secret hope that somehow the best way of living your life will turn out to be the one that maximizes pleasure, and minimizes pains and efforts. (Perhaps the addendum is made, even more secretly, that the effort of seeking out your path and not getting adrift on the ocean might belong with those pains to be minimized. Nobody would say that out loud, however.)

Yet precisely this vastness and formlessness, which makes it apparently so difficult to deal with the ocean, is what actually renders it possible for you to navigate it successfully. Its currents will drive you in one direction sometimes and in another at some other time. But as long as you keep a course directed at some goal, you will always eventually make some progress. That's because the pulls of the ocean are inconsistent, whereas you, having a goal and a broad route towards it in view, will push consistently. And what applies to individual goals applies equally to your life as a whole: once you've started working towards a coherent world view, the winds can blow you off your path only temporarily, and you'll be able to get back on it soon.

If something is stable at all, and capable of giving shape to things, then it is you. For as long as you are around as a person (and that's the only stretch of time that really counts), it will always be up to you how you live your life and what kind of person you are. True, in a given situation you may fall short of the way you should act — there's always the possibility of failure. 'Up to you' here doesn't mean that you are immune to failure just because it's you who is acting. But with any given kind of failure there is always really only two kinds of factors: external circumstance, and your own skill. External circumstance is subject to chance and all kinds of influence. It isn't stable, and in the long run, things will be skewed to your advantage, given that you work on the other factor. So there will always be external influence, but it will be quantitatively less and random, while what you do, your own skill and sense of direction, can be worked on and steadily improved. Over time, these latter will always prevail over the former. It just takes that: time and consistent dedication on your part. That's what 'up to you' really means.

The key here is that you make your own skill into something different, something that is not subject to chance and all kinds of influence. For your own skill, in contrast to external circumstance, can be changed, so that it is precisely not unstable like that. Of course, that applies to bad traits just as well as to good traits. Weakness of character doesn't cease just by itself; on the contrary: it will continue and increase if it's not being addressed. Then it will just add to the ocean. On the other hand, once you have achieved good quality of character, you won't simply lose that from a whim of fate: it's always up to you to keep it. Fate may blow some circumstances your way that make it more difficult to maintain, but whether you maintain it or not will still be up to you. (There is no such thing as losing your composure by accident. If you lose your composure, that's always your responsibility.)

Just keep in mind that the ocean will always be there. There's no way of keeping above the water line without taking action: you have to expend energy and keep moving. As long as you do so and don't get distracted by its winds and waves (not to speak of being carried away), you'll make progress on your journey. The ocean isn't there to stop you; it gives you an exercise ground for your skills in managing externals, and testing materials for examining your skills in self-direction; it's is here to be crossed in order to reach your goals of self-improvement. Take care.

Fate and resistance

When we go traveling, we naturally suppose that there will be dust and dirt, detours and delays, and many other inconveniences on our way to the destination. Sometimes we may be lucky and have comparatively few of these troubles; sometimes we get the full broadside. Likewise, in living our lives, we may run into some discomforting (even distressing) events; at other times we'll be lucky and run along smoothly for a while, with none or only few of them showing up. That's the way it is, and there is not much of a chance to change or control it. And arguably, the more interesting and out of the usual a trip is, the higher is the probability of inconvenience; the more worthwhile your goals in life are, the higher runs the risk of some hardship or sacrifice required from you. And yet many people complain endlessly about those nasty little things that happen to them along their path.

In the background of such complaints is the secret hope that somehow you can have it both: go on that trip and be spared the inconveniences; live your life and remain untroubled by all kinds of adverse winds. This attitude is either unrealistic or straightforwardly wimpy (or both). It won't help you reach any worthwhile goal, for if a goal is worthwhile, chances are that obstacles are there to be overcome; more importantly, such an attitude communicates back to yourself that you are a plaything of circumstances and the will of other people, not a force of your own; furthermore, it also displays a certain questionable order of priorities: first comes your convenience (that is, avoidance of pain, as far as possible, and gaining of pleasure), then whatever distance you might accomplish on your chosen path.

Thus a first step is to give up the secret hope that you'll be spared the inconveniences along the way. You won't: they will happen to you. Again, some of them can be controlled, some of them can be influenced; but many are out of reach. There will always be some share of the favorable kind and some share of the unfavorable kind — that's a fact of life, it simply is fate (if you want to give it a label). That secret hope we've been talking about is in effect the hope that fate is rather like another person, whom you can argue with, or negotiate. But it's not. Fate (as I use that label) is simply the way things are. (We're not talking about how things are in a given situation: that is something with many causes. What we're talking about is that in many given situations, things will be unfavorable, and often enough they will be outside your ability to change them.) So don't let your responses be governed by the idea: "It might (should) have been different, this could all have happened without that nasty extra." Simply take the little nasty extra into account, adjust your course, and move on. The moment you get emotional about something that merely happens, you're going down the wrong path.

You can go a further step and take a stance of acceptance. Let's say you're slightly late and just missed the train; now you are annoyed and tell yourself that you have to wait for the next one. That's an inconvenience, maybe even mild trouble (depending on how important it was that you reached your destination in time). But be careful what attitude you have towards what happens now: you're waiting for the next train. Is it really because you 'have to'? You might call a taxi, or even cancel your trip. If you don't, if you wait, that's a choice — the best choice under the circumstances. It's up to you here what to focus on: what has just happened to you, or what you choose to do in the changed situation. (This doesn't mean that 'everything is relative', or that there is nothing 'but only thought constructs'; it just means that where your own actions are concerned, you always have choices, even though you may not always be aware of them.) Once you look at your choices and have satisfied yourself that you've chosen well, it's easy to take a stance of acceptance towards fate. So in this example, what really counts is that you are choosing to wait for the next train. And what holds for everyday events like this one, missing a train, holds equally for those things with deeper impact: misfortunes, losses, even that which is the final thing for every living being — namely, our own death. You won't typically choose them; but you can accept them, and then you're free to choose your own response. Take care.

Thoughtless desire

Knowing what you want is different from, say, knowing how tall you are. How tall you are is an independent fact about you: you can measure it yourself, but you may be wrong about it, and someone else will possibly correct you. Knowing what you want, on the other hand, is more similar to deciding than measuring. It's about making up your mind; and that means two things: one is that you have to do it (it doesn't happen just by itself), and the other is that the result is up to you. It's not already there, waiting to be discovered. It's something you have to create in the first place.

Of course figuring out what you want, in a given situation, is not without its constraints. First of all, you can always only choose between the alternatives available in that situation, and if you have ended up in one where all the available options are not really favorable, knowing what you want (in that constellation) is something like an adjustment, a re-grouping, supplementary thinking about the second-best option (or the least dispreferable option). It's supplementary, because you had other preferences before you ended up in that situation, preferences that are no longer available. Then secondly, you may find yourself of two minds: you might feel compelled to choose one option though you know that it would be more reasonable to choose the other. Thus we say of someone that he doesn't know what he wants when he has difficulties in choosing, oscillates between different alternatives, or perhaps is so reluctant to take any one of the available options that he'd rather not choose at all.

Take an example: you're studying for some degree, but one of your friends is asking whether you want to come along and watch a movie tonight. What does it mean to 'know what you want' in such a situation? Let's sharpen the example a little: let's say that you have been neglecting your studies somewhat already; you would like to have some fun, but you also know that you're beginning to endanger your study goal. In other words, you know that it would be in your best interests in this instance to stay at home and study; it would be the reasonable thing to do. And yet many people would tell themselves something like: "I know what I should do: stay at home and study. But it's not what I want to do." That's strange, isn't it? You're telling yourself that what you want and what you have found to be in your own best interest are two different things.

This move has two effects: first, by putting it into a 'should', you almost make it sound as if it wasn't your own interest, but some demand from outside, from other people perhaps, that tells you to do the reasonable thing. (Some people actually might hear the voices of their parents or their teachers in it — which shouldn't be surprising, for it's typically our parents or teachers who admonish us to do the reasonable thing.) And secondly, it makes it seem as if what you want is, after all, something you discover, not something you decide. It makes it seem as if it is a fact about you which isn't up to you, which is not of your own choosing. For it begins to look now as if what you want is something that happens to you, something outside of what you decide about the way you're living your life.

And it's true, there is something in this example which feels as if it were discovered, rather than chosen: but it would be a mistake to identify it as 'what you want'. It's a habit, something you've done for a while, and which for that reason feels easier, and more natural. In the example scenario, you simply have developed the habit of living a fun life with your friends and spending time thus instead of pursuing your study. But knowing what you want is not the same as knowing what you feel like, just in this moment. Your desires are also infused with thought, and such thought must be integrated with what you want to do with your life as a whole, too. Take care.

Misled by example

The world around us is full with the wrong kind of attitude. Most people will make you think of the wrong things as valuable: not just when asked directly, but in thousands of small ways throughout; not just in their words, but also in their actions, and in their emotional reactions. They will stress their perception of the value of wealth, power, and celebrity. They will make a career, fame, status and the like look desirable. It's not these things in themselves that seduce us into forming the misguided opinion that they are of value. It's how people treat them that communicates this misguided opinion.

The way it ingrains itself is in emotions: we get emotional about what we value, and when they include mistaken valuations, emotions will drive us in the wrong direction (a direction that isn't good for us). We're trained, by the example of other people around us, from childhood onwards to get emotional about all kinds of things that do not warrant emotion. We center the way we live our lives around the wrong things. We take our decisions under the influence of the wrong perspectives. It's the bad influence of already entrenched opinion that prevents us from successfully walking the path. Thus learning to get independent from that is one of the first skills we acquire.

Again, we're not talking here about articulated views. This is about how people around you will likely behave, in daily live, all the time; it's the vast sea of habits and unconsidered opinions that sweeps us away every day with attitudes towards the wrong objects: namely, those external concerns that are of no real value, and yet are treated so by almost everyone you'll encounter. Even those who tell you (and themselves) that their career is not at the center of their lives will stop talking to you whenever the boss enters the room, and care only about the boss's perception of them: becoming anxious to make sure they get credit for all their ideas, seeing to it that all their mistakes are glossed over, that in the eyes of the boss their image remains immaculate and commendable all the time. Even those who say that money isn't everything will suddenly become hesitant when they face expenses that are higher than they thought, or when they get a good offer they didn't expect. Most of them won't even notice that their responses contradict their considered views; many will follow through on those misdirected feelings with actions; and afterwards, they might even rationalize such actions with adjustments to their views that make them seem reasonable.

And since almost everyone around us has such tendencies, it's likely enough that they will rub off on you, too. Remember also that every time you let yourself be influenced and walk down the path that is suggested by a false emotion, your actions will influence others in turn, thus multiplying the effect. So it is clearly not enough to just contemplate your own position in the abstract. It has to be lived.

Received opinion can have two forms: sympathetic and negative. People who care for you will encourage you to invest more energy in your career because they think it will do you good (which it won't); people who are interested in a good career opportunity themselves, again because they think it will do them good, might throw anger at you and try to muscle you out. Both forms are equally damaging; they both carry the implication, in all their instances, that external things like your career are what should be at the center of how you lead your life. Otherwise, the heat of emotion wouldn't be necessary: the coolness of thought and reason would suffice. Thus when deciding what in the ways of other people you let influence yourself, it's better to ignore whether it is negative or positive, or whether it feels pleasant or unpleasant. (The good can feel unpleasant, and the bad can feel pleasant.) What you have to find out is where it comes from, and in what direction it will move you. Take care.

The shortness of life

There is a widespread, but vague, feeling that life is short. What do we mean by this?

Sometimes lives are cut short by accident, illness, or even other humans' violence. In these cases, to say that a life was short means to say that it was shorter than it could have been, hadn't it been for these events which ended it prematurely. Of course, this is still very vague. (If an accident hits you at old age, is this still a premature death?) But it gives us a hint: the notion that life is short is an idea of a comparison; it's the idea that life is short compared to some other, longer stretch of time — a longer stretch that could have been the duration of life (if life wasn't, in fact, short).

Often enough, this idea rests on a simple self-deception. It sets in when people realize, at some point in their life, that already a substantial portion of that life has gone by. Sometimes this happens when we have grown old and physical strength and mental abilities, such as the ability to concentrate or remember things, begin to fade away. Sometimes it happens at a special date (such as an anniversary) when we look back over a segment of our life. When that happens, and we notice that we haven't made the best out of that portion, we might draw the wrong conclusion and think that what is missing is more time, not a change in the use we make of that time. We think that we're doing all right, but that we haven't been given enough time. Even though we realize that perhaps we have wasted some of it (waiting for another day, walking the path of least resistance, having some easy fun instead of doing something worthwhile), we think we're entitled to that. And instead of recognizing how important it is to make good use of all that time, we think that we've been dealt too little. Focusing on the duration also seems to put the focus on the most unimportant thing: on the 'when?' question. You won't find out, even if you think long and hard about it. But when you do that (think long and hard about it), you're wasting time again, subtracting from the amount that is in fact available to you. It's quite common for people who fall into this trap to carry on wasting time. (Which only makes sense given their idea that it's not them who should change, but whoever deals them their share of life time should have given them more of it.) They ignore the temporary glance they've taken on what's really going on, and fall back into merry self-deception.

At other times, it comes from a reluctance to decide and commit yourself. ("I would like to do this or that with my life, but I can't really choose.") If the result is that you do none of them at all, then it's not the shortness of life that is to blame for the fact that you weren't able to do even one thing. The real reason was not that life was too short, but that you didn't decide what to do with it.

In yet other instances, it rests on a fear of death. But letting a fear of death convince you that life is short would be foolish. In a nutshell, that is because there is nothing that you can do about death. What you can do is live wisely, but that is not about death, it's about living. Perhaps you have a certain influence on timing: you can be attentive to your health, for instance. But then again, where does this strategy come from? If you are attentive to your health just because it prolongs your life time, as if more time were the best (even a good) thing to have, you haven't picked a very good reason. Treating your health as an all-overriding goal is not a useful general rule, for frequently enough there are more important things than your health, at least things that might be considered more important in certain circumstances. On the other hand, if you learn to decide when your health needs some attention and when other concerns are more important, you have found a way of managing that aspect of your life; and this means simply putting appropriate care to your health, as far as that's the reasonable thing to do. But if it results from such a reasonable stance, then it doesn't result from fear of death, does it? You may have started from a state of fearing death, but that's neither necessary (you may have overcome your fear of death independently from that health thinking) nor is it really the cause of your getting to the reasonable conclusion. Once more, good choices come from making the reasonable choice, not from fear. And thus if you find yourself concluding that life is too short from a fear of death, then you're looking at a mistake of thinking, however plausible it may seem to you, supported as it is by the drive of the fear emotions.

Whether it is an inclination to waste time, a difficulty in taking decisions, or fear of death — none of these are necessary: you can always change yourself gradually to get rid of them. Remember that the opposite of a fulfilled life is not a short life, but an empty life; the opposite of a successful life is not a short life either, but a life which you failed to make into your own. Nobody can choose how long they will live, but everybody has a chance to make something out of their shot of life. Take care.

Realize yourself

Whenever you look at your life as a whole, you might ask yourself: what would be needed to make it go well; what should I add (or increase) so that I can look back on it and consider it a success, a real expression of myself?

Some people think it is a matter of managing what they experience: arranging everything so that they have more frequent and more intense good feelings, and avoid feeling bad as far as possible; in a word: balancing pleasure and pain. They think that having a good life is mostly a question of what you experience, and by manipulating how it feels they hope to transform their stay in this world into a success. Others believe if they just had some more money or influence, everything would turn to be different, and then things would fall into place. Yet other people consider themselves victims of bad luck and unfortunate accident, and hope that random events which happen along their way will stop disfavoring them at some point and turn out beneficial for a change. Again others look to someone else: a lover, or perhaps their parents, a teacher, even (believe it or not) society or the state. In other words, many rely on external things to make their lives go well: thinking that feelings, circumstances, material wealth, influence and power, or other people's attitudes can do the trick. But they can't. Nothing, no thing and no person can make your life go well — except yourself.

Of course the quality of your subjective experience, your health and wealth, your status and power with other people, your relationships and the like aren't totally irrelevant. They are the materials out of which all our lives are formed. But they're not what makes these lives better or worse. What makes them so is the quality of your choices, how you direct your energy and the materials you come across, your attitude towards yourself and others in relationships. This (and only this) is what can make your life go well; and of course it's entirely up to you.

Take an example. Will I go after a good job, if I can get it? Of course I will. What makes this good and valuable is not that it is a good job (that it is well-paying, or a springboard to further career stages), but that it is a good choice: that it is, all things considered, the reasonable thing to do. In particular, it should be the right thing to do with your life as a whole in view. What is good is not something about the job itself, or the feelings you have towards it. 'Good' says something about the impact that job has on how your life as a whole turns out. So would I still do it if I would have to do work that doesn't sit well with my character, would I become dishonest? Of course I won't do that; working against your own good character is not acceptable. Then again, would I work so hard that I'd risk damaging my health? Maybe I would. If there's what we call a risk, this means that a decision is to be made: are the benefits high enough to render the losses acceptable? Is the probability of loss low enough to be accepted? In the end, what counts is the quality of your decision-making, finding the most reasonable choice. That's what makes your life well-lived, and eventually successful and fulfilled. Concerns like a 'good' job, money and power, celebrity and good looks, even your health, are only pieces on the chessboard of your life. You win if you use them well. You lose if you don't. But winning or losing doesn't consist in, say, making as many moves as possible, capturing most enemy pieces, or being the quickest to make a move. In some cases, having held yourself well against a stronger opponent, having found some beautiful or ingenious moves that no-one before ever thought of, you might win even though you formally lost (ended up in checkmate). Winning isn't determined by counting materials. They're external to the real goal.

Which materials you come across isn't up to you; but how you deal with them once they're there, that's in your own hands. It's true that you don't have this skill just naturally: it must be developed. If you do develop it, then you will literally have the power to make your life successful yourself: by living it well. (In ancient times this was called eudaimonia, which is today often translated as 'happiness' — but that's a word which has mostly lost its usefulness in our time, because it is understood as a kind of feeling, a subjective experience: when we say that someone is 'happy', we mean that this person feels a certain way, not that they're skilled at living their life well.) In a word: you get to realize yourself. In part, this is about knowledge: knowing yourself, knowing what you want to do with your life and how you want to develop as a person. In part, however, this is also about actually doing it, getting out into the world and shaping it, making a difference in reality, becoming part of the unfolding story of the world: making yourself real, making your projected, imagined self a reality.

This doesn't mean that you have to control every aspect of reality; that's not possibly anyway: neither can we control all circumstances, nor what other people do or think. But for realizing yourself, this is not required anyway. What is necessary is just that you get control of yourself: your actions, views, and feelings; your habits; your choices and decisions. When all this is in good order you'll find the rest of the world quite accommodating. When we live our lives, reality is not 'against' us ‐ we don't have to overcome reality in order to be successful. On the contrary, being successful includes having reality on your side. Perhaps you have watched, on occasion, one of those people for who everything seems to simply work: whenever they strive to achieve something, it becomes a success; whatever happens to them, they turn it to their advantage; whenever they speak up on a subject, it all begins to make sense — the truly excellent are quickly recognized by the ease with which they move along their chosen path. Reality itself puts its weight behind you, and will increase your drive forward in living your life, if you build and shape your character.

Becoming more real in this sense is nothing that another person can do for you. Neither will more money, power, or fame bring it to you. And obviously, you won't achieve it by maximizing pleasure and minimizing pain in your experience of your life as it unfolds. When the final calls are made, we all want to look back and see that we have created some value and beauty in our lives. If we manage to do this, then what else would there be to consider? Take care.

Memento mori

It's a sad fact about life that all things end or expire at some point — some last longer, some are short-lived, but there is no escaping the inevitable. What makes it sad is that everything you want, like, and pursue has this predetermined fate: it will end or expire at some point, and while we don't know when that will be, we know for sure it will happen, sooner or later. (Sometimes we might even be able to influence the timing, but only ever to a certain degree.) But then, of course, it's a welcome fact about life too, that all things end or expire at some point. For all the things we disprefer will meet with the same fate. Again, we might not know when, but we know they will.

Thus if there is an element of surprise here (pleasant or unpleasant), it should only be about the timing, never about the fact itself. Yet when we live our lives, we frequently lose sight of this insight, and then we are caught by surprise not just about when, but that something just ended or expired. We're not used to constant awareness of the finiteness of all things; we're not in the habit of memento mori: contemplating death, the inescapable end and expiry of everything, the limited nature of all things (including ourselves).

There are different varieties of memento mori. One is the fearful sort: fearing death. This fear is foolish, although it is perhaps one of the hardest to control. Then there is romantic fascination, a kind of morbid attraction with decay and decadence, an addiction to what is forever lost and what is impossible to reach. Here the memento mori is rather a kind of escape, a way of not being active and engaged in the present. But I think there is also memento mori as tempering a certain kind of exuberance and blind immersion: not over-enjoying pleasant things because you know they will expire and end; not forgetting in the midst of play and fun that there is a serious job to be done within your life's time, which is finite and of uncertain extent; not gaining a false sense of security because of unthinking trust in the stability of things. This last kind, in all its three forms, is what we're looking for.

When we feel ourselves swept away by intense feelings, this can have a certain timeless quality. (Perhaps that is one of the reasons why people fall into the trap of thinking there is a supreme value, something deep and important about feelings). It lets us forget that we are in the middle of not just one, but many processes: what we were just doing, our day, our many projects that might span stretches of a few days or a few years, the main building blocks of our lives such as relationships or careers, and of course, our life itself as a whole that is made up from such building blocks. It may be a kind of relief to forget all this for a moment.

Memento mori here helps us to see that this is an illusion: neither is any subjective experience, any feeling infinite (it will cease soon enough), nor have all these processes into which we are integrated gone away. They're still there, it's just that we momentarily cannot see them. We've taken a brief vacation from reality. And not just any reality, but the reality of ourselves, the reality of our lives, our character as a person. But ask yourself: if getting swept away by intense feeling appears to be better than being yourself, living your own life to the fullest, then wouldn't it be wiser to change your life rather than run away from it? When you get caught up in excitement (in intemperate delight, anger, or fear), then finding back to yourself in recalling the limits that are imposed on your life is a valuable habit.

Likewise, there is nothing wrong with play, even interspersing it on purpose; but what makes this a good idea from time to time is not that it helps us to escape what is more important, it's because it helps us to enable that which is more important. Living your life is primary; fun and play bring in a relaxing element from time to time; yet what makes it relaxing is not forgetting the rest of your life, but rather the awareness that you are getting on well with that activity. It works only as long as you are comfortable enough with the way you live your life that you don't need to cling to frenetic busyness: as long as you work on that aspect regularly and make good progress, you don't have to fanatically squeeze out every single minute. Because if you do the latter, it will wear you out. The tiring factor is never what you do, but that you do it without change and variation. Play is one aspect of the overarching activity of living your life well, and it needs to be used wisely: balancing work, but not replacing or suppressing it in our thought. Memento mori here protects us from forgetfulness: it reminds us that play has to be a scheduled and limited activity, so that it remains part of your way of living, not an addiction that takes over your life.

And finally, none of the things you get to own will last an infinite period: every kind of food has a use-by date; your favorite clothes will wear thin (or get out of fashion), your car will break down (or become too expensive). Not only things are spurious, but so are any conditions around you: whether the social strata in your society and the education you received underwrite that you're well off or make you struggle every single day; whether you live in a peaceful country or in a country at war; whether even the climate on the continent where you reside will remain the same or change, possibly to the point where it endangers the house you built — nothing lasts forever, not even these large-scale conditions will remain the same. They might require much more time to change, yet change they will.

Nothing is certain just because of the way it is now. Personal connections will either continue or wither away, for people will change, move out of sight, or even die. Wealth and health, power and fame will all come and go and you will quite probably be in a situation to make do without them at some point in your life, even if you enjoyed them for a while. Whatever plans you make for your career or your finances might work out or not, depending on whether the (explicit and implicit) assumptions you made will hold over the long time they have to hold in order to work out.

Even while we routinely trust (as we have to) in the stability of things around us, at least as long as there is no apparent reason to think otherwise, we need to be aware that all such stability is again limited and that there will be a time — maybe close by, maybe still far away — when it will no longer hold. It won't seem sudden and catch us unawares when we're in the habit of memento mori. This is not so much about taking specific preparations: if we wanted to take mitigating measures for everything that simply might happen, we'd become paranoid and invest much more than would be reasonable. Mitigation is not for everything we can think of, but for those cases where we can assess both the probability and the costs, and weigh them against the investment we'd have to make. Memento mori, on the other hand, is for mental preparation: knowing what is important in life and what is not, and being prepared for losses; strengthening your character, your resolve to live your whole life well, including those stretches that lay ahead when some of the certainties you were trusting in are no longer there for your support. The aim is not to manage externals more optimally (which is the job of risk mitigation), but to keep your head and remain yourself when the inevitable happens.

Memento mori, the habit of contemplating the end and expiry of all things, is an antidote that keeps us from over-enjoying pleasant things, helps us not to get the serious job of living our whole lives out of sight, and steers us clear of unthinking trust in the stability of things around us. Escape tendencies, forgetfulness, and false security are all addressed by proper use of memento mori, so it's a technique you certainly want to master. Take care.

Artificial preciousness

It's a good idea to become suspicious whenever something seems precious: elegant jewelry and fragrances, exquisite fabric and other choice materials in clothing, collector's items, rare foods, tickets for exclusive 'once in a life time' events, ... whenever something in this vein appears on the horizon and presents itself in a desirable light, better be on the lookout.

Preciousness is something we talk ourselves into: its components are typically some pleasure we enjoy and some sense of rareness about that which gives us the pleasure. Sometimes it's not rareness, but some other kind of difficulty in getting it: if it requires hard work, or patience over some extended time, or giving up something else for it, then after we've invested that we are much less likely to view the thing we got in return realistically. We measure it up against the investment we did, not against what it really is worth for us (for our success in living our life, and becoming the person we want to be).

It's not difficult to see how this can fall victim to all kinds of manipulation. 'Playing hard to get' is a notoriously successful strategy for pushing up attraction. Advertisements play up the scarcity or exclusivity of some item (which is of course plenty in supply, so much so that the profits from selling it are still considerable even after subtracting the costs for those advertisements). The preciousness we're made to feel here is always artificial. The higher a price the manipulator attaches to something (while managing to still keep us wanting it), the higher we will value it. All along, in reality there's no corresponding value to that higher price. It only exists in our imagination (and the imagination is notoriously bad with numbers and ratios, too).

It seems we habitually form desires for what we perceive as rare; sometimes it's enough that someone simply puts it to us, plausibly, that this is the case with something, and we're already yearning for it. But of course, there is nothing inevitable about this habit. It's not a necessary element of our nature (if in fact, there is such a thing); it's just a habit that can be questioned, shaped, and redirected over time to not let us fall victim to erroneously valuing the wrong things.

For you may already have guessed it: once more the trick in this pattern works only with externals. (Have you ever reflected why good qualities of character, even though they're hard to achieve, never seem precious in this way to people?) At the root of the appearance of preciousness is a double act of misguided emotions: first the desire for some external good, which is mistaken already, for externals are at best something to prefer or disprefer in a given situation, they are never valuable as such — so there is no point in getting emotional about them; and secondly a kind of fear which results from recognizing the possibility (even probability) of not getting what you want. The desire sets off the fear: the more you want it, the more relevant appears the idea that you might not acquire it. The fear intensifies the desire: the more difficult or improbable it seems to get it, the higher the desire for it. As they whip up each other, they magnify an initial nothing into a wrongheaded fixation.

And thus, whenever something seems precious, it's advisable to be suspicious. Pause and consider: what makes this so desirable? Who's interested in making it look rare and hard to get? What would you really lose if you did not pursue it? The only thing that is in fact both limited and valuable is your own life time; and if you have earlier on decided to put it to work for something else, then chances are that what seems precious here is just a distraction. Take care.


For many of us, life runs in compartments: part of your time is work, another part, separately, is spent with your friends and family, then part in pursuit of social or political causes, with sports or studies, on travels — there might be many more. It's not just that these occupy different stretches of time: they are really more like compartments in that we often apply only part of our person to each. We have a work persona and a play persona. We forget our goals and commitments for a while when we go traveling. What changes from context to context is not just what we do, and how we do it: it's also who we are (who we take ourselves to be) that gets temporarily transformed, depending on the compartment within which we're currently enclosed.

It's characteristic of a compartment to shield you from what goes on in the other compartments. This can happen in many ways. One is a neglect of memory, suppressing or ignoring what went on in other compartments in the past. (Do you have to push memories of your recent weekend out of your head in order to be able to focus on your work?) Another is playing down aspects that may be central in another compartment: skills and habits that are required while running in one rut are simply forgotten or remain dormant somewhere else. (Do you find it difficult to show the same patience and understanding you have for people you just met to those you've been familiar with for a long time?)

If this goes too far, it creates an unfavorable condition. Though it looks much like valuable effectiveness from a point of view within the compartments, it means that you live your life not fully as the person you are (or could be). Those compartments fill a significant portion of your life time, so, when viewed together, they must be connected: there have to be ways of looking at yourself that are in harmony with each other. These ways don't have to be identical, or even continuous, but they must be integrated, fit together. For example, you may go to extremes to feel the thrill every so often, maybe do some extreme sports, precisely to create a counterweight to routine and precision requirements in your job. That you create variety and even a polarity in your life is fine; but if each side makes you forget or ignore the other side it gets you on the wrong track. Even while you're running in two different ruts here, they should be balanced against each other, and support each other so that neither wears you out.

There might be conflicts between the overt traits that come to the front in one compartment and the hidden or sleeping ones (those which aren't currently engaged) that are needed only in others. If such a conflict surfaces, we might feel shame for those aspects of our person that do us no good in this compartment, because they belong somewhere else. And so we ignore or suppress them. But it's not just this, it's not just the aspects of our person that don't belong in the current situation. Even those things that work in the current compartment are only relatively optimal. They might work well, but they don't draw on your full resources as a person. This is the kind of thing that makes you feel as if you're not fully centered in your own life. Or, to put the point somewhat differently, they're showing you not as the person you are or could be, but as another person, an impoverished one which only has the overt traits central to this current compartment situation. You live your life alternately as one constrained and one-dimensional person and then as another, equally one-dimensional and constrained person — until you flip back again.

So, get the creativity you exhibit in cultural activities (like painting, or playing an instrument) into your work life; get the energy you find in physical activities such as sport (or sex) into your creative life; dedicate your professional skills in time management and coordinated, methodical procedure to building a lifestyle as well (doing those cultural and sports activities frequently and regularly enough to get much out of them), ... — in other words, integrate everything with everything. And just as always, pay particular attention to the character qualities which are central to you as a person, to the way you want to live your life. These above everything else must be integrated over whatever you do.

And why stop there? Reflect on why you have these compartments at all. More often than not they are structured by the world around us rather than laid out by ourselves: perhaps your day is fixed by the beginning and end of working hours; and in addition to the rigid time window here, space is also often constrained: you're in a specific workplace where you remain for almost all of that time. Once you have children, the morning starts the moment they wake up, not when you do. The duration and character of your morning commute depends on where you live. Social activities are aligned with the rhythm of your social circle, and perhaps with less obvious things such as Friday nights, the happy hour at your favorite pub, and the like. And think about how many of these structures you have chosen and actively shaped, and how many you have just taken up as they came along (perhaps even sometimes without giving them a thought at all).

Compartmentalization results from the interplay between the structure we have imposed on our lives (or at any rate, the structure that has been imposed on your life, whether you have done it yourself or let others do it) and how much of our own self we put into the elements of this structure: how we organize ourselves in order to accommodate these structures, and especially how we restrict ourselves (or let ourselves be restricted) in order to fit in. When we have to ignore or suppress part of ourself to fit into some compartment (or to perform better in some compartment), then there's something wrong: either we have carved up the world into compartments the wrong way, or we have applied ourselves badly into the compartment. But since this is the structure of your life, it is your own responsibility to find a good fit: find out whether you need compartments at all; and if you do, how to make them work so that you always apply yourself with your full person, even when accentuating aspects that are central within a particular compartment. Take care.


Whenever you start thinking deep about something, there is a certain merit in remaining detached, observing carefully, and clarifying even the most subtle detail. Almost every question of relevance is complex; in real life, there's usually a multitude of factors that play a role. So whenever you get into deep thinking about something, there's something to say for a dispassionate, neutral, and detail-loving stance: not taking sides regarding a certain question; not having an emotional preference but carefully observing in a detached way; paying attention to all the details and connections which transpire.

This also applies to thinking about what matters most: how you want to live your life, what kind of person you want to be. When we start comparing different answers to those questions, when we evaluate the various approaches, examine the arguments for and against them, and try to find criteria by which we regard them as better or worse — in a word, when we start doing philosophy —, then it helps to remain open and neutral, not closing off roads just because of some judgment taken previously (or prematurely); it's good to be aware of all the details, options, the arguments pro and contra all the sides; and it's a helpful skill to be acute in making distinctions, and in making connections.

Of course, this must not be taken too far, or otherwise there would never be any action at all. It's not enough just to think, we also have to live the answers to these questions. In fact, we already do so, and it's probably fair to say that in most cases, the answers that we do live aren't the best ones we're actually capable of — capable of giving, and living. Whenever we make some progress, we have to update both our views and our actions.

If we don't, there is a danger that sophistication itself is made the goal, a l'art pour l'art of the intellect. And there is ample occasion for observing this danger coming true in today's intellectual institutions, where sophistication in argument, hunting for nuances in subtly different views, and compulsive quibbling frequently enough double up for any real goal or real direction. The phrase "it's an academic question" has become proverbial for this kind of talk. An 'academic' question is one without real relevance, one that can be left to those who play the self-contained game of debating it comprehensively, in all the minutest detail, just for the sake of debating nuances. There is a difference between theoretical skill and excellence on the one hand and this kind of self-absorbed sophistication on the other. Unless you want to start an academic career and measure up to others who also are intent on conquering that institutional path, thought and talk of that latter kind are not for you. It's philosophy that is valued for its own sake, not academic subtlety; for philosophy is ultimately a way of living your life in an examined way, informed by the best critical and theoretical thinking there is. As such (as an activity), philosophy must translate into action; and not much action flows from sophisticated talk that is primarily directed at, well: being sophisticated.

When sophistication in an area becomes a self-contained game, it's often difficult to recognize that this is what's going on; it tends to happen in a group or community which shares and mutually supports that sophistication, and so it will be difficult to tell from genuine admiration you receive when you're living a good life. The dangerous slip here is to make a community of similar-doers into an external standard for quality and worthiness, something that doesn't come from a connection to a real, personal quest for a goal in your life any more. (Of course, the connection doesn't have to be direct and explicit all the time, but it must be there somewhere.) In other words, when you get drawn to tendencies of sophistication you'll least notice it from the attitudes of encouragement or discouragement in those around you. With respect to philosophy, self-absorbed scholasticism is the result, a professionalization of intellectual debate that becomes separated not just from real goals, but even from real intellectual questions.

Philosophy is often about conceptual distinctions, and their good and correct use. Philosophical education is in many ways a process of getting trained to find and apply them. But then again, handling them should not be just a goal in itself. They are part of exercising rationality, but they must be anchored in real goals, and those include the improvement of character: working towards the elimination of false emotions, building a consistent view of the world, guiding practical decisions, and promoting excellence in yourself and others. If they don't, if sophistication becomes a habit and a goal in itself, it only drains our energies and diverts our focus from the things that really matter; for sophistication, even though it may look admirable at times, is not among the things that really matter. Take care.


Why is it that having money seems so immensely attractive to many people? Perhaps it's not a single thing, a particular experience of 'being rich', but many different ones which overlap in that money comes in useful for them. You may enjoy going on travels once a year — for which you need the spare cash. You may take it to be important to be well and fashionably dressed, to own a car and a house, and also to be able to choose among many options in these matters, aiming for good quality and a personal note. You may have an eye on buying good school education for your children, a pleasant retirement home for yourself or your parents, or on supporting a charitable cause financially. For each of these goals it is imperative to assemble the necessary means; you have to find ways of making money.

In all these cases, however, money is simply a means to an end. As long as it is only required to get something else, all the motivation to get our hands on it comes from that something, whatever it is in the circumstances. Of course you might doubt whether all the purposes I've just listed are really good goals to have your activity directed at; but at least they're purposes distinct from simply collecting money. The focus is on the actual goal, and if something other than money were required for achieving that goal, then we'd be glad to let go the money and direct our attention towards that other thing.

Yet there is something special about money — and that can let us slide into becoming attracted to the money itself, instead to what it buys us. Money functions as an abstract placeholder for options: the very same fistful of currency can be used for widely varying purposes; it's not inscribed on it what you can get in exchange; as long as it is money (and valid, and the right amount), it's fully up to you what you want to trade for it. It's also up to you when you make use of it: as long as it remains in the abstract form of money, you can hoard it somewhere for as long as you like, and thus delay both your decision what to trade it for, and the beginning of your ownership of that thing. Take a simple example: if you've got some money right now, but you're not hungry, then you don't have to decide at this very moment what to eat; and neither do you need to carry around actual food. Only later, when you think it's time to trade your cash for something to eat you have both to choose and also, once you transformed the money into an actual meal, you must consume that meal within a reasonable time (or else it will corrupt). So money is both an abstract placeholder and a means to counter the passing of time: you can keep money for a while and only later trade it for something else.

(It is both only ever to a certain degree: there may come an economic crisis bringing a devaluation of the sums in your bank account; and inevitably over time the world changes, sometimes drastically — or more strictly, given enough time, it will always change drastically —, perhaps to the point where money doesn't count any more: remember those post-apocalyptic movies where a wad of banknotes doesn't even buy you a bite to eat and is best used for making a fire? Or think of the currency of old times: a handful of 18th-century coins have no value other than for being exhibited at a museum or written about in history books. Money is more stable than many other things in life; but it is by no means eternal.)

Pervasive as it is in our world, and broad as the range of things might be that you can get for it, note that these are always externals. Money functions as a placeholder only for externals: it's true, there's no need to produce food, build houses, transportation, tools and the like when you can buy them; and yes, you can buy pleasure and convenience, entertainment and distraction, even public attention and celebrity — as long as you have money, you can exchange it for almost every kind of external goods. (Especially in our modern world; this wasn't always so — for instance, in societies of old high birth was considered valuable, and you could at best have bought the appearance of that, but not the thing itself.) But then also think of all the things money cannot buy: love, friendship, more life time, a sense of direction in your life, and, first and foremost, excellence of character. Just as you would expect, if money is only an abstract placeholder for externals, it precisely cannot stand for anything of those things that are not external, which require at least in part an attitude from you yourself, something integral to your person, and the way you're living your life.

Now most people would agree, when prompted to think it through, that money is not a good guide to living a good life. And yet many exhibit that same tendency in practice that they would dismiss in their considered opinion. This is partly because of the placeholder function. As long as you value any externals that can be bought by money, you will thus automatically value money. It's easy to recognize individual kinds of externals for what they are: just external things with no real value. But all of them at once are a tough call, and as long as there are many that you still consider valuable, money will draw on that attraction cumulatively. Likewise, the potential of deferral is attractive especially when fears about the future (and the future procurement of externals) come into play. The more fearful you are about the future, the more attractive seems getting more money.

Since money, in its function as abstract placeholder for externals, is so pervasive, it's easy to fall for the error that it is always a good thing to have more of it — that it is always a good idea to go for it. That's where we begin to think that the question "How much money will it get me (or save me)?" is a good guide for our actions. In short, you might make money into an unconditional good, something that is good per se, without depending on circumstances. And this is where the error lies. We fall into a mindset in which money considerations can only be trumped by other money considerations. Consider: money can be quantified, as many other things can't, so it is always possible to easily compare options by their weight in money; it will often be harder to compare them in other respects. Thus in addition to buying you some time, putting money first can also simplify decision-making about how to act. In the jungle of options we inhabit today, such simple clarity can be seductive. So in the end, we might even make up a general rule such as "if in doubt, go for what gets you more money (or what costs you less)".

But that means to overlook the fact that it's only externals that can be bought with money, and so the general rule blocks your view of what is much more important than externals: the integrity and excellence in the qualities of your character, which show themselves in the way you're living your life, and in the personal relationships you maintain. Money may be abstract, but it's not abstract enough to cover that. Moreover: money may make it all right to delay decisions on externals, but with decisions about those other things, the integral concerns of your relationships, your character, and what use you make of your lifetime, there is no such thing as delay. With externals, it might be an advantage; with your personal development, it always puts you at a disadvantage. Take care.
Copyright © 2007-2012 by Leif Frenzel. All rights reserved.