If life does not always tend toward the tragic (and I’m not convinced that it doesn’t), then it does tend toward the “son-of-a-bitch!” in a variety of ways. In this vein, Nietzsche recognized that the problem of suffering is not so much that we suffer, but that we crave an answer to why we suffer. And this in the sense of: to what end? What is the meaning of our suffering? —Not only do we experience suffering, but we suffer our suffering. Both levels of suffering call for a response. Nietzsche castigated and disparaged the religious, in particular, Christian, response to suffering. Buddhism, too, was problematic. Religions in general were seen as life-denying to Nietzsche. What is “life-denying” comes in various forms, but insofar as Christianity and Buddhism regard suffering as evil, regard its “why?” as due to “sin,” and see human existence as something to transcend, Nietzsche sees them both as dangerous. For life, or a life worthy of the name, according to Nietzsche, must embody a great will, one that takes on great responsibility, great suffering. Suffering is not an objection to existence.
We see these latter ideas most radically expressed in Nietzsche’s response to the suicidal nihilism he saw following of necessity from the death of God and all that underlies and spreads out from its epicenter. In the religious context, the “ascetic priest” uses the “ascetic ideal” to give suffering meaning. The ascetic ideal is a valorization of self-denial: “The three great slogans of the ascetic ideal are familiar: poverty, humility, chastity” (Genealogy of Morals, III 8). Here the “meaning” of suffering is: “You are to blame! You have not been properly humble, chaste, or impoverished!” By contrast, Nietzsche dares the “higher type” of human to say “Yes!” to all that was, is and will be, to embrace (the idea of) the eternal recurrence—the paradoxical idea that you, not simply another version or copy of you, will relieve your life again and again as the universe eternally cycles through the exact same loop of events:
My formula for greatness in a human being is amor fati: that one wants nothing to be different, not forward, not backward, not in all eternity. (Ecce Homo, “Why I am so Clever,” §10.)
Such a radical affirmation of life—one that affirms every last moment of despair, loneliness, boredom, defeat, heartbreak, grief, etc.—is supposed to be powerful enough to negate the threat of suicidal nihilism, whether or not such a radical affirmation gives “meaning” to one’s suffering. Importantly, the eternal recurrence as a kind of standard or ideal, a test for how thoroughly one affirms one’s life in its entirety, does not require the eternal recurrence to be actual (whether or not Nietzsche held it to be).
I’ve great sympathy for Nietzsche’s approach to revaluing suffering and confronting head on the problem of nihilism. It, alternatively, and perhaps oddly, with Buddhism, has helped me greatly a great many times. One concise way to formulate Nietzsche’s advice on dealing with life when it comes at you with knives out is: If you are a higher type of human, one who is worthy of life, one who feels the inexorable call to give birth to something of real value, then to all challenges you must say, “C’mon! Bring it! For only in the sharp dangers of our embrace am I worth anything!” In many respects it can be tempting to see Nietzsche as offering a kind of “self-help for megalomaniacal narcissists.” Whether that is fair or not, one finds tamer, less hyperbolic, versions of Nietzsche’s advice. I’ve heard many people repeat, “What doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger,” without the least awareness of what it entailed for Nietzsche or even that it is from Nietzsche. By itself, it seems to nicely say, “Don’t suffer your suffering too badly, for, if you survive, it will make you stronger (…better, faster…).”
Nietzsche’s “ideal” of the (affirmation of the) eternal recurrence is separable from the recognition that suffering, or challenges more broadly, are either conducive or necessary to various forms of “greatness.” However, the latter idea may not be sufficient to remove the threat of suicidal nihilism, since it presupposes that one has a desire for greatness—otherwise, one might have little concern that suffering is required for or conducive to greatness. On the other hand, whether greatness is desired or not, a “great soul” is needed if the eternal recurrence is to be affirmed, so great of a challenge is it. In this context, we might inquire as to the reasons that would recommend the eternal recurrence as an ideal. This question does not seem to arise in the same way for the ascetic ideal, since the latter is inherent, as Nietzsche sees it, to Christianity (for example). If one is a Christian, then one thereby has reason to accept the ascetic ideal. However, if we assume the effectiveness of the eternal recurrence as an ideal that removes the threat of nihilism, aside from that effectiveness what other reason is there to adopt it? Is there an inherent reason for the atheist, analogous to the Christian’s reason for asceticism, to endorse the eternal recurrence as an ideal? It does not appear that there is.
So, we are left to ask: why think that we must affirm, say “YES!” to, all the “bad” in our lives if we are to avoid suicidal nihilism? After all, must every single last “bad” thing, every single last challenge one suffers, be required for one’s greatness, assuming greatness as one’s goal? In reading Nietzsche, I have the feeling that part of his answer is in the form of a kind of dare. We might view the radical affirmation required by the ideal of the eternal recurrence as the greatest challenge one could face. And in recommending it, or in laying it out, Nietzsche is speaking to the higher types, the one’s who live for such challenges, since it is through confronting them that they become and demonstrate their greatness. Thus, what recommends the eternal recurrence is inherent, not to a particular system such as Christianity, but in the drive of the higher type to be great (or perhaps: as great as possible).
All of these ideas need to be fleshed out and scrutinized in great detail (something I’ve done, in part, here, and here and there, and there and here, and plan to do much more). For now, what I want to do is examine what I take to be a move closely related to Nietzsche’s secular way of bolstering one’s will, one’s psyche, against the inevitable son-of-a-bitch, if not downright tragic, nature of life. This similar move is to see everything that one experiences as part of the full human experience. I don’t recall where I first came across that expression, however, not long ago, I saw it in a Humans of New York piece in which it clearly plays the role, makes the move, I’m talking about:
My wife and I were eating at a rib joint in Key Largo, and we actually took out a piece of paper and made a pros and cons list. The ‘con’ list was pretty normal: time, money, things like that. I remember at the top of the ‘pro’ list was: ‘Full Human Experience.’ After our daughter was born, that became an inside joke with us. Every time she was screaming at bath time, my wife and I would look at each other and say: ‘Full Human Experience.’ The first three months were the hardest. Honestly, we wondered if we’d made a mistake. It was like a bomb dropped and eviscerated everything in our lives. But then our daughter started growing up, and learning to do things on her own, and we kept taking small steps back and getting more of our own time back. There’s an unexpected sadness to getting your life back. It’s like your getting laid off slowly from an equally grueling but joyful job. She’s ten now. And I’ll notice that she’ll be reading alone for an hour without getting bored and jumping on me. We used to make tents on the bed, now it’s more homework and YouTube. Sometimes she’ll go in her room for a long time and close the door. Her life is becoming hers and I’m fascinated by where it’s going to go. But it’s bittersweet that she needs me less and less.
Let us call this the ideal of the full human experience. The basic point seems to be: in regard to the hardship you are experiencing, recognize it is a part of being fully human. One cannot disparage it without disparaging being fully human. This ideal relies on the assumption that one seeks to live a fully human life—that to live a less than fully human life would not be to live at all. Without this assumption, why be concerned about having the full human experience, particularly if that is taken to entail certain hardships that might otherwise be optional (for those willing to not live full human lives)? Here we see analogy with Nietzsche’s higher type’s yearning for greatness as a presupposition of her embracing hardship.
A number of questions about the ideal of living the full human experience arise at this point, however. Notice, first, that the example above has to do with having a child. One might argue that having children, or having a family with children, is a necessary part of the FULL human experience. That is a controversial claim for a number of reasons. But the main point is that it opens up the question: what are our criteria for deciding what belongs to the FULL human experience? We might start making a list, beginning with the things that a human must go through: eating, drinking, breathing, going to the bathroom, experiencing hunger, want, sleepiness, etc. Such a list might be interesting, but, again, what criteria are we going to use to decide whether experiencing, for example, an earthquake is on it. Here we come to a dilemma. ON the one hand: If an earthquake is a part of the full human experience, then that would imply that anyone who hasn’t experienced an earthquake has not had the full human experience. But why think that an earthquake is a necessary condition for a full human experience? ON the other hand: If an earthquake is not a part of the full human experience, then we cannot use the ideal of the full human experience to make sense of, or deal with, going through an earthquake. And this latter point is particularly problematic given that it seemed that the point of appealing to the ideal of the full human experience was to find a (the?) way to deal with ALL challenges, hardship, suffering. Further, if not earthquakes, then what about being raped, tortured, unjustly imprisoned, etc.?
We are forced here to say whether we intend the ideal of the full human experience to help us deal with all possible instances of suffering. Perhaps it is just one of a variety of means to dealing with suffering. Should we even expect a single ideal to help us confront any possible experience of suffering? This question can be asked of Nietzsche’s eternal recurrence, too, of course. That is, perhaps, one potential benefit of the eternal recurrence as an ideal, namely, it is set up to deal with all that one experiences, “good” and “bad,” and “beyond good and evil.”
Perhaps a way out of the above dilemma for the ideal of having the full human experience is to let go of the idea of there being some set of individually necessary and jointly sufficient conditions for having the FULL human experience. Instead, we might say that anything a human being can experience is a part of the full human experience but in such a way that nothing that goes unexperienced counts against one’s having had a full human experience. This would make what it means to be fully human open to a great many versions. And it would still leave out certain experiences such that there would be a contrast with things that are not part of the full human experience. For example, navigating a room by echolocation is presumably not a part of the full human experience, since that is not how humans get around. Though this example does raise the question of what should we say about technology. That is, we can imagine some kind of technology that allows one to navigate by echolocation such that that becomes a human possibility. In such a case it could be a part of the full human experience, but, like all the other possibilities, it would not be required.
However, this lack of requiring anything as necessary for the full human experience as a way to avoid the above dilemma brings us to a difficult issue. Consider the example above with the parents and baby/child. Dealing with the challenges of a baby/child is seen as “endurable,” “justified,” “to be welcomed,” because it is a part of the FULL human experience; if one did not go through it, then one would not have had a fully human life. Consider carefully: What is doing the work here of mitigating the experience of suffering as undesirable? Is it a) that if one does not permit oneself to experience X, then one is not allowing oneself to be FULLY human? Where the latter is of central importance. Or is it b) that if one does not permit oneself to experience X, then one is denying a possible but not necessary aspect of what it is to be human? Where anything that can possibly be experienced is of positive value. The difference between them is subtle. Essentially it is this: a) says that there is some set of experiences such that if one or more of them is not had, then one is not living a FULLY human life; b) says that whatever one experiences, it is a part of being human; thus to try to avoid it is to try to avoid something human. Either one faces difficulties. a) puts forward the problematic idea that there is some set of experiences that are individually necessary and jointly sufficient to being fully human. This we sought to avoid, as per above. However, while b) puts forward the more palatable idea that whatever a human can experience is part of a full human experience, it has trouble justifying the embrace of some “bad” experience as necessary to the human experience and thus not to be shunned. For consider, if I am experiencing the agony of a stubborn kidney stone, perhaps it would help me muster the will to face it if I thought it was a necessary part of the FULL human experience. But if it is a possible but not necessary part of the FULL human experience, then why not wish that it weren’t occurring, for whatever I experience will be a part of the FULL human experience. Thus, why not wish for only “good,” i.e., pleasant things?
Where are we to go from here? I think the idea of the ideal of the full human experience is worthy of further consideration. Did I give up too quickly on the idea of there being individually necessary and jointly sufficient conditions on having a full human life? Maybe, though the idea that there is an essence to human lived experience, one that provides the standard for living the full human life, one that every last person is to be judged by, such an idea is, it seems to me, quite dangerous. Perhaps the route is to see the ideal of the full human experience as only one means to deal with challenges, hardship, suffering. Or perhaps it is a malleable idea, one that can be suited to a group or an individual. That is, perhaps I can consider x, y, and z, as necessary to the kind of fully lived life that I want to lead, without that meaning that every other person has to experience x, y, and z, to live fully human lives. Such subjectivism about value has its own problems though. What should we say?