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