The greatest weight. – 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 it 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. The eternal hourglass of existence is turned over again and again, and you with it, speck of dust!" Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus? Or have you once experienced a tremendous moment when you would have answered him: "You are a god, and never have I heard anything more divine." If this thought gained power over you, as you are it would transform and possibly crush you; the question in each and every thing, "Do you want this again and innumerable times again?" would lie on your actions as the heaviest weight! Or how well disposed would you have to become to yourself and to life to long for nothing more fervently than for this ultimate eternal confirmation and seal?
Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science, 341
This is one formulation of Nietzsche’s famous thought experiment known as “the eternal return of the same.” He invites us to imagine the prospect of living our lives precisely as they are, with all that has happened and will happen to us, again and again forever. Every moment, no matter how small, and every event, no matter how painful, would be relived ceaselessly throughout time. Suppose someone, in this case a demon, offered us this choice? To relive our lives, to go through the exact same things, only to have “the eternal hourglass” turn over and start yet again. How would we respond? Would we choose it or run from it?
Now, Nietzsche’s point with this experiment in thinking is not to convince us that life after death will actually be some kind of repetitive cycle of our present living. Neither is it to get us to embrace in a glib way the tragic and painful times of our lives as if they weren’t that bad after all. We all have parts of our lives which, if asked to choose to repeat them, we would recoil from. And we all have regrets about things we wish we could do or undo. Nietzsche’s point, however, is to get us to think of our lives in terms of their importance. What if this life is the place of value and not some otherworldly destination? What if this life and the way we live it carries ultimate weight because it is the only one we will ever have? Nietzsche is trying to get us to look at our lives with fresh eyes, to see this world in which we live as having supreme importance—all our moments, all our passions, all our unexpected contingencies and meaningful relationships and decisive actions and unforeseen tragedies. It all matters because it is this world, this life, which is the only one we’ve been given.
One way of looking at Nietzsche’s experiment is as an encouragement to own our lives, all our lives, as precisely ours. No one else stands where each of us stands; no one else experiences and feels precisely what each of us has known. In a sense, life calls us to own (up to) what happens to us. To integrate it with our living because it is in some sense ours.
To own something can simply mean to possess it or control it, or even to master it. This is the strong sense of ownership and is not usually a helpful approach to living. There is always more going on with us than we can say or control, especially when it comes to loss and grief, which we are coming to. But there is another meaning of owning something which is helpful here, and this is when we own something by acknowledging or admitting it. For example, someone may own (up to) his guilt over an action or someone may own (up to) her responsibility for something. To own in this sense is to acknowledge or admit something that is true or valid for us and which may have a claim on us. We own it by acknowledging that in some sense it is ours or is related to us, and this is the meaning I want to emphasize.
When it comes to loss in our lives and the grieving we do in response, owning what has happened to us and what is happening with us is the ultimate task. I don’t mean to say that owning our losses is somehow a facile or easy or short-term gesture. It is not a matter of simply giving cognitive assent to an event in our lives. We are deeply emotional beings, and even our reason is emotionally saturated. When we grieve, our emotions are trying to deal with the often overwhelming reality of our loss. At this moment, I am mindful of the horrific tragedy in the Aurora movie theater in CO. Those closest to that devastating loss will be working with their intense emotional responses and owning what has happened to them for a long time and even the rest of their lives.
William Worden, a teacher at Harvard Medical School and one of the most respected writers in the field of Bereavement Studies, has formulated the work of mourning in terms of four tasks: to accept the reality of the loss, to process the pain of grief, to adjust to a world without the deceased, to find an enduring connection with the deceased in the midst of embarking on a new life. What I mean by owning a loss includes all these tasks. We don’t always go through them in a neat linear fashion, nor do we emphasize them all equally in our experience. Also, there is no time limit. We can grieve intensely for a few months, get hit by an anvil of emotion on a first or second anniversary, and carry a sense of grief for someone into new contexts throughout our lives (closure is a bad word for grief!). But these four tasks do point in the direction of a kind of journey which each griever can make, a journey of owning one’s loss and one’s life.
We can own our grief with tears and memories, laments and laughter, anger and forgiveness. We can own our grief with memorials and conversations and journaling and keepsakes. We can own our grief by confronting our pain and working with it, reminding ourselves of our loss whenever we need to, and accepting ourselves when our reactions might feel intense and even a little crazy. In short, we can own our grief in any number of unique, intense and even conflicting ways. Whatever it takes to realize ever more deeply and transformatively the actuality of what we’ve experienced. We can keep working on our lives to make them more authentically ours, like the Bill Murray character in Groundhog Day.
What keeps us from owning our loss and grief? Nietzsche would remind us that to emphasize another world beyond this one can devalue our lives and actions here. Whatever we may think about another world, it should not be used to distort the importance of this one and the one life we are given here to lead. Religious talk around loss such as “it is all part of God’s plan” is surely one way to diminish the importance of how we live and what we go through. When this happens, I as an individual, with all my passions, choices, suffering, experiences and loves, get subsumed and discounted by “eternal plan” talk. Let us own our losses for the full reality of what they are and what they mean to us.
One other way to keep from owning our loss and grief is to give ourselves over to distractions in order to avoid the hurt and pain. I understand and feel with those who are tempted by this tendency. We’ve all been there standing at the precipice of our pain. The temptation is to cling rigidly to old ways in denial, or to throw ourselves at a “soft” addiction like alcohol or drugs or food or sex or anything else that becomes a consuming distraction. Such a way of distracting ourselves from what we’ve gone through and drifting along into the future keeps us from owning our lives in an authentic way.
So, Nietzsche would press us, “do you want your life?” Are you working with the elements of the one life you’ve been given, even in your losses and grieving? Or are you holding out for different terms, which is no life at all?