Today is my own private New Year’s Day. Another year behind me. That’s 49 of them, now. And what is there to show for it? Have I made anything, learned anything, done anything that hasn’t been done a hundred thousand times or more by others? Does that even matter? Does anything?
How do we measure a life? Clearly it isn’t by the number of years lived. John Keats, Mozart, so many others who died young but achieved something extraordinary, something beyond themselves, proves longevity isn’t the best measure. But is that sort of achievement a useful measure? It is far too rare, and often comes with such great sacrifice. It’s too harsh to say that only a handful from every million lives is worthwhile.
I mentioned Nietzsche the other day, and I think maybe he provides a useful clue. Not that his life is one to emulate. The creeping madness that eventually consumed him isn’t something anyone would wish on themselves. And many of his ideas – such as the will to power, the übermensch, ‘God is dead’ – aren’t really applicable here, either. The idea I’m thinking of is his theory of eternal recurrence of the same.
In The Gay Science, Nietzsche asks us to imagine a devil or ‘evil genius’ appears to tell us that our lives will repeat eternally, exactly the same in every detail, including this moment in which we are told of it, and that it has already done so an infinite number of times. Would we pull our hair, gnash our teeth and cry out in horror at the thought of having to live through each moment again, without any ability to change any of it? Or would we, he later asks in Zarathustra, clap our hands and shout, ‘Again!’
Some philosophers have dismissed eternal recurrence as metaphysical nonsense, but I don’t think he meant for anyone to actually believe that the universe was on a continuous loop. Nietzsche often described himself as a psychologist, and I believe he intended eternal recurrence to be a sort of psychological test. How happy are you? If you were told that you had to repeat your life again and again without change, how would you react?
That’s a pretty difficult test for most of us. Life, as Nietzsche well knew (but rarely admitted), is filled with painful experiences, especially loss. No one wants to repeat those feelings, those moments. But there are also moments of joy, experiences we would not give up for anything. Such experiences almost invariably lead to loss, and yet, even with that knowledge, who among us would want to live without them? If the sum total of joy outweighs the pain of loss, perhaps having our lives repeat endlessly is worth it.
For me, that is the case, right now, at 49, working my way up to the next zero. I hope it will continue to be so.