Written over a day and finished at Starbucks in San Jose. Lately I have been curious to understand – in a deeper way – death and living. This is a short 1400 word essay on my thoughts during the last 48 hours. I stumbled (again) on a thought experiment proposed by Friedrich Nietzsche from an essay I wrote in graduate school. It serves as the impetus for diving deeper into what it is to ‘exist’.
“What is 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 this? Or have you once experienced a tremendous moment when you would have answered him: “You are a god and never have I heard anything more divine.” If this thought gained possession of you, it would change you as you are, or perhaps crush you.”
Nietzsche once said, “To forget one’s purpose, is the commonest form of stupidity. (Human, All Too Human)” The thrust of eternal recurrence is to awaken the soul from the slumber of the mundane. From an aimless wonderer to a purposeful creator. To acknowledge the internal whisper that says “there’s got to be more to life than this.” Eternal recurrence is more than a thought experiment; it’s a philosophical and psychological hammer to the soul. Completely exposed, barren and naked; we are compelled to ask, “Am I content with the life I am living?”
Nietzsche’s eternal recurrence prompts us to ask ourselves, “who is this thinking, feeling, person that experiences pain and pleasure that I call ‘me’?”
Many think that Nietzsche was a dark nihilist who inspired Hitler’s Third Reich. But they have not read Nietzsche. Nietzsche’s message is one of optimism. What is most refreshing about him, and the reason I classify him as an optimist is his recognition of everything inherently corrupt and flawed in mankind, and his willingness to embrace overcoming them. If one is to cure an illness, the most important step is its diagnosis. And Nietzsche was a masterful diagnostician. Most often, the commonly labeled optimistic writers that I read, seem optimistic by willful blindness to all that is wrong in this world. They do not acknowledge the problem, or if they do, they understate it or give naive workarounds to it. And correspondingly, they exaggerate the good, or they see good where none exists. This is what I call short term optimism. It may make one feel momentarily better, but in the long run it does more harm than good.
Nietzsche does the opposite, he highlights everything wrong with science, religion, patriotism, feminism, masculinity, Germanism, Orientalism, Mysticism, Asceticism, Heroism. He is ruthless at revealing flaws. But always, in every book, he warns you against falling into nihilism. He tells you that he is revealing all these flaws to you, not to drive you to despair, but to awaken the spirit of transcendence in you. Great acts are done under conditions of great adversity. Nietzsche is telling us that we are always in conditions of great adversity, even when we think we are prosperous, because our very species is rotten. Furthermore, he tells us that we must strive to become great, to transcend humanity itself, become something else, something better.
All this to say, when it comes to Nietzsche’s eternal recurrence, the goal is to cause a tectonic shift in your foundation, such that, you realize the illusions around you and thus transcend them toward a greater good. Such illusions that take over are control, will, power, prestige, and piousness, etc. We are more than sheep following aimlessly in a herd. As Nietzsche states, “create the fate you love.” Existence is the sine qua non to being human. To exist is to hold the paint brush and create on the canvass of life. And while we don’t have absolute control of our work of art, because life and circumstances get in the way, we do have the capacity to take charge of our situations. We embrace each quake in our lives with the acknowledgment, acceptance, and resolve to transcend. It is here when life live at a deeper level and can say to the demon in Nietzsche’s metaphor, “bless you, let’s do this again.”
When we reach this point in existence, we are able to embrace experience at a deeper level. A hike or a discussion becomes a rich experience. A hike becomes more than simply getting from point A to point B. Rather, it’s seeing the beauty, rich colors, and vastness around you as you contemplate, “How is it, that I have waited this long to experience such natural beauty?” A discussion becomes more than getting your point across. Rather, you see the sacredness of exchanging ideas as an opportunity for personal growth and awareness. This is existence: when we realize how to be.
Rather than caught up in doing, we embrace being. To transcend the everyday monotony and routine is the victory. To pull out of the rat race and dislodge ourselves from the herd mentality is where life is lived. I remember viewing de Vinci’s Mona Lisa in the Lourve while in graduate school. I had an odd epiphany as I stood feet away from the masterpiece. While staring at it, I saw my reflection in the glass and thought, “Here I stand, so keen on looking at this piece of work, but what do I make of my reflection – who is this ‘me’ I see looking back at me in the glass?” For a split second, I was rescued from the mundane and banal everyday world and thrown into ‘being’. Rather than look ‘at’ something, I turned inward ‘in-to’ something – me.
Here lies the crucial difference in existence: one is to look at how things are in the world and the other is to appreciate “being” in the world – that things are, that you are. These are the two modes of existence: ‘everyday’ mode and the ‘ontological’ mode. Allow me to unpack these two modes.
The first mode is the ‘everyday’ mode of existence in which you are entirely absorbed in your surroundings, and you marvel at how things are in the world. The other mode is the ‘ontological’ mode by which you focus and appreciate the miracle of “being” itself and marvel that things are, that you are.
There is a crucial difference between how things are and that things are. When absorbed in the everyday mode, you turn toward such evanescent distractions as physical appearance, style, possessions, or prestige. In the ontological mode, by contrast, you are not only more aware of existence and mortality and life’s other immutable characteristics but also more anxious and more primed to make significant changes. You are prompted to grapple with your fundamental human responsibility to construct an authentic life in engagement, connectivity, meaning, and self-fulfillment. It is here, when we are ‘being’, that we truly experience our existence.
The majority of Westerners are not interested in being and they submerge themselves in doing. The ‘everyday’ mode of doing is where time flies and we don’t even realize it until it’s too late. It’s in this mode that we look back and say, “where did the past ten years go?” Well, it was a flash in the pan because you were to busy living for other people’s expectations or ideology. Or perhaps, because – like most Westerners – you think life is supposed to be an upward spiral; you keep trying to keep up with the Joneses by creating a façade so that you gain prestige, respect, admiration and a promotion. On the other hand, the ontological mode of being fosters the ability to be content with your life and the awareness to act when life gets difficult so that you can re-calibrate towards better solutions within your distress. When you’re in the mode of being you accept life as it comes, you set realistic expectations, and you don’t become attached to fleeting pleasures. Instead of assuming a future heaven you create heaven in your life – now. Angst, on the other hand, is the consequence of one’s incessant need to control everything, relying on unrealistic expectations, and anchoring attachments to things which have zero intrinsic lasting qualities.