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Would You Choose to Live Your Life Over and Over?

Nietzsche as psychologist on embracing your life


Aside from his possibly having one of the biggest mustaches in the world, the philosopher Nietzsche is probably most known for his notions of Ubermensch and Will to Power, concepts that many believe the Nazis unfortunately absconded to fuel their sense of supremacy. But many also consider him the first existentialist, who was talking about anxiety, choice and freedom years before Sartre, and a psychologist of sorts who tackled complex psychological issues of past and present, values and self-creation.

In an fascinating article by Kathleen O’Dwyer (Philosophy Now, Nov / Dec 2012), O’Dwyer looked at Nietzsche’s view of self. Some highlights of that article and of Nietzsche’s interrelated  views that provide interesting food for thought:

Existence begins in every instant.

The notion here is that our lives are always becoming, that there is no being, no fixed sense of self. That change is part of the living process and that we need to accept its fluidity. But we are not passive passengers in our own lives, merely floating down life’s river. Everyday, every moment is, in fact, a new beginning, an opportunity for self-creation.

Love the totality of your life.

It’s easy for us to embrace the positive in our lives, and dismiss, avoid, or regret the negative. But Nietzsche stresses the importance of embracing all aspects of our past and present lives. This is about accepting reality and responsibility, but also about realizing that those positive moments, however small – the awe-inspiring sunset, bursts of laughter – are only possible because of culmination of all that has gone before. It is the totality of our past that has become the midwife of this moment. If anything in the past were different, so too would be our present. He challenges us to live a life where nothing is dismissed, where nothing is regretted.

Nietzsche is not saying that this is easy to do. We need to proactively make the effort to view our lives in this way, but this is ultimately the backbone of self-acceptance, self honesty, and integrity.

Do you want to live this life, this moment innumerable times?

Nietzsche poses what has been called his notion of eternal recurrence, the question of whether we would want to live our lives over and over again with all its moments? This ties back to accepting our lives and our past, but also back to the first notion of becoming and self creation. The question itself serves as a filter through which to view our choices.

If everyday were to be our Groundhog Day, if we were to begin each day with the notion that we would be living this day, this moment again, wouldn’t that make us more deliberate? Wouldn’t we be more proactive with our choices, our values, our behaviors, our priorities?

We’re back to that familiar question of what would you do if you had one day to live? This ties into the goals and focus on mindfulness. Nietzsche is challenging us to think this way not to build our one-time perfect day, but to consciously do this every day of our lives.

We are the author and artist of our own lives.

This is where it all comes together, the notion that we really do have that power and that choice. We cannot not choose. We can abdicate responsibility, we can go along with, we can blame others for the outcome of our lives, we can shirk the challenge.

But Nietzsche asks that we have the courage not to do that. That we once again be proactive and deliberate. That we define truth as the defining of our own values and take on the challenge of always re-evaluating them, that we work hard to bring our values and behaviors into line, that we set our own priorities rather than following those of others.

This is bold and emboldening. It doesn’t mean that we are insensitive of others, or narcissistic and self-consumed, but that we once again take responsibility for creating our lives.

I recently heard a lecture by a Buddhist monk who said much the same thing. Because of the Buddhist concept of reincarnation, the monk said that we need to realize and appreciate what a gift and opportunity it is to simply be a human being. Other creatures – plants, insects, even cows and dogs -- don't have the ability that we have as humans to shape our lives and fate. We alone, of all of creation, do have such choices, and in his Buddhist philosophy, are living at a unique and precious time in the cycle of life, one that we shouldn’t throw away. Nietzsche is saying much the same, that we need to wake up and fully take hold of the reins of our lives.

We only have to realize that the opportunity is there. We only need to have courage, with even the smallest of steps, to move forward.