Cutting Through Bullshit—The (Possible) Advantages of Chronic Illness and Disability

Some years ago, I was reading Nietzsche and it occurred to me to make a note in my journal. Something along the lines of needing to regularly come back to Nietzsche, as he provides a wonderful sort of intellectual conscience. Is this a surprising thing to think about Nietzsche? What I have in mind are such passages as, “[Philosophers] all pose as if they had discovered and reached their real opinions through the self-development of a cold, pure, divinely unconcerned dialectic…. while at bottom it is an assumption, a hunch, indeed a kind of ‘inspiration’—most often a desire of the heart that has been filtered and made abstract—that they defend with reasons they have sought after the fact. They are all advocates who resent that name, and for the most part even wily spokesman for the prejudices which they baptize ‘truths’…” (Beyond Good and Evil. “On the Prejudices of Philosophers,” §5). That is powerful stuff and bites to the marrow. And so I am cautious, in my better moments, to try to avoid succumbing to such temptations, which include being tempted to hold true that which makes us feel better. Along these lines, I take it that part of what it means to have truth as a goal inquiry is that the standards for whether or not one’s inquiry is going well are not ultimately relative to one’s subjectivity.

With all this in mind, I’d like to explore some reasons for thinking about the advantages of being disadvantaged, at least in terms of chronic illness and disability (I’m not including the disadvantages of poverty and racism, for example). I will try to avoid belaboring it, but here is my background. Continue reading

Goethe and Ryōkan as Exemplars of How to Live

Writing on compassion in early Buddhism, Anālayo notes that the primary form of compassion was teaching the Dharma, i.e., the Buddhist teachings on the cessation of suffering. But as Anālayo also notes, verbal instruction is not the only way to teach: teaching, “…can also take place through teaching by example” (Compassion and Emptiness in Early Buddhist Meditation, 16). Indeed, teaching and learning by example are extremely important, and often unconscious. We don’t always realize that others, especially children, learn by our example, nor that we learn from others’ example. One important question, of course, is who do we take as our exemplars of a well lived life? For the kind of person we choose as our life-well-lived-exemplar implies a choice about the kind of life we wish to lead.

It is in this context that I wish to examine the life of Johan Wolfgang von Goethe (1749 to 1832), who was an important German poet, playwright, novelist, philosopher, and scientist. —A person much praised by Nietzsche, as we will see. And I want to compare Goethe with the Japanese Zen monk, poet, calligrapher, and recluse, Ryōkan (1758 to 1831).

There are a number of things that make these two figures particularly interesting to me. First, they are both writers and poets. Second, though they have been influential in very different ways, both their lives and works have inspired many. Third, since they are both writers and poets, they both belong to that category of being, so to speak, that Nietzsche seems to hold in the highest esteem, namely, the artist, the creator. As Nietzsche writes in his Zarathustra: Continue reading

Suffering, Creativity, and Genius

What would Nietzsche make of us? What would Nietzsche make of the T-shirt you can find on Facebook that is a spoof of a beer label. It reads, “Nietzsche’s Übermensch/Superior Quality/It’s Beyond Good/Zarathustra & CO. Distillery/Consume Responsibly.” If there were a God who gave him a soul, would Nietzsche turn in his grave? What would he think about the fact that over the years I have viewed his writings as a kind of self-help? That is, and perhaps ironically, if I have not sought comfort in Buddhism, I have sought comfort in Nietzsche’s writings. I have often been inspired by his call to greatness, his call to take on profound suffering in the name of creation, in the name of genius. And I realized long ago that it was inspirational because it appealed to my ego, as I’m sure it does to the egos of other, predominantly white boys/men. The inspiration works like this: “Don’t you want to think of yourself as a creative genius, then quit your bitching about your suffering and embrace it!” The implication supposedly: if I’m reading Nietzsche, and I’m embracing my suffering, then I, too, am a higher type. On top of Nietzsche’s writings in some sense inviting this sort of poor reasoning, there is the danger that goes along with dedicating your life to reading the works of geniuses: One, of course, would very much like to be a peer of the authors one is reading. It is difficult, particularly if you’re introverted and spend much time in isolation with the work of geniuses, not to long for some measure of equality.

However, neither suffering nor our embracing of it are sufficient for creative genius. So much is obvious. Nevertheless, it is rather interesting to think about the connection between genius and suffering and/or madness. In today’s essay, I want to explore in a loose way a number of issues concerning creativity, genius, suffering, and psychopathy.

Consider Wendell Berry’s essay, “The Specialization of Poetry,” which provides an interesting way into these issues. As his title indicates, Berry is concerned to challenge what he sees in 1974 as the specialization of poetry. Briefly, Berry contrasts the poet specialist with the “ordinary person” who happens write poetry in addition to doing other work. He considers, for example, William Carlos Williams who is both a poet and a community engaged doctor. For Berry, the poet specialist runs the risk of making their poetry divorced from more communal, public concerns, choosing to focus instead on interiority, in particular on their suffering. Among other things this is marked by the reader’s interest in the poet’s life itself, her views on all manner of things, instead of simply the poetry itself. In addition to the poet’s turning inward and away from shared experience and public concerns, Berry notes a concomitant turn to the art of words. The words themselves, not what they say, takes precedence over engagement with experience and tradition. But Berry’s main problem seems to be that with a focus on suffering there is a focus on people as sufferers (victims) and not actors responsible for their fate. Hence, there is a contrast between the passive poet responding to her suffering and the activist poet who takes responsibility for themselves and what is happening in society. Further, Berry thinks that the poet’s focus on interiority goes along with an absence of narrative in contemporary poetry and the lack of narrative goes with the lack of communal engagement. While we won’t be engaging all or many of these issues, I want to give the reader the context of Berry’s discussion. Continue reading

Suffering and Platonic Lives, Platonic Selves

How would you feel if you were never to read another book in your life? What about if you were never to ski, or if not skiing, then some other sport? How would you feel if you could not live in the city? What about the country? What about the suburbs? These are only a few questions that pertain to the kinds of lives we might live. Some of us would be unmoved by life without books and others could not bear not living in the country. But, I take it, most of us do not think that there is only one kind of life to live as a human being, as a person. We do not, in other words, think that there is some sort of Platonic form of the perfect human life. We acknowledge a variety of possibilities; moreover, it is part of our liberal heritage to see this as a good thing. If for no other reason than the fact that we think imposing a particular life on someone, particularly when it doesn’t fit, is to rob them of their autonomy and ultimately to make them suffer.

So we suffer when a life we do not choose is imposed upon us. But notice what happens when we shift from thinking about the Platonic form of the perfect human life, to thinking about the Platonic form of a particular life. I am assuming that what is true of me here is true of many, if not most, others. That is, I have a tendency to conceptualize the explicit form of my life; I think of myself as a philosophy professor, one who likes to hike, one who gets meaning out of the natural world, one who loves animals, one who is at least not half bad at writing, one who works on Wittgenstein, Dōgen, and Nietzsche, etc. These are all things that I have, if not explicitly chosen, then at least endorsed for my life. These are the things that go into making up who I am. Since I have chosen them, I do not suffer them. Or so it seems.

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The Nietzschean Bodhisattva: Part I

One of the tasks that Joan Stambaugh pursues in her chapter on “Creativity and Decadence,” is to explain what it means to say that “Nietzsche sees art as fundamental to life, as the ‘truly metaphysical activity of man’” (The Other Nietzsche, 21). Nietzsche, Stambaugh says, sees art as not, “a sphere of culture, not as a highly specialized, privileged area for the few, but as that activity of man that is most crucial to his life” (ibid.). Stambaugh finds such a claim rather strange, for aren’t other things crucial to life before art? She sees the resolution of the strangeness in her interpretation of Nietzsche on truth. She writes:

For Nietzsche, there is no truth in the traditional sense of that word. The world of the will to power is in constant flux, not the undefined, undetermined flux of Heraclitus, but the flux of shifting centers of power that increase and decrease, but never remain the same. True knowledge of this world is impossible, in fact, it is incommensurate with the very nature of the world. “Knowing” is simply a pragmatic falsification of the world for the purpose of dealing with it more effectively. Therefore, instead of despairing over the fact that there is no static, finished world to be known, the meaningful activity in this world of flux and the will to power becomes art, shaping this world, giving it meaning and values. The previous institutions and endeavors of man are forms of decadence, they distort the world. “Our religion, morality, and philosophy are decadent forms of man. The counter movement: art” (The Will to Power, No. 794). “The belief that the world as it ought to be is, really exists, is a belief of the unproductive who do not desire to create a world as it ought to be. They posit it as already available, they seek ways and means of reaching it. ‘Will to truth’—as the impotence of the will to create” (The Will to Power, No. 585). (22-23)

This denial of truth is very much in line with Nietzsche’s pronouncements about the death of God, which signals the death of the power of the idea of a fixed transcendent world giving meaning to this world. The world is not finished, with its meanings and values already determined. Instead, the world is in a very important sense continually underdetermined as a result of both there being no transcendent, fixed meaning giver, while at the same time that the world we inhabit is in constant flux. So, Nietzsche’s denial of truth is the denial of a kind of Platonic conception of truth/meaning/value. Continue reading

Facing Profound Suffering: Part I

I recently saw on Facebook something like, “It’s not the opinions you post, but what you do that matters.” While I think I certainly understand the point, I think such a line misses that words and deeds are often the same. Consider, what are you to do if you want to help others but you have limited resources and come into contact with few people in your day-to-day life? Well, one thing to do is to post your opinion, i.e., write something that may prove useful to others. Is this not doing something? Let us hope so.

Speaking as an American, our culture is expert at eliding the ubiquity of pain, suffering, and death. If you ever have occasion to talk to others about their suffering or the suffering of their friends and family, you will soon discover nearly everyone has a story to tell. But we often (usually?) are unaware of this common thread that runs through all of our lives. It Is much like the parable in which a distraught, grieving mother who has recently lost her child goes to the Buddha for solace. He tells her he’ll help her after she goes around to each household in town and collects a mustard seed from those homes that have not suffered a similar loss. She returns to the Buddha empty handed and wiser.

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Suffering and the “Full Human Experience”

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.)

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How Not to Regret Your Hindsight Judgments

As anyone who knows me or who is familiar with this blog likely knows, suffering and death are preoccupations of mine. And, so, when I saw on Facebook this morning an article—one I think I’ve seen before—on The Top Five Regrets of the Dying by Bronnie Ware, I shared it without looking at it again—something I do far too often, i.e., share without really looking, simply based on the headline and blurb. A friend and former colleague, Joshua Miller, commented by sharing his piece, The Fetishizing of the Dying, in which he calls out Ware on a number of points. I’m grateful that he did.

After reflecting on her experience in palliative care for the dying, Ware enumerate these five regrets as most typical:

  1. I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
  2. I wish I didn’t work so hard.
  3. I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.
  4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.
  5. I wish that I had let myself be happier.

These are judgments that I find myself easily able to imagine having. However, like Miller, I take issue with certain aspects of these regrets, particularly the idea that they might be action guiding for our own lives. Again, I’m thankful to Miller for calling me out on the post. Miller’s first criticism of it is:

Why should we credit someone’s last thoughts over the ones that guided them throughout life? A regret is just an act of hypocrisy, a wish to have had our cake and eaten it, too. Because we don’t really know what regrets we would have had in the counterfactual, regret is largely a fantasy of another, unknown life, more desirable because it is foreign, its pleasures more easily imagined than its pains. There’s no particularly good reason to believe we are wiser when faced with imminent death, chronic pain, and possibly clouded by drugs.

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Nihilism, Hell, and Self-Interest

Often when people fear hell, they fear it in the sense of an afterlife of eternal torment, or, perhaps more sophisticatedly, eternal separation from God. As others have noted, though, hell exists on earth in a variety of forms. For example, you can read Sartre’s “No Exit” as making the case that “hell is other people.” As an introvert, I find that line of thinking attractive, but I think a more pressing form of hell on earth is putting one’s effort, ones being, into a daily existence that faces some form of nihilism. Nihilism in the sense that nothing that exists and nothing that one may do has any meaning or significance. I take it that anyone who has been tempted by, or succumbed to, nihilism knows how this is hell, and how it can make all the other hells all the more hellish. Suffering, whether other people, a kidney stone, or a broken heart, can feel all the more hellish when the loss is simultaneously (paradoxically?) experienced as meaningful and yet for nothing.

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