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What life stage are you going to be in this Christmas?

As we enter into the festive period my thoughts go to Soren Kierkegaard's view on modes of existence and how relevant they seem to me during this time of year.

What life stage are you going to be in this Christmas?

Kierkegaard is a famous 19th century philosopher, author, theologian and poet. He developed what he called his three modes of existence in life. Christmas always brings these to the forefront of my mind and I wonder if you can recognise yourself in any of the three stages? My personal view is that we probably all see ourselves as having a foot in at least one camp. This, to me, is not a problem. If you have taken the conscious decision to lead your life in this way then that is fine. If you have decided that being a part of any of these modes is true to the way you want to be that that is also fine. If you find yourself in any of these modes to please others, making your life feel hollow and leaving you unsatisfied, then question whether you are living your life in a way that is true to you, or living it the way Society believes will make you happy and fulfilled.

Aesthetic mode of existence   

It's all about the "ME" here folks. The carrot dangling enticingly on the end of the string is happiness and the person immersed in the aesthetic mode of life is totally consumed with achieving their own personal enjoyment through the maximisation of pleasure and the the avoidance of pain through boredom. Getting that new car, watch, dress, shoes etc will provide that buzz of pleasure. Give it a week, month, even six months and the pleasure will fade and the boredom will threaten. The person caught in the aesthetic mode will seek to avoid the pain of boredom by buying a newer, better possession, or they will go out and try a newer, more challenging experience.

In all probability, the same thing will happen and boredom will follow this repetition of pleasure seeking. The person stuck in this stage will fall into a cycle of avoiding pain and chasing pleasure through the seeking of better possessions or experiences, leaving them forever feeling bored. They do not know who they are, but are content to define themselves by what they own, leaving them ultimately unfulfilled.

Ethical mode of existence

In this mode it's all about the right and wrong of life and to feel you are doing the right things. It's about taking the rules, ways and ethics of society and allowing them to mould your existence to suit their needs. The person in this mode may be ambivalent, afraid or even feel selfish about taking the time to develop a sense of self. Because of this they devote themselves to their families or job, focusing entirely on either the well-being of the family members or the success of their job, at the expense of developing their own sense of self.

You will recognise them. They are the mother/father who lives for, and through, their children. It is the woman who becomes "The Wife" to support her husband, at the expense of herself. It is the employee who lives for work, seeking the approval and adoration of others through achieving dizzying heights on the ladder of career success. These are the people who define themselves through their role and don't make the time to find out who they really are. So what happens when the kids grow up and leave home or their significant other passes away or leaves them? What happens when they retire or are made redundant from that all encompassing career?In other words, what happens when their reason and purpose for living is no longer there? There is often a great sense of loss from losing their purpose in life. Maybe fear at the unknown and the immensity of the task ahead of them of finding out who they are and how should they live this new life ahead of them.

Religious mode of existence

This mode bears similarities to the ethical. It's about the right and wrong, with these concepts being defined by the religion you follow. In many cases our religious beliefs are taught to us by parents and significant others in our early years. In some cases they are reinforced through fear of displeasing our elders and peer group, or the horror that lies in going to some kind of Hell in the afterlife.

Many people are content to live their lives according to religious scripture, without ever really understanding it or wholeheartedly embracing it as a true way to exist.They may follow it when it suits them, ignore it when it doesn't. In most cases there is a general ambivalence to it. Kierkegaard couldn't understand this way of thinking. If you can't truly embrace religion and see its teachings as the true and only way to live your life, then it is better not to follow it at all and create and live by truths that are your own.

 As we approach the Christmas holiday, it can be so easy to find ourselves gravitating towards one of these modes of existence. Do we place too much importance in the exchanging of gifts and the pressures that go with it? Does the thought of being a wonderful parent, partner or family host pile pressures onto an event that should be about enjoyment and celebration. How many of us feel that twang of guilt and then turn up for our once in a year visit to church? If we are not getting any pleasure from Christmas then we have to ask ourselves if the Christmas we are taking part in is the kind of Christmas we want? If the answer is no, then ask yourself if your Christmas experience is a reflection of your life as a whole? If the answer to this is yes, then it might be time to start living your life more authentically, in the way that you want to live it rather than as others would have you live it.

One of the hardest, but most worthwhile things to do in life is to undertake the journey of personal discovery. Take the time to reflect on what you currently believe is the true way you should live your life. If there is anything that doesn't feel right, or  makes you feel unhappy, then remove it from your life and replace it with something that does feel right for you. You can then allow this knowledge to define who you truly are and what you want from life, not how others would have you be to satisfy them. 

Changing your life in a way that stops you unthinkingly following the will of others, but rather living in a way true to yourself, is never easy.  The great philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche summed it up nicely when he said, "The individual has always had to struggle to keep from being overwhelmed by the tribe. If you try it, you will be lonely often, and sometimes frightened. But no price is too high to pay for the privilege of owning yourself". 

As I mentioned earlier, we all enjoy nice things in life and it's fun to experience wonderful experiences. Our families and careers can be very fulfilling. Religious beliefs can provided welcome structure and guidance in life. Immerse yourself in these wonderful events and institutions, but be mindful that you do these of your own volition, rather than through wanting to impress or please others.

If you feel life lacks direction or purpose, you are tired of trying to please others, or you feel lost in life, try taking these thoughts into therapy. Having the space to talk about your life and explore your options with someone who is not related, and, most importantly, will not judge you, can be very fulfilling and life reaffirming. Taking the decision to live your life the way you think it should be, could be the best new year resolution you could ever make. Give it a try!

Have a happy and authentic Christmas folks.