Throughout our lives, we all have to grow and mature to adjust to our changing environment. From the moment we’re born to when our time has come to pass, there’s always some way for us to improve and become better. “Man’s starting point,” as Claude Frederic Bastiat asserted, “is ignorance and inexperience.” Though we are far from a “blank slate” at birth, as our genetics certainly play a role in determining how we will be predisposed to develop, it’s an unavoidable fact that we all lack knowledge and experience in how to act in the world as a starting point. Our genetics can be both a blessing and a curse, as those predispositions entail both the strengths and weaknesses we have to take basis in, and our upbringing and environment also play an important role in how we are formed to the people we are today, but it is upon that basis our process of gaining further knowledge and experience in the present has to start.
Following this natural process at its “normal” pace alone, i.e. from trial-and-error and adjusting to one’s changing environment, however, is bound to keep one from reaching one’s true potential. As conscious beings, we all have the capacity to reflect on ourselves, our situation, and how we have yet to improve. And given that perfection is unattainable for humans, we all have our weaknesses and burdens to overcome. Some of those weaknesses may be more or less acceptable or at least tolerable in the culture one lives in, while others have to be either suppressed or improved upon in order to avoid negative consequences. Those who try to rebel against this fact of human nature, i.e. narcissists, illustrate their vices particularly clearly: parading as the perfect creatures, never admitting any blame for their mistakes, and driving themselves to the bottom from that refusal to adjust. That surely is as far from a solid foundation for growth and improvement and living a meaningful life as there is.
Improving oneself, after all, requires humility. In order to fix ourselves, we have to recognize, admit, and understand our problems and weaknesses, how they’ve arisen, what we could’ve done differently, and figure out how to solve and improve from them accordingly. Regardless of whether our past has led us into to a bliss or a nightmare, the present is what we all have to take basis in for our journey onward. However much we may wish we could reset something we did and try anew, we cannot undo what we’ve done, and we just have to make the best out of the present that we’ve gotten ourselves into in some way or another. No matter how difficult it may be to deal with, that’s the only way we can possibly attain the future we desire. The best place to start, as psychologist Jordan B. Peterson has suggested, may be to try to at least become somewhat better than the person we were yesterday, and see the returns blossom if we manage to keep that up in the long run.
The process of improving, of course, requires continual sacrifice. Sometimes it may be boring and exhausting, but that’s often what’s necessary to pull through to achieve one’s dreams in the long run. One has to be willing to give up on one’s old self in order to radically change oneself to always become greater and stronger. As Charles F. Glassman pointed out, “Self-discipline is often disguised as short-term pain, which often leads to long-term gains. The mistake many of us make is the need and want for short-term gains (immediate gratification), which often leads to long-term pain.” The easiest option for anyone is to be lured and guided by impulses and pursuance of immediate gratification, but it can often lead to disastrous consequences in the long run, either for ourselves or those we know and love. The pain we’d have to endure in the long term surely isn’t worth the small short-term gain, but we often have to be strong and cognizant to recognize when we’re facing such decisions, and to make the right choices accordingly.
At times it can even be frightening to recognize and confront what evil one may realize resides inside oneself, for as the Soviet dissident Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn explained, “the line between good and evil crosses every human heart.” It’s a great burden to delve deep into one’s psyche to confront its darkest corners, and for that reason the shadow self is something most of us would rather prefer not admitting the existence of. What tends often to be the case is that, as the Swiss psychologist and philosopher Carl Jung describes, “the ego has repressed the shadow side and lost touch with the dark contents, which are negative and for this reason split off from the conscious sector.” But though we may wish we could just ignore this uncomfortable aspect of our psyche, he continues that doing so can create even more negative consequences in the long run: “Everyone carries a shadow, and the less it is embodied in the individual’s conscious life, the blacker and denser it is. At all counts, it forms an unconscious snag, thwarting our most well-meant intentions.”
If we wish to take on the grand task to confront our shadow, it’s crucial that we keep in mind Nietzsche’s warning to “Beware that, when fighting monsters, you yourself do not become a monster […] For when you gaze long into the abyss, the abyss gazes also into you,” but some encouragement in persevering may yet be found in Jung’s claim that “The most intense conflicts, if overcome, leave behind a sense of security and calm that is not easily disturbed.” Unless our main problems are uprooted from their core, i.e. by confronting our shadow self, we may be doomed to endure Sisyphean labor: working to improve from one or another symptom of the problem characterized as a mistake, while the underlying disease yet predisposes us to make new ones if we’re not careful and cognizant thereof.
Unfortunately, suffering is an unavoidable part of life whatever we do – whether it’s self-imposed or the result of some unlucky coincidence – and the circumstances we find ourselves in play a significant role in the different ways and the extent to which we may suffer, but it’s in taking conscious control of and responsibility for our own lives that we may determine our answer to the existential question “How should we suffer?” Do we want to obtain some pleasure in the short term at the cost of long term pain, or to endure short term pain in order to acquire fulfillment and meaning in the long term? When the question is posed like that, the superior option is obviously the latter, but unless we are perfectly clear about our purpose and long-term desires, our dreams can all too easily be drowned in the immediate gratification and impulses that may distract us in everyday life.
As the great Existentialist philosopher Søren Kierkegaard astutely described, “The greatest hazard of all, losing the self, can occur very quietly in the world, as if it were nothing at all. No other loss can occur so quietly; any other loss – an arm, a leg, five dollars, a wife, etc. – is sure to be noticed.” This tendency we’re to varying degrees exposed to depending on our circumstances, as the later Existentialist philosopher Martin Heidegger termed “Verfallenheit” (“fallen-ness”), is characterized by that
[…] we are constantly ignoring our possibilities […] by doing what ‘They’ do. Examples of this include the ways in which people dress alike, the social norms that we adhere to, and the absence of resoluteness towards death. We go through much of our lives this way, simply doing as ‘they’ do. When we face death in our lives, we treat it as though it will never happen to us.
Often this way of living goes unrecognized, and sometimes, unfortunately, we don’t notice it before it is too late. It is in this state of “falling” in the world that the shadow self prospers, and the problems may heap up until we suffer the consequences of some other great loss that is bound to make an impact – be it a limb, a great sum of money, a career, a reputation, a significant other, etc. The small things in life are often what makes it meaningful, and it’s when those are taken for granted that we may be at the highest risk of “falling” in the world, and consequently also have to endure the suffering involved in losing them. To avoid such personal tragedies, one has to instill in oneself a strong sense of clarity and determination for one’s long term goals and a deep gratitude for all the things in life that makes it meaningful, as well as to lay out for oneself the moral principles that one strives to live up to and to follow them to the best of one’s ability.
The Stoics especially laid out grave warnings against “falling” as such, as well as advice to avoid it. Memento mori, they said – remember death – because how we spend our days in the present plays an important part in determining whether we’ll live a miserable or meaningful life in the long term. Lucius A. Seneca described it particularly well when explaining that
It is not that we have a short time to live, but that we waste a lot of it. Life is long enough, and a sufficiently generous amount has been given to us for the highest achievements if it were all well invested. But when it is wasted in heedless luxury and spent on no good activity, we are forced at last by death’s final constraint to realize that it has passed away before we knew it was passing.
Our habits/addictions and the circumstances we find ourselves in may make it difficult to change so radically, but though the process may be slow, the decision is one we can make immediately in the present by dedicating oneself to maturing and improving from the foundation we have to build on. Despite the tragic situations we may have to face at times, the Stoics contend that we yet have to try to amor fati – i.e. to “love fate” – in the sense that we also recognize and find solace in the positive things and new opportunities that may be involved rather than tearing oneself down psychologically for what one may have done or how difficult the situation may be to deal with.
No matter our life situation, whether it’s hard or going remarkably well, striving to grow and improve is something we can all benefit from. Introspection plays a crucial role in this process, for only by confronting and comprehending our vices and short-comings can we begin the effort to control and improve ourselves as well as we can. With this realization we can come to understand Blaise Pascal’s assertion that “Man is obviously made to think. It is the whole of his dignity, his whole merit; and his whole duty is to think as he ought.” Continually becoming more self-aware and cognizant is the duty of anyone who wishes the best for themselves, the ones they know and love, and/or humanity as a whole. “Let everyone sweep in front of his own door, and the whole world will be clean,” as J.W. Goethe explained, for the process towards a better world starts with each and every one of us doing what little we can to become better. There are many great sources to become more inspired to venture on such a journey for self-improvement, both from philosophy (like Stoicism and Existentialism), religion, and elsewhere. The most important thing is not what drives you, but that you know well what does and why, and that it leads you on the right path towards a better life for yourself and those you care about. Find your calling, and be persistent and determined to pull through with it whatever it takes, and then in the end you may finally live the life of your dreams, as fulfilled and meaningful as it could possibly be.