The meaning of life is that it stops ~ Frantz Kafka
Often when speaking with someone about his or her plans or their present situation I am tempted to say: “this is a great strategy provided you are an immortal”. We constantly move among several spheres at the same time; the inner world, the outside world, subconscious and conscious, our family, community, the world at large, the past, the present, the future. For the fortunate among us, the rapid transition is imperceptible: others get stuck in one sphere, or emotionally bleed on their jagged edges as they pass through. But we all inhabit those spheres thanks to our consciousness.
Our inner world, our memories, and our place in the community would all disappear with our demise. The rest of the spheres would continue without us. That is one of the facts we must grapple with, as depressing and painful as it is. It is in fact so painful to think about, that most of us do our best to ignore it.
When do we become aware of our own mortality? As infants, we have no concept of anything other than our inner world, some hazy surrounding, and no clear memories. Then, at age 3, we start to understand the impermanence of certain things and become fearful of separation from our parents. But as children we are mostly worried about out parents’ mortality and not our own. In our twenties we realize our own mortality but feel immortal. It is in your thirties, as you feel the first bites of time, when you finally realize: My time here is limited. That of course is the price we pay for our consciousness. An animal becomes aware of its death only when it is actually dying. We humans, have to bear the cross of mortal fear, always looming in the background of our mind.
Now, that the proverbial “fear of death” becomes a reality, we must find a way to cope with it. The most common strategy we use is denial; we deny/ignore our mortality. This, most universal defense of denial, is an important pillar of our notion of hope, and is very welcome. Hopefulness permits us to be imaginative, daring and adventurous. Much of what we are committed to in the present is an outcome of a decision made by our younger, less informed self. In fact, we make the most important decisions – such as partner and career – when we still believe in immortality. We commit to the entire trajectory of our life at an age when the future lies ahead boundless and mysterious like an ocean, and the past is palpably close.
All of the above are totally normal features of life. We commonly set during the immortality phase the two anchors of life, work and love, to mitigate this daredevil attitude of youth. Like all anchors they can ideally ground us, or, as often happens, immobilize us. It depends on the elasticity of the tether. That is to say your ability to shift smoothly from denial to reality when the situation calls for. Ideally, your life should have strong anchors and elastic long tethers. Your relationship and your work should ground you rather than immobilize you. However, some people get carried away with a successful denial, and start behaving as if they can linger indefinitely in a situation that is bringing them down, waiting for the next act.
Sooner or later, as your future’s shrinking act quickens, your ability to deny the inevitable wears thin. Your past, once a source of joy and embarrassment, trails behind you dense with vague, almost forgotten memories, like an aging dog. You become more experienced, perhaps wiser, and the wheel of time starts spinning faster. You realize that you must evaluate your life before it is too late.
I developed a mini scale I call “The Dr. K. existential Scale” to evaluate one’s life on an ongoing, daily basis. In its crudest form it asks one question concerning your immediate environment: How does this person/ place/ activity influence your life: Does it have a positive, neutral or negative impact on you?
The scale looks something like that:
Of course it is very simplistic: Your relations with a person, a place, or a situation tend to be more complex than merely negative positive and neutral. In fact, even the mere notions of negative and positive are shifting: what is good today can become horrible tomorrow etc.
However, by asking this little question on a regular basis you can derive two major benefits: 1. You will get used to examining your life and your choices and 2. You will start realizing something very interesting about your life: Namely, you do not need to constantly ponder your mortality to live your life as if it would stop. Your only life is the most precious possession you have and it is your duty, your covenant with yourself, to make the best out of it.
Consider: You make the most important decisions of your life when you are too young to make them. You may spend the rest of your life pinned to the career your young self chose for you. You may be living now with someone that you chose from a very different perspective. Both your partner and you are very different from your younger selves who fell in love in your past. Whatever life you now have are based on decisions you made before, be it yesterday or 25 years ago. If any of your circumstances changes, it makes sense to check if the results of the little existential scale are still holding true. Often, if you really did not pay attention to your life, you’ll find all three spheres of your life have gone south. You are in a negative place, a negative relationship and a negative life situation.
Why spend any portion of your only life in situations, places, or with people that are not good for you?
Granted it is easier to realize that something is not good for you than actually leave it. But take a step back: how did you get to be in this situation, in this place or with this person? What were your considerations? What informed your decision? You may realize that you chose a career, or a spouse with less consideration than you accord to choosing an Internet provider. Perhaps your casual attitude to life changing decisions was based on the illusion that you can always go for another life? That given enough time every action can be undone. The question of course is do you have enough time to wait?
Most of us do not get trapped in the wrong life. We choose it and by doing nothing to change it we actually decide to stay in negativity. It is akin to being passive- aggressive with your own self.
I believe that your only life deserve to be taken as such – one journey, with one ending. Once you get off that is it. Your life is dispensable to your contemporaries, to say nothing of the universe in its unfathomable dimensions. You only really matter to your parents and if, fortunately for them, they die before you, no one else would care about you more than you care about yourself. The loyal, ever present you, is all that separates you from hurtling into oblivion. Your duty to yourself is your most solemn responsibility: the only duty that cannot be shared with anyone else.
Of course, you cannot be forced to care about yourself. And often, the way you mishandle and abuse yourself would not be known to anyone but you. Now that should have been enough. After all only you can realize the truth about your current condition and you are the only one that can decide to change it. Unfortunately, we are experts in lying to ourselves. So good, that we can convince ourselves that what we know about our condition is at the same token totally untrue. We do it all the time: Our casual treatment of our own life is the best testament to that.
I want to clarify something important: There is nothing wrong with lying to yourself. You are allowed to tell yourself whatever you want and change your mind as often as you want. Lying to yourself is mostly in the category of “white lies”: saying something untrue in order to comfort. In the complexity of the inner world truth is not always a virtue. But in believing your own white lies you may lose sight of what is positive or negative for you. You may convince yourself that this place, this person, this situation, is not so bad or that it is merely neutral. You may convince yourself that you have plenty of time to repeat your mistakes, stay indefinitely in conditions that are negative for you, sacrifice your happiness for others; in short, abdicate your responsibility for your own life.
This is, as I see it, the dilemma with the immortality white lie: Lying to yourself that you are immortal is absolutely a good thing. It makes the inevitable death less frightening. But behaving as if you are immortal can get you stuck in a painful and depleting situation, a negative environment or an abusive partner for much longer than you should have allowed and agreed to.
So in addition to the little existential scale above, you can ask yourself the following hypothetical question: suppose this was my only life would I have___________________? (You fill in the blanks)
You see where this leads: you may have made some irreversible mistakes. Statements like “I could have”, ”I should have”, are often deluged by a wave of self- recrimination. This way of thinking is unnecessary: in my work, I try to help people not to break down under the scary weight of irreversible mistakes. We all make them. But some of us are more able to find a way around them; while others waste their time (their only life), either paralyzed or desperately trying to undo what cannot be undone.
Irreversible mistakes cannot be undone. The more you miscalculated your life, the harder it is to ponder existential questions. It may be so agonizing as to prevent you from any attempt to evaluate your current situation. Indeed, perpetual state of denial is a sensible, if very flawed, strategy, if you are helpless against the results of your own decisions. But your life is not merely the sum of your mistakes and bad decisions. Many of us become so focused on the mistake and its results; you may spend a lifetime “trying to fix my mistakes in order to be happy”. That futile activity perpetuates the mistake, and fixates your gaze in the wrong direction: Correcting your irreparable missteps is not a prerequisite to contentment. In your inner world cause and effect are meaningless and that is what counts.
My philosophy of life is based on one basic principle: You are not immortal and this is your only life. Furthermore, if this pretty irrefutable fact informs your life, other useful concepts would emerge: Your importance is relative: the larger the lens, in terms of distance and time, the less significant you become. The only place you reign supreme is your inner world. This world is born and dies with you and this is the place where your importance is absolute. It makes little sense to ignore your inner world or to introduce into it the rules and regulations that you use in your everyday interactions with the “outside world”. You are in charge of your inner world and you should be setting the rules there. The most critical responsibilities to yourself cannot be shared with anyone else, no matter how close and well intentioned. Investing your time in repairing the irreparable, undoing what cannot be undone, and tolerating abuse in any way shape or form, is a betrayal of your only life.
You may say, I realize that I spend a large portion of my life with people, in places and situations that have negative effect on my life and me. How can I suddenly change it? I am too stuck.
In future blogs I will offer simple and doable strategies to setting the rules and regulations for your inner world, taking the lead on responsibilities to yourself that cannot be shared, and moving away from negativity. You may be surprised at how easy it is to engage in those activities. But the first step is measuring your present situation by an existential scale, and thinking you are immortal but acting and behaving as if this is your only life. Because it is!