The Eternal Return: How Nietzsche's philosophy can help you find the key to a contented life

The Eternal Return: How Nietzsche’s philosophy can help you find the key to a contented life

At its simplest, it’s about wholeheartedly owning your choices. And yet, how often are we fully conscious of – or actually take responsibility for – our choices.

“What if some day or night a demon were to steal into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: “This life as you now live and have lived it you will have to live once again and innumerable times again; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and sigh and everything unspeakably small or great in your life must 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.” 

– FRIEDRICH NIETZSCHE

Over a decade ago, someone had told me: “If you want to end up depressed and have your life lose all meaning, read Nietzsche.” I followed that advice very seriously. Until I read this article on Brain Pickings and read the above quote on Nietzsche’s philosophy of the idea of an eternal return.

I felt a buzzing through my body as I read and re-read these words, a stirring, an awakening. This idea of an eternal return, it isn’t the same thing as idly wondering if you regret any of your past decisions or if you would change any choices you made. It’s a clarion call for owning each and every one of your choices and, more importantly, the consequences of those choices. It’s about getting crystal clear on what you really want, and crafting a life that is true to those desires. It is about being an active participant in your own life, rather than being a bystander and allowing life to pass you by.

“Nietzsche suggests that the affirmation of the eternal return is possible only if one is willing and able to become well-adjusted to life and to oneself. To be well-adjusted, for Nietzsche, is to choose, wholeheartedly, what we think and where we find and create meaning. The specter of infinite monotony was for Nietzsche the abiding impetus to assume absolute responsibility: if one’s choices are to be replayed endlessly, they’d better be the “right” ones.”

– JOHN J. KAAG, Hiking with Nietzsche: On Becoming Who You Are

This is an idea I’ve been grappling with since a while. Making the right choices; tuning in to my own inner voice; tuning out the opinions and exhortations of how other people are living their lives. It’s what drove my decision to adopt a child-free life, to embrace slow living, to follow my spiritual curiosity, to eschew the rat race in favour of creating art {even if it is mainly for myself}.

This also means that it is solely up to me to determine the rightness of my choices, rather than to follow the code set by society. Because by society’s standards, I’d be an outlier – no children; no searing career ambition; no drive to accumulate or show off my wealth or status; not living up to the stereotype image of DINKS (double income, no kids) {wild partying, lots of travel, laser focus on career goals}.

But none of these things are right for me. What feels right, and good, and joyful is what I find myself increasingly doing these days – unravelling my life, coming home to myself, loving myself in all of my parts, bringing it all to the painty table, spilling my soul in layers of color and symbols and shapes and words.

“It might be tempting to think that the “rightness” of a decision could be affixed by some external moral or religious standard, but Nietzsche wants his readers to resist this temptation… Of course you can choose anything you want, to raise children or get married, but don’t pretend to do it because these things have some sort of intrinsic value — they don’t. Do it solely because you chose them and are willing to own up to them. In the story of our lives, these choices are ours and ours alone, and this is what gives things, all things, value. Only when one realizes this is he or she prepared to face the eternal recurrence, the entire cycle, without the risk of being crushed. Only then is one able to say with Yeats, “[A]nd yet again,” and truly mean it. Perhaps the hardest part of the eternal return is to own up to the tortures that we create for ourselves and those we create for others. Owning up: to recollect, to regret, to be responsible, ultimately to forgive and love.”

– JOHN J. KAAG, Hiking with Nietzsche: On Becoming Who You Are

But this idea of the eternal return isn’t only about making the choices that show us in positive light. It is also about owning all the choices that were not so positive. The times when we acted out of jealousy and spite; when we allowed anger to rule our responses; apathy to make our choices. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with any of this…there is just the exhortation to take ownership for these less-than-stellar times and responses, and do what we must to correct them.

And that usually involves inner work: how we choose to do it, is again, up to us. Some of us may decide therapy is the answer, others may turn to journaling or shadow work or spirituality or creative pursuits. Again, there is no right or wrong way, there is only your way. But it does require the searing ability to own up to ourselves our own truths – not just the ones we are happy and boastful about, but the ones we hide away in the darkest closet. As long as we don’t turn our back on that darkness, and do our best to shine the light in the farthest reaches of our own psyche, we can live happily, I believe, with the idea of the eternal return.

It is also important to remember that we are always becoming. There will always be some darkness – we cannot banish it – and that is fine. But there should also always be the light – and the willingness to shine that light in the dark places.

What do you think about the idea of the eternal return? Do you think this little philosophical nugget can help you to change the way you approach life?

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8 comments

  1. I have always harped on the importance of choices but what I have found difficult is owning the consequences – good or bad. There was a story a teacher told us while I was on one of my spiritual pursuits and he said, there are numerous ways to go from place A to place B. You can fly there (easy) or you can walk there (difficult). But once you reach there, don’t moan that you got blisters because you walked. You made that choice and that choice led to good consequences (scenic route) and bad consequences (blisters). That story is what finally helped me to create the choice vs consequence equation that I could live with. I love what you’re doing with this new blog Shinjini 😀

    Liked by 1 person

    • Oh, that’s a wonderful story! Sometimes just this slight perspective shift helps us see things so much clearer, right? And thank you. I’m so happy you’re enjoying the new blog. It’s a lot of fun, thinking deeply + not bothering too much about anything else except writing!

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  2. Banishing regret is truly the hardest part of life. We need to be more forgiving of ourselves. The times we took wrong decisions for whatever reason, obviously would have seemed right at that time. I like the idea of choosing with intent and owning the consequences.

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  3. Such a powerful thought and it underlines my own beliefs that we make our own heaven or hell. I’ve made some awful choices in the past, but I’ve learned from them – possibly made similar ones and learned again. And then I’ve made some good choices and I own them. Like you and A, we live life on our own terms and there was a time I tried to explain it to others. Now I don’t. This is who I am and when I embrace that, it’s easier for me to accept other people’s choices too.

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  4. Many years ago when I was learning Tai Chi and at the end of our class we would mediate. Our teacher talked to us about a path. We would choose many paths some would be rocky some would be easy paths but we would all get to our destination no matter which path we follow. So we can all look back and think “if only” but it does not matter. Some of us make bad choices but those choices make who we are. Some glide through life with not a care. I look back and think “if I hadn’t done that I wouldn’t have met or done this”…#Senior Salon

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    • Yes! Each choice determines who we are and who we meet and what we do. There’s no point to wondering “what if” – better to make conscious decisions to the best of our abilities and know that at every stage and every point we did the best that we could at that time.

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