Probably all of us have asked ourselves whether there is something that we would do over again if we had the chance. Sometimes the question is prompted by a disappointment. At other times, we ask it when something we did had radically different consequences from what we imagined. We often ask, “Would I do it again?” when we want to justify the choice we made. If the answer is yes, then we comfort ourselves that we made the right decision. If no, then we probably feel regret.
The “Would I do it again?” question usually has a limited scope; it attaches to a particular situation. This is a good question for each of us to ask; everyone could benefit from more critical self-reflection about our motivations, actions, and consequences of our actions.
But what if you asked that question about your entire life? Would you live your whole life again? And what if you raised the stakes by living your same life over and over again for eternity?
Nietzsche gives us just that challenge. Nietzsche is too beautiful a writer not to quote at length. He wrote, “What, if some day or night a demon were to steal after you into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: "This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and sigh and everything unutterably small or great in your life will have to return to you, all in the same succession and sequence - even this spider and this moonlight between the trees, and even this moment and I myself. The eternal hourglass of existence is turned upside down again and again, and you with it, speck of dust!" Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus?... Or how well disposed would you have to become to yourself and to life to crave nothing more fervently than this ultimate eternal confirmation and seal?”
To be clear: Nietzsche is asking whether you are willing to live the exact same life down to the tiniest detail for eternity. The kicker is that one needs to make the choice each time the life is lived. That demon will come into your life at the same point every time when you are in a dark hour.
This question, “if you had to do it all again—exactly again—would you be horrified or would you gladly embrace it?” is one that many addicts consider at some point in their lives. This question, however, is one that any person should ask herself. It is a litmus test of how one understands the meaning of her life and the responsibility for it.
A person might unsurprisingly object, “I’ve suffered greatly. I’ve caused huge suffering to others. Why would I choose to relive it even once never mind for eternity? Heck no!” Of all philosophers, Nietzsche recognizes that much of life is suffering. His concerns, though, are how and what sense a person makes of her suffering.
Meaningless suffering is intolerable. But we do have the capacity to make meaning of our suffering in ways that can be transformative and life affirming, though most people will not have the will or courage to do this. The unwillingness or the fear to transform one’s life is a tragic failure.
Who are the sort of people who would answer yes to Nietzsche’s question and “crave nothing more fervently?” These are the people who are committed to deep critical reflection about their character. These are people who do not shy away from past actions and take responsibility for who they are and how they show up in the world. They are the ones who will embrace their lives and not run from the difficulties, pains, and suffering they have endured and have caused. These are people who own their lives.
All of this takes courage for us specks of dust. Who is up to this challenge? Many specks, I believe, some of whom are people with good sobriety.
To have good sobriety is to have taken the opportunity to transform the meaning of the suffering one has caused herself and others. It is also to make meaning of the suffering that is totally beyond one’s control. Good sobriety is to put questions of value and character in the center of life; it is the most important project of one’s life. This project is life affirming. This is why the person who says, “Yes!” embraces this project and all that came before it not just for this one life but for all of eternity.
Turn that hourglass.