New year expectations always seem to be somewhat unrealistic. We seem to want to change ourselves so much over such a short period of time that when we realise that our hopes and expectations are not becoming a reality in the time we wished, everything collapses and we fall back into the old habits we so desperately wished to remove or replace. Heraclitus, one of the most notorious pre-Socratic philosophers, wrote that everything is in a state of change except change itself. We ourselves will change, whether we will it or not, and so it is not whether we change, but how we change. You can never become the person you once were, yet what is possible is that you begin to become the person you want to be, yet to do this it is necessary to start directing change in a positive direction at a pace that is realistic and attainable-‘once you’re over the hill you begin to pick up speed’ Schopenhauer. A sprint will not get you to the top, but a steady jog will, and once you reach the summit, things will become easier and easier.
‘Every human activity is a tack for killing time.’ Thomas Ligotti
Time passes inevitably. Change occurs whether we like it or not. That is what time is-a measure of change. The way we use and manipulate time determines how our lives turn out. Time, then, is the greatest resource for a human life.
Ligotti’s idea is one of existential nihilism, that everything is essentially useless, and that human activity leads to nothing. Objectively this may be to some extent true: time does pass and eventually all human endeavours will come to nothing. But that is not all. While the human race exists, our endeavours are still meaningful. They still affect ourselves and the people around him-what happens now and the effects that current events and actions have, must not be overlooked. Everything becomes redundant at some point, but human activities still have meaning while they are around to be experienced. Life is not merely killing time, it is using time which is passing and perishing in the best way you think.
The rise of human consciousness can be interpreted in different ways. Some hold that human consciousness is a huge development in evolution and is greatly beneficial, being a fundamentally good thing, but others hold that consciousness causes suffering and that we would be better off without it.
Thomas Ligotti, like Arthur Schopenhauer, believes that consciousness is a dangerous and pain-inducing part of human existence. Consciousness causes us to be aware of what we are-creatures that are slowly dying, born for nothing, and destined to die, ultimately, for nothing. He says that ‘most people learn to save themselves by artificially limiting the content of consciousness’, and this is rather obvious today-the phone is the most common way of achieving a state of non-thinking, and people are straight on them as soon as they are awake, throughout the day until before they go to sleep, every day. The phone allows us to limit our consciousness, since a phone user ceases to think. One of the biggest reasons why phones and technology are so widely used is because they are a means which can be used to stop thinking.
Consciousness no doubt has its benefits as well as its flaws, yet perhaps the greatest use of consciousness is to create comedy. Comedy is the use of our reason to create absurdity, and comedy allows us to use our consciousness to laugh at the very thing we are using. Again Ligotti speaks:
‘To my mind, a well-developed sense of humour is the surest indication of a person’s humanity, no matter how black and bitter that humour may be.’
The thought of dying can make life seem bitter. Death can propose itself to us as a struggle to be coped with, but only if we let it. The reality of death is inevitable, so it is how we deal with this eventual reality that is crucial, for this may influence our actions now and in the future. If being dead seems terrible, it is because we are clinging onto life, and to hope, too much. Being dead is a tragedy if we expect an excessive amount from life. We are fortunate to be alive at all, let alone forever.
Life is but a break from the state of being dead, and it is an opportunity to explore existence before we return to the ground we came from. Life only becomes bitter if we expect too much from it.
‘To hope is to contradict the future.’ Emil Cioran
Progress isn’t made without taking risks. Development comes through putting ourselves in positions unknown, making them known, becoming strong by exposing weakness. Repetition with no steps forward will not bring fulfilment. If we do not take risks, we risk becoming lost in mediocrity. The greatest risk, then, is to dare not to take risks.
Nietzsche’s notorious quote ‘that which does not kill me makes me stronger’ is relevant here. The greatest reason for not taking risks is fear: fear of danger, humiliation, and, ultimately, failure. We would rather stay where we are than fail, but failing is a necessary part of evolution and growth as a human being. Nietzsche said to ‘build your cities on the slopes of Vesuvius.’ For the greatest yielding of progress, the possibility of failure or pain is also the greatest possible. We are left with a choice-living dangerously or living in mediocrity.
It might seem easier or less trouble or more polite to approach ideas, opinions, and belief systems with sensitivity. It may even seem right to do so. Yet logic is not discrete or caring. Logic is logic. Today’s society is obsessed with accepting other people’s opinions and letting them be. But simply letting people be will get us nowhere resulting in no kind of progression or evolution. Questioning and deliberating is necessary for progress to be made. Questioning is what gets us somewhere, rather than nowhere. Of course, some people ask questions, and some don’t, and some societies work like that, but if no questions were asked at all, then we wouldn’t get anywhere. That is what society today is partaking in-the withdrawal of questioning, the withdrawal of rigorous skepticism.
It is thought that approaching an idea mercilessly and wholly rationally is dangerous, but it is in fact the other way round. If we fail to attack an idea, we will fail to discover what the idea holds and the potential of it, which could lead to a damaging idea growing and developing. It is not dangerous to attack an idea, but it is dangerous both to leave an idea to grow without doubting it, and also to refuse an idea even in the face of proof (whatever that is).
It’s easy to perceive things in the wrong way. Our perspective can change very drastically, very quickly. A lot of life is just about how we see things. As Epictetus said, life is just a set of impressions. If we take this at face value, then how we live is how we use impressions-change your perspective, change your life, that kind of thing.
The big question, then, is what the right perspective is. Fundamentally, all of our perspectives differ somewhat, but it is possible for perspectives to be focused on the same things. A huge focus is the universe around us. It has existed for millions of years. We exist for 80 years. Sub specie aeternitatis, life seems a little less serious. Again, we die. Death makes life seem less troublesome. Yes the troubles may hurt now, but soon enough they’ll be gone. Forever. In fact, everything will be gone. Yes, I agree that life can be shit at times, that it is a pain, frustrating and completely pointless, but I also think that since we’re here, and given that the chances of us being here are close to none, we should probably make the most of it. Looking at death and the universe may change our perspective on things, making them seem less grave. Beginning with the end in mind (the end being death) may certainly be helpful, easing the heaviness of life off of one’s shoulders, bringing a touch of humour and slight irony (Nagel) to one’s existence. Keeping things in perspective is utterly, utterly crucial. It affects how we act, and provides the reasons as to why we act, and as long as we do keep things in perspective, it will help us in how we act.
There is one specific idea which I have found to be incredibly useful when confronting and accepting various forms of pain, specifically the pains and anxieties of everyday life: the concept of sub specie aeternatis. This is the idea of viewing humanity, and more specifically your very own life, in the time period of all history and of the future as well. The span of our own lives is utterly negligible if we look at the big picture-that the universe has existed for millions and millions of years, and will probably continue to do so for a long time. Looking at life like this, all the pettiness is removed. When we are reminded of our own insignificance and the perhaps completely meaningless nature of our troubles, w may be able to detach ourselves from our own trouble, thereby gaining power and control over them, rather than the other way around. It is a matter of recognising how arbitrary everything can seem, merely by looking at the bigger picture. It may seem simple, but its effect may be astounding.
Many of us are asleep. This isn’t stating the obvious, this is stating that even when ‘awake’, many of us are still asleep, not really aware of where we are or what we are doing. We are the products of millions of years of evolution. Millions of years of toil and suffering has produced you and me. Not only that, but our lifespan is completely negligible compared to the time spent evolving before our existence began. If you’re not careful, life will pass you by without you realising, you’ll have wasted years of time, filled with regret, and you’ll be old, near to death. The cessation of life is a reality we all have to face, and it is perhaps the most important of all realities, and perhaps the only one. Yet in spite of all this, we remain where we are, asleep and half-conscious, dazing through life like a zombie-doing, but not really living. Nietzsche had this idea, that life is usually rejected, and rather than striving for greatness, we settle with mediocrity. His idea was to create an Ubermensch, an overman. This target is a target of greatness and of evolution-to make something better of ourselves, parting from ‘herd instinct morality’, and simultaneously becoming life-affirming, in essence-waking up. And once we do wake up, asleep will never appeal again. We just have to fight ourselves if waking up is what we really want.
The opinion of others is something that is usually heralded as crucially important to any sane person, and what others think about us has become the reason for acting in certain ways-for getting that job, for posting that photo on Instagram, for buying that car, or for keeping quiet when we should speak up. We value others’ opinions highly, and what other people will think about us influences our decisions heavily. It’s not that other people’s opinions do not matter (they do), but it may be the case that we value what other people think too highly. It is a problem when we do not act in the way we should or the way we truly want because we fear what other people will think. It is a problem when we act solely so that people will think good of us, regardless of what we genuinely want to do. We make the mistake that if people have a good opinion of us, our power will increase, as will our satisfaction. This kind of deluded thinking has the opposite effect, since relying on the external for power and satisfaction usually means the opposite occurs, since most people do not care what you think or do. With this kind of thinking, whether we are satisfied is up to other people-we are completely powerless. Acting how you think you should, and realising true power comes only from within will result in more control, and, most likely, more satisfaction. We need to stop caring about what other people think. It makes us powerless and weak, stopping us from speaking when we should, doing what we truly want, and being the person we want to be. Ceasing to care what others think will result in liberation-liberation from anxiety, as well as liberation from the mask that we all wear around each other, a mask that prevents us from being ourselves. Take off the mask, and be free.