We are, each of us, a product of the stories we tell ourselves. We tell the story we want to tell, and we live out those stories every day. Some of these stories are consciously constructed, but others operate without our knowledge, dictated by scripts handed to us by others when we were young. We can carry around the psychological legacy of our parents for our whole lives, whether bad or good.
With these overarching stories or templates in mind, we repeatedly arrange our lives in such a way as to let events and others reinforce the same familiar message, like a child’s fable.
It starts when we are young: we choose these subjects for GCSE in order to study these ones at A level, in order to go to this university, to study this subject, to get this job, to get this promotion and work our way up this corporate ladder, to what? Meanwhile, our lives are relegated to something that happens, to borrow from Schopenhauer, ad interim: in the meantime; unattended.
We are told to live our lives by focusing on the future and by believing in ourselves at all costs. The result, too often, is waste and frustration. By projecting ourselves always into the hereafter we miss out on the present, on knowing ourselves and the richness of the current moment. By trying to control what we can’t, we all but guarantee frustration and disappointment. Is this the life we wish to lead?
It is not what we own that satisfies us but rather what we have in relation to what we feel is possible and attainable for ourselves. That is the tension that causes dissatisfaction. Luxuries beyond that horizon (a billionaire’s fleet of private jets) are not likely to seriously interest us.
When we look back over our lives and decide if we have had a happy time in this world, it is the remembering self that is making that judgement. However, it may be that some of those choices we made, which satisfied the future remembering self, were not at the time the most enjoyable experiences and therefore did not provide particular pleasure to the experiencing self. For our purposes, Kahneman’s separation of those two selves seems to correlate with what we might intuitively understand to be the separation of happiness and pleasure: the former comes from a judgement we make, a sense of things being or having been right or as we would like them to be, and tends to be retrospective; whereas the latter relates to what we are being made to directly feel right now. Thus you might choose to spend an afternoon attending to a sick relative rather than go to a theme park with friends, choosing the least ‘pleasurable’ option and leaving your experiencing self less fulfilled. But this choice might furnish your future remembering self with a better story of how you spent your afternoon and even contribute to a wider sense of happiness regarding what you do with your life.
While Kahneman prefers not to say which self we should favour, leaving that to philosophers, I take the view that it is this remembering self with which we should be more concerned.
We are missing out if we feel that happiness is a result of lucky circumstance rather than something rooted immovably in us. For it to be solid, our happiness would not rely on fortuity or what we happen to have. It would be fundamentally about who we are. Ideally, it would reside quietly in the epicentre of our emotional lives, an area before which we can raise the drawbridge and from time to time close off from outside threat. We are well advised, then, to do what we can to make that a place of peace and self-sufficiency, and not to extend our general tendencies towards fear and panic into that hallowed space.
It is rarely effective to form a defiant self-image that blindly rejects all external influences. In opposing influences, we are still reliant on them to define our behaviour. If we proudly walk on the left-hand side of the road merely because everyone else walks on the right, then in order to maintain our apparently ‘independent’ stance we’d be forced to cross the road if everyone else decided to switch sides. Despite our attitude, we would be deferring authorship to other people. Choosing a lifestyle that makes a statement of non-conformity (or a rejection of parental expectations) might work as a temporary rite of passage to a more independent place, but in as much as it relies on the ‘enemy’ to know what to reject, it remains tied to and dependent upon the opposition. It may give the illusion of authorship, but ‘fuck you’ is too much about the ‘you’; its centre of gravity is external. It’s also, in the longer term, a very unhappy stance.
Milan Kundera made the enduring point in The Unbearable Lightness of Being that there is no dress rehearsal for life. This is life; this is it, right now. It is a powerful and motivating thought. Each moment you live passes and is gone, never to return. Life is too brief to not consider how to experience it at its best.
Dionysus is our instinctive, animal side that sits in contrast with our mediating, careful self. Apollo is Edward Norton in Fight Club; Dionysus is Brad Pitt. Many of the conflicts within us can be seen as a result of these opposing urges pulling us in opposing directions, and an important part of life involves recognising and respecting the power and validity of both, rather than denouncing one and attempting to live entirely by the other.
Socratic happiness was about self-questioning and about appreciating the reality of an unseen world that lies beyond the physical realm. We might glimpse it through a process of contemplation and self-realisation. Happiness was indistinguishable from a rising above, a virtuous elevation, a higher plateau. This idea would stick around and bother us for a very long time.
What is our unique and therefore proper function, and therefore, Aristotle would say, the key to our happiness? In other words, what separates us from other forms of life? Aristotle supplies us with the answer: reason. What, then, is the highest aim of this reason? To ensure happiness. Success at being human would amount to the best, or most virtuous, use of reason. Flourishing – Aristotle’s take on happiness – is ‘an activity of the soul in accordance with virtue’.
Aristotle suggests we are to fulfil what is highest in our nature, and rather than doing this in the way that Plato encourages (through the contemplation of lofty, eternal Ideas), we should instead use our reason to work out the best thing to do in the circumstances in which we find ourselves.
If we hope for something deeper in life than distraction, we might note that our remembering, story-forming self needs a narrative of happiness in the same way our experiencing self requires its pleasures. And here we might find that we sleep more peacefully if we see our lives as part of Aristotle’s telos, as a work in progress, one in which we could view daily irritations as a kind of test; one which teaches us virtue and where we can, step by step, and by considering the variables of each situation as it happens, move towards being a better (happier, kinder, more fulfilled) version of ourselves. We are in the realm here of the ‘considered life’ and the possibility of serenity that such a life can offer. People take longer-lasting pleasure from being kind to others than having others be kind to them; likewise, there is a deeper happiness to be had in knowing that your life is part of a story of flourishing than there is in merely pursuing entertainment.
What counts is not the work but our relationship to it. Schopenhauer, refreshingly, ascribed far more importance to what one does with one’s leisure. The ideal he describes (and he goes into some detail about how to sensibly store capital and live off the interest) is to be wealthy enough to have expansive free time and the intellectual capabilities to fill it with contemplation and activity in the service of mankind. It may not be our work but rather what we do with the rest of our time that gives us our true sense of worth. We might choose to identify far more with our hobby of paragliding, or the daily demands and rewards of trying to be a good-enough father or mother. In the meantime, we can stop asking people what they do for a living and recognise it for the meaningless and frequently discouraging enquiry that it is.
According to Nietzsche, Socrates had started us off on a dangerous path, causing us to value reason and enquiry over the instinctual, creative urge. The new type of hero he posits would connect us once again with the rich, intuitive realm of Dionysus; one to which Greek Tragedy had once connected us, but we have since left long behind. We can now push aside questions of whether this or that type of morality might be the correct one; dispense with petty ideologies such as utilitarianism or modern liberalism; forego the austerities of Christianity, and start making truth ourselves. Previous philosophers had enquired into human nature; Nietzsche now casts aside all theories and demands we see the truth: that we are ourselves the authors of our nature, and must grasp that responsibility. Those who do will secure our future as a developed race.
Today, we very much remain heirs to Romanticism in several areas relating to happiness. Above all, matters of love and spirituality remain swathed in an opaque, sentimental mist, which renders them immune to any kind of rational investigation. In our lonely age, where we seek connections perhaps more than ever before, we benefit enormously from opening those topics to intelligent discussion and myth-busting. (Alain de Botton’s The Course of Love and Sam Harris’s Waking Up are both excellent attempts to provide just that.)
Unhappiness is seen as a sign of failure, not a healthy symptom of our natural condition. Unarmed with an appreciation of the intrigues of wondrous tragedy, and having forgotten the importance of myth, we are at a loss to contextualise – and value – the disconsolate yearnings of the soul.
The Stoic Building Blocks
1. If you are pained by external things, it is not they that disturb you, but your own judgement of them. And it is in your power to wipe out that judgement now.
We might insist that the Stoic model is difficult to apply to severe depression or misses the point where gross social injustice occurs, but the overwhelming point remains that taking responsibility for your emotions (rather than insisting the rest of the world recognise them and respond with perennial sympathy) is by far the most effective path towards sustaining relationships, solving problems and therefore living happily.
2. Don’t try to change things you cannot control.
What does Epictetus suggest belongs on either side of the line? He tells us on this first page: Under our control are our thoughts and actions. Not under our control is everything else, including fame, power, the behaviour and thoughts of other people, our property and our reputation.
The key to why this works is that when we let things go that we can’t control, nothing bad happens. The situation can’t get any worse, and generally we get to feel an awful lot better. For me, the relief I feel when I remind myself that a source of annoyance is fine, is none of my business, is akin to the surge of joy that would fill my lungs as a child when I realised it was a Saturday and I didn’t have to go to school. Thus the thought itself, if allowed to deeply settle, provides its own clear reward.
Indifferents: Because indifferents exist in the realm of external things, it follows not only that we cannot control them but also that we may lose them one day. Our property, our house, all the things we value fall on that far side of the line. We may lose our job and have to sell our home; we may lose or break our possessions and have to do without. Their continued existence in our lives is not guaranteed, and to act as if it is, is akin to a misguided presumption of control. Therefore we must relinquish that feeling of authority and let go of the attachment we might feel. Two powerful, positive consequences result from practising this non-attachment: we learn to value those things more by appreciating their transience in our lives, and we are more prepared for the moment we lose them.
The Stoic route to valuing things is to accept that whether they come or go from our lives is not under our control. This understanding allows us to enjoy them even more, because we know that we will not have them in our lives forever. We can look at the things and people we value each day with the knowledge that we will most likely lose them at some point, and love them all the more for that.
Remembering this invites us to express our feelings to those we love now while we can, to never take them for granted, and to not regret, when it’s too late, that they never knew how important they were to us. And we will mitigate the future shock and despair that might otherwise hit us if we lose them for good.
it became permissible to prefer certain external things such as wealth, family and social position, as long as one didn’t become attached to them. Stoics do not have to eschew these comforts in the way the Cynics did, as their aim is merely to gain psychological robustness (virtue) through not needing or attempting to control anything in life beyond their thoughts and actions.
If, then, we can afford nice things or find them bestowed upon us, we should not feel bad about enjoying their presence in our lives. However, all the previous instructions still apply in full force: we are to keep a check on our relationship to external goods. Regarding the desire to accumulate more luxuries, we should keep a check on our ‘impressions’ of such ‘appearances’ (how those external things affect us) and make sure that we remain, as much as possible, in charge of our emotions.
The Stoics and Fate
We’re going to reclaim for ourselves the notion of Fate. Often today, when we use the word, we’re referring to ‘how things will turn out’ in the future. As we’ve seen, the Stoics use the term to mean how things are at any particular moment.
Marcus is reminding himself in his Meditations, and Nietzsche is telling us in the concept of eternal recurrence, to aim for the uncompromising acceptance of life as it is. To align ourselves with fortune; to cease trying to control it. This is the love of fate – amor fati. Neither philosopher would discourage improving our lot – ‘Become who you are’ was Nietzsche’s rallying cry – or trying to ensure social change where it mattered. But these efforts notwithstanding, a key to living more happily is to simply decide that you are very happy with reality per se. We might as well be, because if we try to change things we cannot control, we are going to become angry and frustrated.
Applying Stoic Methods
When others inspire us, they tend to do so through the clear expression of these sketchy, adumbrated thoughts we ourselves have known but never had the perspicacity to formulate with certainty. I knew, for example, that I had always lacked ambition, never feeling a need to be famous. I knew I pretended to be excited by the idea of career success and viewing figures because that seemed to motivate the grown-ups I worked with. Reading Seneca on the wisdom of non-attachment to external things felt very powerful and encouraging: not only was it okay to not be fame-hungry, or to be wary of being better known, it might even be preferable.
Pierre Hadot, the late, though still hugely compelling, French philosopher and historian of philosophy, has written emphatically that the Stoic works must be read in their proper context as ‘spiritual exercises’. He uses the word ‘spiritual’, acknowledging that we may baulk at it, to highlight the point that the Stoics were interested in bringing about a conversion, an entire transformation of the self and its relationship to the universe.
Start talking to yourself: The first, most fundamental decision we should make is to engage more often in a silent dialogue with ourselves. We need to be able to step back and recognise when we are making choices as to how to behave or think, or acknowledge when an unhelpful choice has been made and supply counter-arguments to remedy the situation.
We know already the two big questions we might ask ourselves when we are feeling mad, bad or sad: I am responsible for how I feel about external events. What am I doing to give myself this feeling? Is this thing that’s upsetting me something which lies under my control? If not, what if I were to decide it’s fine and let it go? We should ask these questions and pay attention to the honest answers.
Don’t add to first impressions: It is hard to stick to first impressions, perhaps because we think it makes us seem obtuse. People who just take things at face value and don’t think more deeply about them hardly sound like role models. But we are not doing this out of a lack of imagination: quite the opposite, in fact. We are choosing when appropriate, because we can clearly see the advantages, to stick with our first impression and not embellish the story. When we do otherwise, we too easily work to consolidate and bolster our insecurities by confirming to ourselves our worst fears.
Do I have a problem right now? When we find ourselves worrying or anxious, we might ask ourselves: ‘Do I have a problem right now?’ If not, and where possible, we could decide to worry about it if and when it happens, or learn something useful from it and consign it to the past.
Attention to ourselves is, then, the first step. Of course this doesn’t mean self-obsession or the kind of attention-to-self prized by the neurotic. Prosoche is paying attention and checking that we are remaining suitably in charge of ourselves. It restores our centre of gravity to an internal point. It gives us distance from our negative emotional responses, which is often all we need to avoid being swept away by them. This kind of interior dialogue allows us to question our attachment to positive feelings too: new purchases and other people’s flattery can feel nice, but we have to treat them with the same dose of salt that we would apply to negative ‘externals’ such as insults and loss of property.
Rational meditation: Marcus was not writing down his feelings in quite the way one might express oneself in a modern journal. He is reminding himself to use Stoic exercises and to maintain the quality of psychological robustness through daily practice. The point is not to see the world as full of mean and ungrateful men and women. The point is that we will meet people we don’t like, or people who are ignorant or rude, and if we can avoid being dragged down by those people, then we can be of better service to both them and ourselves.
So prepare for the day ahead. The idea of spending the first five minutes of each morning considering our tasks for the day and anticipating possible areas where we could let ourselves down or run into trouble might seem alien to us, or too much of an effort. But consider the common alternative.
Now we can consider these people and events from a distance and while our centre of gravity is within us. What is in our control and what is not? Where, today, are we in danger of letting ourselves down and acting in a way that we would later regret? What are the alternatives, which we can mentally rehearse now and more easily employ when the time is right? Are we setting ourselves up for a fall? Demanding too much of others? Working with unrealistic expectations? How might it be absolutely fine if things don’t go as planned?
A nightly review: a retrospective alternative wherein we might drift more comfortably into sleep after considering our actions during the day just lived.
Third-person perspective: If you bring to mind a recent event that makes you feel especially good or bad, you are likely to view it through your own eyes, as if it were happening still around you. The same applies to thinking about images that trigger phobic responses, such as spiders or snakes. In order to feel the emotions attached to these thoughts, we represent them vividly to ourselves in a first-person perspective. It can therefore be very helpful, if we wish to gain some emotional distance from a memory or the thought of an upcoming event, to picture it as if it were being filmed with a CCTV camera up in the corner of the room. By seeing ourselves from the outside, we are a step removed from any feelings otherwise provoked by the scene. This practice of distancing is known amongst contemporary psychologists as a therapeutic technique.
Anger and Hurt
What, then, actually annoys us? While triggers will vary wildly from person to person, we might identify some reliably provocative categories. Firstly, we are likely to feel angry when certain social rules are broken. You might have formulated a rule that it is wrong for a person, when sitting across a table from you, to browse his phone. Watching him do so might be infuriating.
It might annoy us very much when our partners embarrass us in front of friends by airing private grievances they hold towards us, passive-aggressively disguising them as light-hearted jokes. This is a reliable trigger for me. I feel the sting of embarrassment, which is bolstered by the feeling that I cannot respond to the remark without becoming guilty of the same transgression myself.
A third source of annoyance stems from irritants. Examples of irritants in their purest forms might be a screaming child or a barking dog: repeated disturbances that we try to ignore but cannot.
Then there is our temperament. We know what reliably angers us, and what seems to bother others but leaves us undisturbed. We know if we are prone to anger or tend to bury or detach from our negative emotions. We can always trace this back to our past experience.
Some good reasons to avoid anger
Not making the point: our open displays of anger completely distract from any point we might want to make. For it to serve its evolutionary purpose as well as possible, by letting people know they have offended and that they should reconsider their behaviour, it cannot emerge in its raw form.
Our inevitable regret: We may have punished or upset the people we wished to reprimand, but if we did so in anger, we will most likely experience contrition after the event. Anger destroys relationships and cuts through love of any sort. In fact, it tends to feed on the closeness of relationships; after all, we reserve our real fury for those people whom we have admitted into our most intimate circles. We can only feel betrayed by those whom we love and trust, and it is betrayal that often stings us the most. Whatever short-term pleasure is afforded by verbally or physically lashing out at a person who has upset us in this way, it will be greatly exceeded by the remorse we are likely to feel afterwards.
Seven ways of removing anger
Time is a vital factor in allowing anger to dissipate. I came across a useful metaphor in Overcoming Anger and Irritability, William Davies’s practical book of cognitive-behavioural techniques for those troubled or debilitated by this particular problem. He describes anger in terms of a leaky bucket: it gets filled, can overflow if we keep topping it up, but if we give it time, our anger will dribble away.
For those who become silently, privately angry, remember that the point of delay is to spare others a misjudged response, not an excuse to merely sulk. Such resentfulness spreads a potent poison through all other interactions with the person in question for no reason other than wounded pride. There is always the possibility to address lingering anger or resentment as long as one does it respectfully. ‘You make me angry’ or ‘You are so weird’ is neither respectful nor truthful, because the anger and sense of weirdness do not come from the other person, they come from the story we have made up.
Instead, there is much power in simply stating how one feels as if it were one’s own problem: ‘I feel this way when you do that thing.’ By respectfully avoiding the other person’s fear triggers, and making no accusations, the thorny subject can usually be broached some time after the event without an argument ensuing. So we need wait only long enough to consider our phrasing and take responsibility for our feelings. To wait so long that we never bring up our concerns is likely to do both parties a disservice. Expressing our unhappiness in a sensitive way is one of the most productive things we can do in a relationship.
2. Resist curiosity
One interesting means of avoiding anger altogether is suggested by both Seneca and Plutarch after him: be less curious. Seneca writes: Do you want to avoid losing your temper? Resist the impulse to be curious. The man who tries to find out what has been said against him, who seeks to unearth spiteful gossip, even when engaged in privately, is destroying his own peace of mind. Plutarch offers: I also try to cut back a bit on my nosiness. I mean, knowing every single detail about everything, investigating and eliciting a slave’s every occupation, a friend’s every action, a son’s every pastime, a wife’s every whisper – this leads to many outbursts of anger, one after another every day, and these in turn add up to habitual discontent and surliness.
The instruction to resist curiosity, then, is a refinement of the rule to only concern yourself with what lies within your power. It not only translates well to our fumbling experience with new media, it also warns us not to enquire as persistently as to what our friends are up to or have been saying.
Resisting this curiosity is not to be dull-witted. It is to avoid pandering to our fears. It’s enormously liberating to not feed the beast. When our ears prick up, practise resisting curiosity.
3. Use imaginary friends
When faced with the distress of others, we tend to assume a calming role. Commonly, this happens when we talk to a friend who is facing difficulty. We see their concern, acknowledge their view of events, but calmly present a different, less worrisome view. Were we to be facing a similar difficulty, a friend would be likely to do the same. She would hopefully provide reasons not to fret and highlight certain pieces of positive evidence that would help us view things differently.
The trick of bringing other people to mind is of enormous use in dispelling anger. It is tempting to hold on to our annoyance, to feel entitled to it and justified in every aspect of its expression. Yet, as we have discussed, it does us no favours; we might prefer to untangle our anger from the matter at hand to gain a clearer perspective on it. We might use a friend, an admired luminary, even a fictitious character, as a role model who can spring to mind when we find ourselves incensed. How might they deal with this situation? How would they coolly laugh it off or rise above it? This might give us some distance from our own story and offer a more helpful, convincing perspective. Or, if a friend were suffering with this particular problem, how would we advise them? Those calming words of wisdom we would offer – what would they be? By imagining ourselves offering advice on the very topic that is perturbing us, we are made to engage in a different dialogue; our first take on events changes as we are made to consider a more phlegmatic and unruffled response. Having this imaginary conversation brings us out of ourselves, detaches us from the disturbances of those initial emotions, reminds us that our judgement is responsible for our anger and not the event itself, and is enormously effective at stopping the enemy ‘at the very frontier’.
4. Lower your self-belief
Perhaps the greatest cause of anger, not to mention frustration, is the fact that we have an inflated sense of our own entitlement. We believe we are entitled to happiness: the mistake discussed in the first part of this book is to see it as a birthright that we can righteously claim, some ‘thing’ out there that we can and should possess through sheer willpower.
Our centre of gravity must be brought inside where it belongs; locating it in others is where we get into trouble, regardless of whether it results in shyness or a brash need to impress.
5. You have the same faults as those who annoy you
6. Understanding the offender’s motivation
We can’t blame others for doing what we would most likely have done if we found ourselves in the same circumstances. If we had been that annoyed, or that protective, or felt cornered or scared to the same degree, we would have done the same thing. It doesn’t matter if we think the other person has reacted over and above how we would; the point is that we, under the same psychological conditions, would have very likely done the same.
‘You yourself… often do wrong,’ Marcus tells us, and, referring to those who have offended us, ‘You are not even sure that they actually do wrong.’ Many actions serve a purpose that may be hidden from us, and we would have to find out much more information about a person’s motivations before we could decide with any certainty whether they were truly at fault.
We are never crazy or illogical in our actions; we always act from clear internal logic. Others do the same. It’s a powerful thought. Understand where the person is coming from. Instead of fumbling for reasons to be annoyed, empathise with their behaviour. Let anger dissolve into love.
A considered life involves looking at oneself in depth, and this encourages the same attitude towards others. By appreciating our own complex narratives and judgements, we can recognise that such things exist to the same degree in those who offend us, rather than perceiving only idiocy or evil. When we consider, in place of feeling angry with each other, that each of us operates only from the standpoint of what we know or have been told to be true; that we each are struggling to make sense of a vast number of conflicting priorities and nameless anxieties; only then can we begin to relinquish our loneliness and truly connect with each other as fellow human beings. We each live out our contortion of the same shared truth.
7. Lower your expectations
The person who demands his food to be just so, or leaves those who work for him distressed and trying to second-guess his every whim, ‘is enslaved to a feeble, nit-picking, complaining way of life, and fails to realise that he is creating for his temper the kind of raw and oozing condition which a chronic cough or constantly bumping into things causes’. To lower our expectations is to greatly reduce our anger: if we don’t expect things to work out brilliantly, we’ll be less frustrated when they don’t.
Outcomes lie beyond our control, within the realm of externals, or indifferents. So we do well to remind ourselves, whenever we make plans, that things may turn out contrary to the ideal. As we get excited about a planned or expected future event, it’s a good thing to remind ourselves – unless it doesn’t work out.
The Stoics would not deny us feelings of excitement, but they would encourage us to retain this little reminder that we’re not ultimately in control. And this is done with a view to increasing our happiness. If the event turns out to be a success, then that’s a wonderful bonus. If it’s less than we might have otherwise hoped, we’ll be pleased we kept our expectations in check.
We can only guarantee success in trying our best. The desired outcome in the world may prove impossible, but having succeeded in our private aims, we won’t be ruined by a feeling of crushing failure. The result we’re aiming for has moved into our sphere of control (we aim to do our utmost), and therefore we are more likely to arrive at a pleasing outcome. And real-world success is also more likely, as we will not be hampered by the anxiety that comes from trying to control what we cannot. The Stoic stance brings a uniquely quiet, persistent resoluteness in the face of adversity.
Empathy and connectedness
Above all, we can look forward to a greater feeling of connectedness with others when we make these shifts. No longer mistaking our judgements about events for the events themselves; being open to the complex narratives that lead to the imperfect behaviours of others; deflating our exalted sense of self to a more modest measure; letting our experience of others decide what’s realistic to expect. These changes, of course easier to describe than to implement, can only culminate in an increased feeling of overall tranquillity and of warmth towards those whom we meet.
I have a particular passion for street photography. People, in relation to each other and their environments, can unwittingly create moments of poetry. When I carry out my novice efforts to capture these, I feel both detached from the world (as any observer might do – especially when looking at it through a view-finder) yet feel very connected to people around me. I am paying far more attention to them than normal; I’m far more interested in life. I’m attracted to people and the snapshots of life that show through their postures and faces; I am drawn to the geometry of architecture and bodies. I become interested in the relationships between them and the possibilities of something lovely and serendipitous arising from that interplay (quite aside from whether or not I capture it with any success). My normal, regrettable practice of minimal eye contact and uncharitable pigeonholing is suspended in favour of a real fascination with everything human.
If we wish to enjoy a considered life, we must be able to step back and see an overall shape to our allotted span. Mortality provides that shape and can surprise us by being the wellspring of deep meaning, value and joy.
One of the qualities of death is that it does not bring with it any closure. It does not bring our lives to an end in the way the last chapter of a novel or the last scenes of a film wind up the story and give meaning to the events that have come before. Death does not allow our lives to come to some sort of fruition. It simply curtails life. It may stop it in its tracks quite suddenly, or we might be permitted to hear the trundling of its dark carriage from a distance, but it does not complete the story for us. That’s for us to do, if we are given the chance.
Two arguments have endured through a couple of thousand years of Western philosophy, urging us to shed our fear of death.
We were non-existent for an eternity before we were born. We will likewise be non-existent for an eternity after we die. Yet they are not psychologically the same, because we feel and think differently about the future than we do about the past.
We are creatures of desire. We engage in our world in such a way that means we are constantly involved in projects. That project might be to write a book, to raise a family, to see our grandchildren grow up, to watch a television series, to lose weight or just get food from the fridge because we’re hungry. These projects point us towards the future. Death deprives us of seeing our projects come to some sort of fruition, and of engaging in fresh ones.
Lucretius is trying to answer the deprivation account of death by pointing out that we don’t feel deprived of the time we could have lived before we were born. But here is a difference: the deprivation that comes with death is something we can imagine. We know what we’re being deprived of: grandchildren, our home, our loving relationships, even that sense of I that enjoys those things. It stings in a way that the prenatal abyss does not. An answer to Lucretius, then, is to point to deprivation; it undoes his presumption of symmetry.
Everything worthwhile in your life draws its meaning from the fact you will die. We need death in order to live. We have arrived at a contradictory conclusion: death is harmful for us, but it is to be preferred in the face of its alternative: immortality.
The finite boundary death imposes on us provides fundamental meaning and structure to our daily endeavours. It makes us human. The very notion of transience is fundamental to human experience. Yet death seems bad for us because it deprives us of what we instinctively want: permanence. We want to extend our projects into the future, at least for now, at least until this or that is completed, and so on for as long as we take interest in anything we do. Yet the very fuel that gives those projects their impetus is the fact that they must end at some point. If we are looking for a therapeutic answer, we find it: embrace transience rather than fight it. Epictetus suggested we bring to mind, as we kiss our daughter goodnight, that she might not be alive in the morning. What sounds at first like a morbid idea soon reveals its power as we consider it. By reminding ourselves that our loved ones are not immortal, and that they might be taken from us at any point, we not only mitigate the shock if and when they do die, but we remember to value them more in the present. We cannot take anything for granted when we consider that it will eventually cease to exist.
We must somehow embrace transience and connect where we can with the present moment in order to overcome our fear of death. Likewise, we must connect with death in order to experience the richness of the here and now.
How to Die Well
We are all heading there. And we all care enormously about how our loved ones will meet their end. Yet when that time comes, no one talks about it. A conspiracy of silence descends, and dying often becomes very, very lonely. Unwilling to upset or burden those she loves, the dying person does not speak about her fears to her family and friends. Horrified at the thought of saying the wrong thing or appearing to ‘write off’ their dying beloved, the living do everything to avoid mentioning it as well. Instead, a new modern narrative is imposed on the situation, that of the ‘brave battle’. This tale, in truth designed only to keep the living happy, can put further pressure on the person facing death and alienate her from the possibility of a deep richness that only acceptance can bring.
If a person knows she is dying, I would suggest that she needs from her loved ones every opportunity to take stock of her story and bring it to a meaningful end. Despite the fact that those of us who must watch them deteriorate are just doing our painful and miserable best to deal with the situation, it remains better for everyone that the dying person’s story is given priority, and not that of the onlookers. Their experience is likely to be enriched too, if the deceased is able to leave with as much closure as possible. If you are facing your own death, and have the clarity of mind and opportunity to make such choices, then realise that for you to own your death, to author it and to shape it, is tremendously important. You are the protagonist and the author. If you do not insist on this central role, you may find yourself reduced to a mere cameo. Others, stronger in body and in number, may take the leading role if you do not. Your death does not belong to your family or your doctors. They will have their important parts to play, but it is, I think, of ultimate importance that you insist, firmly and sensitively, and through discussion with everyone else, that your choices must steer the process.
As priorities change, regrets may surface. Bronnie Ware, an Australian nurse working in palliative care, recorded what she perceived to be the top five regrets of the dying. They were: I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me. I wish I hadn’t worked so hard. I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends. I wish that I had let myself be happier. It is hard to read this list without bringing our own choices into question. It’s unlikely that we are going about our lives now in a way that will significantly mitigate our likely future regrets.
Paying attention to certain future regrets might genuinely enhance our lives in the here and now. When I carry out this thought exercise, some specifics come to mind (possibly they say more about me, but I think they’re worth noting):
If you have something to ‘come out’ about, come out. If you carry a secret around with you, you learn to protect it in all sorts of ways that disconnect you from the rest of the world and the people in it. Meanwhile, the idea of your secret being discovered will come to fill you with horror. But the huge deal you have turned it into is not a reflection of how big a deal it is in the eyes of other people. To them, it’s just some information about you. Generally speaking, they don’t care. They’re far more likely to care if you’re happy, and they’ll certainly care if you’re obviously hiding something (and it will be obvious), but they are unlikely to care about the thing itself (if it doesn’t affect them). They don’t think about you and what you get up to as much as you think they do. And when you come out, the bubble you have built around you bursts, and life suddenly becomes so much more delightful: it’s like you’ve put down a heavy bag of rocks. You also realise that everyone else has his or her heavy bag of rocks, too. And you gain a much healthier perspective regarding how much people care about what you get up to.
You’ll never regret falling in love. Do so over and over again. Lower your standards if necessary. It might lead to heartbreak now and then, but it’ll always be worth it in the end.
If you work in a creative field, and you are faced with a choice of doing a job for the money or doing a job for the fun of it, take the fun one whenever you can. You’ll rarely enjoy the work you do for money.
Don’t be a dick. People around you are not there to make your life easier. The more successful you are, the harder it is to remember that, because you inevitably get used to people looking after you.
Everyone is fighting a hard battle; everyone is just trying to do their best, in the same way that you are. If you remember this, and if, as much as you can, you treat people with compassion, you are likely to feel better and your life will be noticeably happier. You’ll connect with more people, and that’s where good things and opportunities come from.
Open-heartedness feels good and is conducive to good things happening. Irritation with other people and the world only closes them off.
People don’t need to agree with you or see your viewpoint. We want people to agree with us because we are understandably threatened by a view of the world that contradicts ours. When they agree with us or reflect our views, our own identity is reinforced. Growing up means tolerating different viewpoints and realising that you are not – like a baby screaming for its mother – the sole dictate of what’s right and wrong. There is rarely a right and wrong. Most times there’s just a jumble of viewpoints, and it’s okay to grant others the validity you grant yours, and to tolerate the contradiction. Objecting to the differing viewpoints of others is a huge waste of time.
Look at what takes up your time and see what is worth doing and what is not. Think about what provides enjoyment, connectivity, a sense of fulfilment, and what, when you look back, will have been a waste of time or stifled you. Look for ways of removing those latter activities from your life. Not only does this offer the benefit of removing negative behaviours, it also engages you with the considered life. Suddenly you have a vantage point from which to view your behaviour, and from there you can give your life shape and meaning.
We generally feel defined by our past. Our past, however, is a story that we tell ourselves in the present. We create it every day when we accept the narratives we have developed about who we are and why we are who we are. Our scripts are indeed written in our histories, but whatever our backgrounds, and however traumatic our pasts, the key to overcoming them is to stop telling ourselves the same unhelpful story today, to consciously own what has remained unconscious and therefore governed us, and to regain authorship ourselves.
Whatever the past is, it has been and gone. If there are things you need to face in your past because they refuse to let you go, realise at least that they grip you not because they control you (they no longer exist), but because of the narrative they’ve left you with. You can’t change what happened, but you can gain a little distance from it by reassessing your story about it. If certain behaviours from your partner or significant people routinely bother you and bring out the worst in you, ask yourself what their behaviour reminds you of from your past. Where were you made to feel the same? Identify where the anxiety is rooted and, in doing so, realise that you do not need to hold the person in the present accountable for something a particularly sensitive area of your personality is triggering.
One way to do that, having recognised the process for what it is, is to consciously note the way your unconscious machinations bring these old patterns to the fore, and then, where you can, quietly smile at them. Be grateful to your unconscious for looking out for you, while also acknowledging that it’s being hilariously oversensitive. Each time you gently deny it its power by nipping it in the bud through your own amusement, and practise instead a new response (that may not at first come naturally but which encourages a richer and more sympathetic world-view), you break these old neural connections and form a new pathway.
The present moment, on the other hand, can be a more productive place to focus our attention. The here and now, we have seen, rarely contains problems; it is released from the tyranny of our imposing narratives. We might feel bad about events in the past or dread those yet to come, but rarely in the present – rarely right now – do we find ourselves in the middle of a serious difficulty. Right now we can gain some perspective by stepping back from our feelings and recognising that they are not us. Right now we can undo some of the grip of the past by recognising the patterns that rule over us.
In the same way we might imagine travelling back in time to meet our younger self and giving him or her much-needed advice from the future, we can play the same game a different way around: what might our future, older self have to offer us now? How will we improve and learn in ways that will benefit us? And viewing our current and future lives as one worm-like entity that also includes our past, what traits might we start to learn now that will benefit us in the future? What qualities can we start to nurture now? ‘We can think of ourselves like wine connoisseurs laying down bottles that will improve with age; similarly we can try to foster in ourselves qualities that deepen and enrich over the years.’
The approach of death gives us a chance to pay attention to how our lives might affect those we know. We are dealing with the end of our story, and it is the end of the story that colours the rest. We remember that what happens in the final chapter of a book or the final scene of a movie is the key to how we feel about the entire tale. If we have the opportunity, we can make sure that despite the effect we may have had on a person in the past, we can finish the story well and ripple positively into that person. Knowing that life after our deaths will continue with positive memories of us in place might help us to engage richly and simply in our lives, and end our stories as satisfyingly as possible. Meanwhile, as many of us will not have that opportunity when the time comes, we can choose to pay attention to this idea in the present and do our best to ripple positively now, where and while we can.
There are three deaths. The first is when the body ceases to function. The second is when the body is consigned to the grave. The third is that moment, sometime in the future, when your name is spoken for the last time. We resurrect our loved ones whenever we find ourselves thinking and feeling like them. We carry them with us, in that blueprint of how to think and feel that they have left behind. And the closer we are to them, the more we understand them, the more accurate that blueprint will be. It turns out, then, to be the positive connections between people that provide the mechanism for our ‘self’ to survive death in any meaningful way. It turns out to be love.
This is our condition. Here on the one hand is the world, full of rich and mysterious things, experiences and people; and here on the other is our need to navigate it, and the only compass we know how to use has been battered and misaligned long ago. To forge ahead and do our best, we have to turn an ambiguous world into a set of easily navigable certainties. Thus we name the unnameable so we can identify it, tick it off and move forward. To get our bearings, we glibly label those things that remain eternally unresolved. We overgeneralise and reduce in order to make sense of the world and our place in it. Concepts fall prey to our projections, which reduce rich ideas to what we’d like them to be; these projections are often illuminated by our fears. Happiness is one of those concepts.
We’ve seen it has been diminished already by a society that tells us we are owed happiness and can achieve it simply by believing in ourselves (and assembling fancy goods along the way). But it is also reduced every time we use the word ‘Happiness’, because it is not a thing like a chair or a table that can be labelled so easily. Instead, happiness shows itself to be a kind of activity, something that happens through our fluctuating relationship to life, others, fortune and ourselves.
Prior to Plato, we saw the world as a state of flux. Heraclitus told us: ‘No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.’1 Plato replaced this model with that of ideal forms, a shimmering nirvana of consummate examples of every quality, which could only be reached through hard work and contemplation. And thus fluid activities like happiness became things. When we reduce complex ideas to nouns and categories in order to navigate swiftly through them, we start to become mindless. The important notion of transcendence, for example, is reduced to words like ‘God’ that no longer stand for anything and can be easily discredited. In the meantime, we might turn to addictive behaviour or waste our time on diversions because deep down we lack a sense of meaning, or a connection to something larger than ourselves. It’s the equivalent of pigeonholing people: whenever we do this, we sever any chance of connection, discovery or surprise. We do the same every time we pigeonhole an idea with a glib term. It’s a mindless form of autopilot that steers us forward, ever forward, reinforcing our core biases and fears in an ever-repeating pattern. Mindfulness, on the other hand, when it is summoned, keeps us engaged firmly in the present and brings with it the riches that come from paying attention.
Mindfulness has been adopted by the world of meditation, but it is not meditation, though meditation is one popular tool, suited to some, to increase it. Mindfulness is just paying deliberate attention in the present: noticing things. When we are mindful, we turn off our autopilot and switch back on. Suddenly the world blooms before us. In matters of health, for example, rather than simply saying we suffer from an illness or condition, we might pay attention to how and when it flares up, and notice that some of the time it isn’t much of a problem at all. Paying attention to the present moment is our most effective means of undoing the harmful and perpetuating narratives by which we live, by challenging them with the counter-evidence we notice around us.
In matters of love, a mature relationship involves celebrating the mystery and wholeness of one’s partner. It is standing in appreciation of their otherness, not neurotically attempting to obliterate it because at some level their separation from us might trigger responses we once had to a fallible, unavailable parent. It is realising that we are each of us alone, that no one is ever entirely right for us because we are all broken, and that we can only open our broken aloneness to that of another. A good relationship, like a good parent or a good death, need only be ‘good enough’, consisting of two people navigating each other’s inadequacies with kindness and sympathy. At its best, the poet Rainer Maria Rilke tells us, it ‘consists in two solitudes protecting, defining, and welcoming one another’. Likewise, a mature life, and a flourishing one, involves standing in toleration and acknowledgement of ambiguity rather than greeting it with disappointment.
Very few people find a better partner without the pain of breaking up with a previous one. We don’t change our career without first letting our current job get us down. We don’t start anything new without the pain of ending the old or the frustration of enduring it. Disturbance, then, can be a signal that we are moving in the right direction: namely, out of our comfort zone. To remain tranquil and comfortable would deny us our growth. To remain happy would stop us from flourishing. We can manage our anxiety in the ways we have discussed, but when it stirs, it is likely to be a helpful signal from an untended part of us that wishes now to be heard. If we shut our ears to these voices, they will come in time to own us, because the things that remain unconscious are always in charge. Jung called them ‘offended gods’, by which he meant energy-charged aspects of our personality (such as the erotic, the creative, the aggressive) that if not honoured will wreak their revenge.