Among other things, the German philosopher Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche was known for an outrageous mustache that frightened away potential soulmates. He also said a lot of outrageous things, which caused him to be shunned by much of society at the time.
Before publishing Thus Spoke Zarathustra, his best known work in which he proclaimed “God is dead,” he wrote a book titled The Joyful Wisdom (originally: The Gay Science).
In that book, he posed a question that may be even more interesting than the death of God. Well over one-hundred years later, this question is so provocative that it can still cause you to lose sleep … or maybe that’s just me.
Nietzsche’s question was: “What if I had to live this life over again—would I be able to stand it?”
“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!’”
I think of this as a long way of asking, “Would you willingly choose to relive the life you’ve lived in its entirety, or would you be so tormented with regret that you’d rather have anything else?”
If you’ve never sat with this question, it can be quite an experience. Many people go to great lengths to avoid thinking about their lives, for all sorts of reasons. Thinking about your life can be a burden! You’ve got plenty of other things to do, and besides, where do you even start?
Moreover, you might have a sneaking suspicion that you already know your answer to the question, and it doesn’t feel great. Would you like to live exactly the same life over again? No! You’d do many things differently. Regret is a byproduct of being human.
That’s not the question, though. The question is, “If you HAD to experience it all the same way, how would you feel?” There are three possible answers:
- You’d feel exuberant. You’ve done everything right! Congratulations, enlightened soul.
- You’d feel tormented with regret. Everything is meaningless.
- You’d think, wow, that’s interesting. I would definitely relive some parts of my life, and others I might want to change. I wonder if this insight might cause me to change something now?
In case you feel tormented: it’s okay, I get it. I used to feel that way more than the other answers. Day after day, I felt trapped, scared, and upset with myself. But something changed … specifically, I did.
Though I hesitate to use the unconditional past tense—it’s more of an ongoing practice than a one-and-done decision—I can say with confidence that I WOULD live my same life over again now. I still have more to work on (etc. etc.) but I no longer feel tormented.
That’s why, while it’s probably nice to feel exuberant with the knowledge that you wouldn’t change anything at all, I think the third answer is the best.
All of us still have work to do on ourselves—to live better, to love and experience more, to make the most of the time we have left. Better to know that than to bury your head in the sand. And better still to be willing to do the work.
The way to transform this sense of despair is to understand its logical conclusion: not to cause you to be tormented with regret, but to help you change the future.
Try to change it right now!
Chris Guillebeau is the New York Times bestselling author of The Happiness of Pursuit, The $100 Startup, and other books. During a lifetime of self-employment, he visited every country in the world (193 in total) before his 35th birthday. Every summer in Portland, Oregon he hosts the World Domination Summit, a gathering of creative, remarkable people. His new book, Born for This, will help you find the work you were meant to do. Connect with Chris on Twitter, on his blog, or at your choice of worldwide airline lounge.
Image courtesy of cottonbro.