Wednesday, June 30, 2010
While taking care of your physical health should always be a priority, I’d like to dedicate a few words to discuss where the real battle takes place—the mind. Physical changes--whether reducing the amount of processed foods or increasing your activity levels—can be accomplished in a shorter amount of time if you push yourself hard enough. This is not the same for mental changes. Our perceptions of the world, ourselves, and the relationship shared between the two are learned over time. Through the process of socialization, we construct our mental foundation. The real difficulty with this, however, is that our subconscious has no idea of what is “real” and what is “perceived.” After hearing enough negative comments, we have the tendency to believe them—or at least I did.
It took me a long time to realize that what I was telling myself mentally affected me in ways far greater than I had ever imagined. I can’t speak for everyone, but it seems rather universal when I do bring it up—especially among younger people such as my students. As I mentioned in the earlier letter, “It’s All in Your Head,” we must learn to disregard that little negative voice that generates self-doubt. If we don’t, it affects every aspect of our being as social creatures. We feel and (far too often) capitulate to peer pressure. We allow ourselves to be shaped by and for our culture and all that it entails (shared language, religion(s), various ethnicities, etc). But is this necessary? Do we really need these cultural archetypes, or is it possible to transcend them and cut to the heart of the human condition and/or experience? I don’t know if I have any answers to these questions, but I can tell you who did—Nietzsche.
I like philosophy in general because it exposes humanity to questions of concern for all of us. It’s a learning exercise to read philosophy because you have to engage the text in a critical and responsible way if it is to have any meaning or bearing on your own life. While I wouldn’t consider myself the most widely read person when it comes to philosophy, I’ve done my fair share—and no one has ever puzzled me more than one of the earliest existentialists, Friedrich Nietzsche. If you’ve never read him, his aphoristic style is difficult to interpret at times and at face value many of his statements may seem blasphemous, ridiculous, or outlandish. I wouldn’t recommend sustained reading of his works, either; several years ago I read half of his works in a two month period and I was starting to question my own sanity. As I’ve gotten older, however, I’ve found that I continually gravitate back to his worldview, particularly that of the “übermensch.”
The übermensch is often translated as “superman,” but I prefer Walter Kaufman’s translations of Nietzsche who uses the term “overman” instead. Without getting into too much detail, a basic description of the “overman” is someone who is capable of letting go of cultural convention and archetypes. For Nietzsche, there was no such person. He felt that if humanity were to progress, we’d have to jettison a lot (if not all) of our preconceptions about life that culture is bound to create. Essentially, in order to be our most fully human, we must transcend. One of my favorite quotes about this is from Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra; Zarathustra is a prophet who is preaching the coming of the übermensch, a person who would have the ability to live as authentically as possible. Here’s the quote:
But my fervent will to create impels me ever again toward man; thus is the hammer impelled toward the stone. O men, in the stone there sleeps an image, the image of my images. Alas, that is must sleep in the hardest, the ugliest stone! Now my hammer rages cruelly against its prison. Pieces of rock rain from the stone: what is it to me? I want to perfect it; for a shadow came to me—the stillest and lightest of all things once came to me. The beauty of the overman came to me as a shadow. O my brothers, what are the gods to me now?
I’d like to put this quote into context by sharing my interpretation of it. Nietzsche thought that a person was capable of great things through the exercise of will. In past letters I’ve already mentioned how important the will is if you’re ever going to succeed at anything, whether your aim be personal development or otherwise. What this quote means to me is that we can literally create who we are, or more importantly, who we are trying to become. We all know that that better person we want to become—physically, mentally, or spiritually—is already inside of each of us. All it takes is the will and the perseverance to see the transformation through. That “image” of who we want to become is what is trapped within the stone; the stone itself being societal trappings. We are so enmeshed within our own cultural context that it can be difficult to see outside of it. I am in no means advocating that you give up or destroy culture, either. I think that you must give culture the respect that it’s due, but not to the point that you are bound and defined by it (and we are much more than we think we are). Metaphorically speaking then, Zarathustra—and by extension anyone who wants to make real, lasting change for the better to his/her personal life—must escape from this prison, must break away the stone to unleash the true potential that lies within. In my estimation, the last line sums it up perfectly. Though “gods” can be taken in the literal sense, I see it again as a metaphor for the forces of society that give us a prescribed life, or at least a prescribed meaning for that life. Or perhaps “gods” could be the parameters that we use to restrict ourselves and our development as human beings. Either way, I’ve had my hammer in hand for almost two years now. There may still be a lot of stone that needs to be cleared away, but I have the will to see it through.
I’d like to return to the allusion of “becoming” that I made in the preceding paragraph. Nietzsche was originally a philologist, which was a forerunner to the field of modern linguistics. His specialty was languages from antiquity with a focus on ancient Greek in particular. Being a Classics minor myself, I can see why I gravitated toward Nietzsche because of my own admiration for ancient Greek society. At any rate, in several of his works Nietzsche paraphrases the poet Pindar by stating “Become who you are.” To me, that might be the most loaded and interesting four word phrase I’ve ever read. It’s not the same as recommending to someone “be who you are,” which would imply stasis. Nothing in this universe is in stasis; all we have is in the midst of change. “Become who you are” is so much more powerful because it is imbued with a sense of destiny and urgency. Almost as if there is something inside of us that is dormant waiting to be awakened and released. That better person that we want to become. More importantly, it is equally fascinating because it is impossible to “become.” In doing so, we are always required to push ourselves, to keep chipping away, to know there’s always room for improvement. Each day is a gift. We’ll never know how many we are going to receive, so why wait? Why not begin “becoming who you are”? If you are well on your way and have begun to realize some of these changes in your life—that’s spectacular! But you probably have figured out that it will take more work because we are never going to perfect ourselves. All we can do is strive. To keep reaching for that goal, whether it’s to lose weight, improve our patience, help more people, it doesn’t matter. It’s in the constant struggle to improve that we truly come alive.
One of the last letters I wrote during the school year was to my graduating seniors. In it I discussed the importance of this concept, of becoming who they are. They are about to begin a new leg of this journey we call life as they head off to college, and I couldn’t let them leave without one final word about what it means to strive. At the closing of the letter, I quoted the last line of Lord Alfred Tennyson’s “Ulysses,” as it summarizes a great deal of what I’ve said in this letter. Below you will find final five lines of the last stanza:
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are—
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.