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