That one question…

We always ask ourselves how we should live, how we should act and what we should do with our time. Rarely, if ever, do we find a right answer. It’s one of those questions which we can’t just look up online or find in a book. Yes, other people can tell us how to live, but that doesn’t mean that’s how we should live. Is there, then, any way of finding a right answer?

Many things can be used as examples which tell us how to live: advertising, the Bible, various philosophies of life. Yet are they correct? In some places we may find right answers, but not the right answer. The external may be able to help us recognise the truth about how to treat others and act in certain situations, but the fundamental thing is that each recognition comes from within you. It has to be you who accepts what you read or watch, and as soon as you do, it has become part of your way of life. It is part of your theory of ‘how to live’. As we constantly go through life from one second to the next, we are not only living but also simultaneously acting out how we believe we should live. The answers do not come from the external, they come from the internal, and from the reflection of our own life as we have lived it so far. Sartre is right in the sense that one cannot say to another ‘this is how to live’, yet I believe that how we should live has been figured out, by ourselves, for ourselves and for ourselves only. Only you yourself can truly figure out how you should live. Christopher Hitchens used the example of Socrates’ inner daemon– a guiding, internal voice. Perhaps the only way we can ever know we should live is to listen to this daemon, and to review how we act in certain situations. How we act in a certain situation reflects our thoughts on what we should have done in that certain situation. There are no variables here, and what we do is what we think we should do at that moment, even if in retrospect we realise we should have done something different. To figure out how to live, first, we must live. It is up to yourself, nobody else. There is no right answer, only right answers, and as long as we truly listen to ourselves, to our inner voice, we will know how to live.

Time

Time is constant,  or at least the human sense of time is. Time, for ourselves, is also limited. There is only so much designated time left for us before we die. There are X many minutes left before you no longer exist, Y many hours, and Z many days. However much is left, it is limited, and soon enough it will be gone and the sand in your timer of life will run out. In the perspective of the universe, the time we as individuals have is minute, just a blip of life in the great line of existence. For us, life can, at times, feel long and drawn out, while at others it can feel painfully short, and we are left wondering where the time went. Moreover, time won’t hang around for us. Rain or shine, time continues. Time is indifferent to our problems, just like the universe. Time inevitably causes change. In fact, one could perhaps define time as change. Nevertheless, change is unpreventable. What life boils down to, then, is how we use our time, and how we change. We can use the time well and change for the better, or we can use it badly and change for the worse.

Everything passes. Your life has come, and soon it will go. Reminding ourselves of the temporality of our situation can help us enormously, since we realize that if the times are good, we should savour them and experience them as best we can while they are still around. As for the bad, it will pass. Constantly reminding ourselves of the temporal nature of ourselves is key to influencing the change we want to see, be it in the world or in ourselves. Further, time tells us we are mortal, that we don’t have long before we can’t change anything simply because we won’t be anymore.

Life is about using your time as best you can. You must use the time left to create the change you want to see, but remember, time will never wait around for you. If you’re doing what you really want, why are you doing it? Or is it that you secretly want to ‘waste’ your time? If you want to write a book, you’ve got to start now. If you want to start a business, you’ve got to plan now. The simple reason is that the only time is the time of now. The present is the only thing that will help you change anything, so use it, while you still can.

What are you waiting for?

Eudaimonia: Aristotle and happiness

The Greek word eudaimonia (εὐδαιμονία) is usually translated as ‘flourishing’ or ‘welfare’. This was, to Aristotle, the highest good (summum bonum). But how, especially today, can we reach this highest good?

Aristotle linked eudaimonia with virtue (here meaning ‘excellence’) and reason. For him, eudaimonia entailed virtue and activity, particularly intellectually stimulating activity, since Aristotle believed that reason (logos) is unique to humankind. Of course, however, activity can be mental or physical, since there is practical reason as well as mental reason. Virtue is, for Aristotle, necessary to attain eudaimonia, yet is not enough, since activity of some kind must be involved which attains success by virtuous means. There are, however, other things that appear to be depended on if one desires to achieve eudaimonia. These are goods external to oneself, such as friendship and beauty, and Aristotle would doubt that eudaimonia could truly be achieved without these kinds of external goods, which means that attainment of ‘flourishing’ seems to involve, to some extent, an element of luck.

How can we apply this to our life today? C. D. Ryff defined eudaimonia with six parts:

  1. Self acceptance
  2. Personal growth
  3. Purpose in life
  4. Autonomy
  5. Environmental mastery
  6. Positive relations with others

Not only must be at one with ourselves, we must have good relationships with others. Of course, a definite purpose is necessary, otherwise we will find ourselves wandering around aimlessly as if in a dark room. It is no doubt the case that although we rely on personal circumstances, it is up to us to attain eudaimonia. If we want it, we must concentrate on what we must do to get it, and discover for ourselves what we must implement and what we must remove from our lives.

Choose

It’s hard to face the fact that the time we exist on earth will not enable us to do all the things that we may want to do. For some of us, perhaps this is the case, but for most of us, there are many various things which we would like to do with our lives yet do not have time for, or we just aren’t able to do them because of the packed and full lives we already lead. This is not easy accept, yet it is a reality which must be faced. Life is not short, it is long compared to a lot of animals, and we do have time to dedicate ourselves to certain vocations. It just depends on what those things are. Recognising that we will not be able to do everything we would have hoped to will allow us to realistically and rationally decide what it is that we are going to do with our life. Decide what it is you want to do, then, if you can, do what it takes to get where you want. If we all wanted something bad enough, we could get there and attain our goal. It’s not really about the brevity of time, it’s about the use of that time. If there’s something out there which you have consciously and determinedly decided to pursue, all that’s left to do is to pursue it. If you believe that pursuit is truly worthwhile, very little will stop you. If you can’t do it because of little things such as wanting more sleep or watching more TV, then you don’t really want it. First and foremost, people get where they are because that is they wanted. It all depends on what you want, and how much you want it.

One path to fulfilment

For true fulfilment, for genuine satisfaction, there is no easy way. Nothing worth having comes easily. We all know this, but this isn’t the point. It’s not that we don’t know it, it’s that we’re too prone to forgetting it. We need constant reminders of what we know and the ideas and beliefs that drive us need to be refreshed often to keep us going. It would help if, every day, we took just a little time to stop and to reaffirm to ourselves why we are doing what we are doing with our one life. We want things to come easily. We are impatient and easily fall down before instant gratification. Deep down, though, we know that in the long run, it just isn’t worth it. Perhaps the only way to keep our path as straight as possible is to remind ourselves why we should continue. If you genuinely want something, if you really want to become a different person or achieve a goal, then you will persevere. There will be times of failure, but we should never ever give up. It may require what feels like extortionate amounts of sacrifice but it will be worth it. Yet first, we must remember that for even a small glimpse of heaven, we must delve deep into hell first.

The Power of Art

Art is many things. It can inspire, comfort, transform. Art enables man to transform his essence. Christian Morgenstern said that ‘in every work of art, the artist himself is present’ and I believe this to be true. In the music of Mozart we are able to gain an insight into the intense feelings, doubts and frustrations of a musical genius, in the paintings of van Gogh we are thrown into a world of madness, pain and, again, majestic skill. At times, art can satisfactorily express emotions which words cannot.

Through art, Mozart, Bach, da Vinci, Ovid, Homer, and numerous other writers, musicians, poets and painters, became immortal. Although they were all inevitably destined for death, they were able to live forever, not in body or mind, but in spirit. Each person’s art allows a glimpse of that persons life. Not only does art satisfy and gratify the spectators, but it also satisfies the creators themselves. Art, it seems, is created because of some dissatisfaction or some feeling of emptiness that can only be filled by something creative. Many writers have expressed some belief of this sort, saying that ‘art never comes from happiness’ (Chuck Palahniuk) or ‘art is to console those who are broken by life’ (van Gogh). Art can, if we allow, assume a form of catharsis. To the artist himself, art is a means to expressing the inexpressible, to the spectator, art indicates that the feelings of loneliness, doubt, fear,  inadequacy, anxiety, and depression are not exclusive to the spectator alone, and that art can be used to channel these feelings. As Thomas Merton said, ‘art enables us to find ourselves and lose ourselves at the same time.’

We live in a society full of art. Music is available at a few clicks of a button, is played in supermarkets, restaurants, in transport, and in many other public and private spaces. Moreover, paintings are widely available to view and poetry and writings are at hand in many, many places. We have, thankfully, recognised its importance and its benefit to mankind. For art may be, at times, the only thing that keeps a man sane.

At your funeral

Picture your funeral. What is the scene? Who is there? The chances are, you won’t exist anymore, in any form whatsoever. So, you are dead. Your life is over, forever. The question is this: what will you have wanted to achieve before this somewhat haunting event? Some people go the grave having created magnificent works of art, some have changed the lives of others, some have made the world a better place. But, for all the achievements, other things enter the graves with people, and those things are unfulfilled potential, achievements that were easily attainable if only a little more effort was put in, actions that could have been just, or calm, or rational, yet turned out to be unjust, angry, and impulsive. We should, it seems, at times ask ourselves, ‘What do I want to enter the grave with?’ Do you want to die knowing that you have squeezed every drop out of your one life, or do you want to die regretting that you didn’t put in that extra effort, that kind word, that tiny fragment of concentration? We must keep the end of our life in mind when acting now, otherwise what will we be using as our motive for choosing what we do with our lives? Perhaps if we recall to ourselves daily that one day, perhaps much sooner than we think, our funeral will occur, where we will not be present, and that people will be there who will remember us for who we were and what we did, then maybe we can act in accordance with what we truly desire, yet this, again, requires us to know ourselves, and this takes reflection, questioning, and time. We can, if we so desire, form what people will remember us for. What is it that you want to be remembered for, and what is it that you want to achieve before you die?

Change

Change is inevitable. It happens to everyone and to everything, whether we like it not. We cannot not change, yet we can influence the inevitability of such change to our benefit. If we so decide, we can either change for the better, or we can change for the worse. It is generally up to us how we influence the time passing. The things which we want to remove from our lives, such as bad habits like smoking, will only be removed if we make a full, conscious, passionate and determined to decision to become someone different. For most things that are bad for us, or that we want to remove, we can choose to remove them, as long as we have a strong enough will to do so. Moreover, things that we want to remove are more easily removed if replaced with something different, something better.

As for the majority of the things that we sometimes wish we could remove yet cannot, it is generally a matter of perspective. Changing one’s perspective may change a boring job into an interesting one, a frustrating parent into a loving one, a dull routine into a means to a long-term achievement. If one is to change one’s life, or to change one’s perspective, it is necessary, first, to reflect regularly in order to focus one’s mind on what it is that is desired, and what needs to be done to achieve that goal.

We cannot help time passing, and it will do so until we die, yet it is possible to use the time, the precious, limited time, as best we can, and to live the life that is, to ourselves, the fullest life.

What is real?

Are we dreaming? Does the world we live in even exist? Do I exist? These are questions that have been grabbled with for thousands of years, and yet we still have no definite answers. The question ‘Do I exist?’ was best answered by Descartes when saying ‘cogito ergo sum’. However, there are still no satisfactory answers, it seems, to the question of whether anything outside of our minds is real.

There are many things which may make life seem real, especially when we compare our ‘real’ life to that of our own dreams. Our dreams tend to be disordered, random, and unpredictable. The conscious world is much more orderly and understandable than the murky depths of the unconscious. Maybe there is no world outside our minds, but even if there wasn’t, it probably wouldn’t change much. We cannot not live in this world unless we die. Of course, we don’t have to ‘die’ in the most fundamental sense. We can kill ourselves without really dying, and in today’s world this seems particularly applicable. How much of our time do we spend in the ‘real’ world? Was there once a real world which is no longer really accessible to us? We spend so much time watching other worlds, reading about other worlds, dreaming of other worlds, and creating other worlds that it is hard to decipher what is real and what is not. Is social media real? Or is it a virtual reality, a fake? We exist in this world, but are we living in it? Perhaps we have become too detached from what is real-nature and other people-that we have lost a sense of reality. Even if the world outside our minds isn’t real and other people and nature doesn’t really exist, it doesn’t matter, because they exist to us, and they are the most real thing we could ever experience.

If we want to live again, we must come back to reality, whatever that is. It may not be possible to say what reality is, only what it is not.

Addiction and human nature

Addiction is most commonly associated with the category of drugs. But what if we all had different addictions, to different drugs? I’m not saying that we’re all secretly addicted to heroin or ketamine, because although we put these kind of substances in the group of ‘drugs’ that people take, there may be more and more drugs than we think. Are we all addicts?

Is there something which you need to get you through the day? Must you have coffee in the morning, or TV late at night? Are the Facebook and Instagram feeds your form of relief to make the day bearable? Do you have to read some of a novel to help you get work done? I’m sure everyone has some form of relief they use to get them through life. I may be wrong, but then again…

Addiction may not just be something to do with illegal or legal ‘substances’. In fact, addiction may be all around. The question is whether we are all addicted to something, something which makes the day bearable. This does not mean that addiction is wrong. What it does tell us is a key insight into human nature. If we really do need certain things to pull us through life, what is our natural state? If we are addicts, in one form or another, what is the norm without such things? It is hard to think that the state of humanity is anything but a dissatisfied one. It seems that boredom is natural to man, and that ‘happiness’, or ‘satisfaction’, is not the norm. Perhaps it is, and I am wrong, but throughout life today, the widespread use of social media, the excess of consumption in the form of clothes to the form of television seems to prove my point. We fill our lives with distractions because we are not satisfied.

It was Arthur Schopenhauer who proposed that life is a pendulum swinging ‘backward and forward between pain and boredom.’ When we are in pain, we fill it with things to relieve the pain, but after a while, we become bored of this. This is, according to Schopenhauer, how life works. Even if this is true, we must not despair. In one of my previous posts, ‘why suffering can be good’, I wrote about the usefulness of pain. Although at first we may want to immediately sedate the pain, this may not be the right choice, since it is only through suffering that we can grow as people and evolve. The most worthwhile of things are the products of hard work, sacrifice and suffering. Concluding that we are addicts at nature may help us realise two things:

  1. That it is not primarily our fault for our addictive nature-it is just the world we live in.
  2. Addiction is a way of dealing with boredom and pain. There are many various ways of dealing with this dissatisfaction, some better than others.

Rather than turning to heroine, binge-watching of television or social media feeds, we can, as Alain de Botton wrote, ‘turn pain into knowledge.’