The Path to a Meaningful Life According to Nietzsche
I love the treadmill. I can get my daily cardio without having to worry about tripping, falling and losing my dignity in front of onlookers. I can peacefully listen to my favorite tunes without having to worry about a car running me over if I’m not aware of my surroundings. I always leave the treadmill with a sense of accomplishment. “Ah, today I ran X miles. (That number is rarely higher than 3, but that’s another topic.) I can now vegetate for the rest of the day.”
But not all treadmills are enjoyable. Life can become a squeaky treadmill if we let routine settle in.
Don’t get me wrong. Routines can be great… if they’re leading you somewhere. Athletes, artists, and executives can do some of their best work because they’re able to stick to a routine that keeps their brains working, allowing more space for creativity to flow. However, if your routine is keeping your spirit chained to the ground and malnourished, leaving you with the desire of a new, better life, the longer you stay there, the higher the chances that your spirit will eventually die, leaving you in the undesired state of merely existing.
“Three metamorphoses of the spirit have I designated to you: how the spirit became a camel, the camel a lion, and the lion at last a child.”
Nietzsche referred to the spirit as your mind, your character. In his book “Thus Spoke Zarathustra,” he writes about three transformations of the spirit needed for a well-lived life. We can think of the spirit as a ball of clay waiting to be molded. The spirit sits there, waiting for our hands to start giving it shape, and the first shape it usually takes is that of a camel.
As we grow up, the adults and circumstances in our life shape our spirit. They teach us what to think, what to believe, and how convention dictates we should act under any given situation. Slowly, our spirit turns into a camel.
“All These heaviest things the load bearing spirit taketh upon itself: and like the camel, which, when laden, hasteneth into the wilderness, so hasteneth the spirit into its wilderness” — Thus Spoke Zarathustra.
Camels are beasts of burden. They take on whatever others load onto them. We learn to become beasts of burden, carrying conventions and responsibilities that others have imposed on us. And for a while, we accept this camel form with joy. We believe this is how life must be lived, because everyone around us is doing exactly the same. So we enjoy our cage… until we don’t anymore.
As we age and our dreams and abilities go unfulfilled, we wonder what else is there. How would my life be different if I didn’t have to carry this load everyday and everywhere? How would my life be different if I had chosen another path dictated by me and not by others?
These burdens take the shape of everything imaginable: your job, the set of beliefs that was imposed on you growing up, your self-imposed limitations, the toxic relationships in your life, etc.
The camel must make space for the second transformation.
As king of the jungle, the lion doesn’t care what anyone thinks. If you’re trying to hold him, he will bite, mangle, and kill. He’s not burdened with conventionality.
“But in the loneliest wilderness happeneth the second metamorphosis: here the spirit becometh a lion; freedom will it capture and lordship in its own wilderness”
“What will people think?” is the most common and heaviest burden we all carry on our backs. We’re so tragically obsessed with everyone else’s opinion except our own. The lion changes the question to “What will I think about myself when I look back on my life and realize I didn’t try to live up to my potential?”
The lion uses his strength and determination to destroy all structures in our life that no longer serve their purpose. In order to make space for growth, the lion understands he must tear down thoughts, beliefs, even relationships, that have held his spirit back for so long.
However, we must be careful not to become stuck on this transformation stage. Although destroying things could be a source of stress-relief, it is not a way of life. The purpose of the lion is to tear down to afford us the freedom to build again. We’re not destroying just for the sake of destroying. I’m sure we’ve all met people stuck in this stage. These people are usually bitter and resentful. They’ve destroyed every relationship in their life. They’re the ones telling you life is hard and you might as well stop trying, because something (or someone) will always make sure you stay down. They’re the ones constantly drunk or high who have done nothing with their life and seem intent on preventing everyone else to even get close to pursuing their dreams. These are the toxic people mama warned you about.
After the lion has given us space to build, we must bring in our contractor – the child. The child creates and builds not out of obligation, but because it’s fun to do so. She’s not burdened by the fear of criticism. She’s unapologetically herself.
“Innocence is the child, and forgetfulness, a new beginning, a game, a self-rolling wheel, a first movement, a holy Yea.”
The child forgets the past and moves on to new beginnings. She’s not restrained by external forces or enslaved to any ideas. She builds and re-builds, allowing her imagination and her ideas to flourish in the creation of new structures that will better suit the new life she wants to lead. And she’s happy doing so.
The child’s curiosity knows no boundaries, and if anyone has ever spent time with a 3-year-old, we know their constant “why’s” can be a deep source of frustration. But they never stop asking and wondering and learning. That’s what this third transformation is all about.
A Constant Cycle
The spirit is in constant evolution. You are not the same person you were a few years ago nor the person you will be a few years from now. Therefore, the structures in our life should continue evolving. After the child, we will once again become a camel, burdened by the new structures we created. And once again, we must become a lion to destroy the bad habits we acquired along the way. But the purpose of life should be to keep the third transformation alive – the child. Let’s always be curious, let’s never stop learning, let’s never stop building. If the spirit is to remain alive and free, let the child guide the way.