Saturday, October 30, 2010

suffering and contentment go hand in hand

Buddhist Way:

We know that life is suffering, that the harder we try to enjoy it, the more enslaved we are by it, and so we should discard the goods of life and practice abstinence.

Nietzsche's Way:

Fulfillment is to be reached not by avoiding pain, but by recognizing its role as a natural, inevitable step on the way to reaching anything good.

If you refuse to let your own suffering lie upon you even for an hour and if you constantly try to prevent and forestall all possible distress way ahead of time; if you experience suffering and displeasure as evil, hateful, worthy of annihilation, and as a defect of existence, then it is clear that you harbor in your the religion of comfortableness. How little you know of human happiness, you comfortable...people for happiness and unhappiness are sisters and even twins that either grow up together or, as in your case, remain small together.

To regard states of distress in general as an objection, as something that must be abolished, is the [supreme idiocy], in a general sense a real disaster in its consequences...almost as stupid as the will to abolish bad weather.

How does the New Testament console us for our difficulties? By suggesting that many of these are not difficulties at all but rather virtues:

If one is worried about timidity, the New Testament points out:
Blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth. (Matthew 5.5)

If one is worried about having no friends, the New Testament suggests:
Blessed are ye, when men shall hate you, and when they shall separate you from their company, and shall reproach you, and cast out your name as evil…your reward is great in heaven. (Luke 6.22-3)

If one is worried about an exploitative job, the New Testament advises:
Servants, obey in all things your masters according to the flesh…Knowing that of the Lord ye shall receive the reward of the inheritance: for ye serve the Lord Christ. (Colossians 3.22)

If one is worried at having no money, the New Testament tells us:
It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God. (Mark 10.25)

There may be differences between such words and a drink but Nietzsche insisted on an essential equivalence. Both Christianity and alcohol have the power to convince us that what we previously thought deficient in ourselves and the world does not require attention; both weaken our resolve to garden our problems; both deny us the chance of fulfillment:

The two great European narcotics, alcohol and Christianity.

Christianity had, in Nietzsche’s account, emerged from the minds of timid slaves in the Roman Empire who had lacked the stomach to climb to the tops of mountains, and so had built themselves a philosophy claiming that their bases were delightful. Christians had wished to enjoy the real ingredients of fulfilment (a position in the world, sex, intellectual mastery, creativity) but did not have the courage to endure the difficulties these goods demanded. They had therefore fashioned a hypocritical creed denouncing what they wanted but were too weak to fight for while praising what they did not want but happened to have. Powerlessness became “goodness”, baseness “humility”, submission to people one hated “obedience” and, in Nietzsche”s phrase, “not-being-able-to-take-revenge” turned into “forgiveness”. Every feeling of weakness was overlaid with a sanctifying name, and made to seem “a voluntary achievement, something wanted, chosen, a deed, an accomplishment”. Addicted to “the religion of comfortableness”, Christians, in their value system, had given precedence to what was easy, not what was desirable, and so had drained life of its potential.

Having a “Christian” perspective on difficulty is not limited to members of the Christian church; it is for Nietzsche a permanent psychological possibility. We all become Christians when we profess indifference to what we secretly long for but do not have; when we blithely say that we do not need love or a position in the world, money or success, creativity or health while the corners of our mouths twitch with bitterness; and we wage silent wars against what we have publicly renounced, firing shots over the parapet, sniping from the trees.

How would Nietzsche have preferred us to approach our setbacks? To continue to believe in what we wish for, even when we do not have it, and may never. Put another way, to resist the temptation to denigrate and declare evil certain goods because they have proved hard to secure a pattern of behaviour of which Nietzsche’s own, infinitely tragic life offers us perhaps the best model.

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