If you believe that personal development is all about seeing the world through rose-coloured glasses, telling yourself positive affirmations and believing that anything is possible – you’d better leave this piece and go back to watching inspiring videos.
This one will be about fear, death and senselessness.
The core of development is not thoughtless acceptance of what today’s mass-culture offers you and senselessly aiming to achieve the goals that it suggests. And this culture is continually entering your mind. First, a television celebrity will tell you that fame brings fulfillment, then a spiritual guru will say that you must get rid of ego, and then a motivational speaker will try to persuade you that in order to become happy, you must get rich.
Development is getting to know yourself. What is really important to you, how you want to build your life, what boundaries you will never cross. This also includes your restrictions, difficult truths about you or life in general. Desires that will never be fulfilled.
The ancient Greeks used to say, “Get to know thyself,” but somewhere along the way we forgot about that.
Realizing your own restrictions and facts that do not fit with your image of yourself is painful. Realizing that you will never be able to overcome some of your restrictions is even more painful. Unfortunately, getting to know yourself is not always an easy and pleasant process.
There are four existential truths that collide with our deepest desires — truths that we can’t deal with. They evoke fear and sadness. At the same time, accepting them – fully realizing and accepting them – is remarkably precious, and even brings relief. Here are these four truths:
1. Inevitability of Death
We would like to stop the passing of time, to slow down the rush of time at least a little bit, to stop getting old – ourselves and our relatives — which is inevitably followed by death. But everything passes, and we are helpless to change this fact. Sooner or later we will die, and the people who surround us will die as well.
We seldom think about it, and even more seldom we experience being afraid of dying. What helps us to avoid this subject is mass-culture, which makes death and aging a taboo (except when someone famous suddenly dies) by not mentioning these subjects, by concentrating on (seemingly) timeless youth, or by making death look commonplace (characters or ruffians that kill a few dozen people in a film are a normal occurrence on TV).
However, the fear of death is still present in our minds. Usually less often; sometimes more. We cannot run away from it completely. It is the basis of human condition. Giorgio Agamben, the Italian philosopher, wrote that what distinguishes us from animals is communicating through language and the awareness of dying.
We deal with it in many different ways, starting with religion and the vision of life after death, through the desire to leave something to others after we die (exegi monumentum), or by challenging death – risky behavior, dangerous sports, denial – thinking that we are special and it doesn’t affect us.
However, regardless of whatever we might think and whatever solutions we might find, death remains inevitable.
2. Lack of sense
Since life passes us by and death is inevitable, what sense can our life have? Is there an undisputed reason that makes it all have meaning?
There is no sense that could be inscribed into this world in advance.
Of course, people everywhere try to make you believe that there is. “The meaning of life is salvation and endless existence.” “Life is all about getting rich and having power.” “The most important thing is to help others.”
But do these things make sense to you?
Certainty, which comes from being a strong supporter of one of those worldviews, is pleasant. It gives you strength and provides answers to your questions. Those questions disappear, but only for a little while. Simple answers are effective only in the short term; they are a way of escaping from the problem, rather than facing it.
Sense is something that you create yourself. You act, check, gain information from different sources and opinions, and you realize what is really important to you. With all this, you slowly start to weave the story of your place in this world.
It is a long and arduous process that is full of moments of doubt. But it is you, not anybody else, who is the author of it.
Lack of sense is a manifestation of freedom. There are no universal guidelines or cosmic laws that tell us how to behave — who and how we are supposed to be in the world.
On the one hand, freedom is beautiful; on the other hand, it is scary. “Man is condemned to be free” as Sartre described it. We cannot be free from it.
And after freedom comes responsibility, a great responsibility for life, which is completely on our shoulders.
We often try to run away from it. We try to put the responsibility on someone else’s shoulders: our parents, society, partners or leaders who tell us how to live and what to do.
You can try to live your life based on other people’s decisions, by shirking your responsibility. But in that case, whose life are you actually living?
We might have a family, a loving partner, friends or relatives who are closely connected with us. But still, we will be alone with our thoughts, feelings and desires. Even when we communicate these feelings, we never fully capture our internal world. Another person will never penetrate our thoughts or our experiences.
There is a boundary – me to others — that cannot be crossed.
Irvin Yalom wrote that a certain way of crossing this boundary is the state of being strongly in love. That is when the “I” of those who are in love melts into the “we.” This enables them to get rid of fear – at least for a while. But the cost is significant – it means losing yourself.
I am not trying to bring you down, or to contribute to the greater epidemiology of depression.
I wrote this text because realizing these things and the process of dealing with them is a true and profound development. And yes, it is a process – it is not a matter of one magical technique that enables us to settle everything for ourselves.
It is difficult, painful and arduous. But it is also a way of getting rid of illusions and finding the truth.
The truth about the inevitability of death will help you to appreciate life more. Accepting responsibility, becoming the author of your own life and creating your own sense will enable you to live your life honestly and in harmony with yourself. All of this is connected to the autonomy that comes from individuality.
And individuality doesn’t necessarily mean being left all alone. One of Yalom’s patients, as he was dying, said to him:
“Even though you are alone on your boat, what gives you encouragement is the lights from the other boats, floating nearby.”
Author’s note: This article was inspired by, and to a large extent based on, “Love Executioner and Other Tales of Psychotheraphy” by Irvin D. Yalom (Polish title: “Kat Miłości,” published by Wydawnictwo Czarna Owca in 2011), a book that I strongly recommend.