“What if a demon were to say to you, ‘This life as you now live it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more. There will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and sigh and everything unutterably small or great will have to return to you – all in the same succession and sequence.’ Would you throw yourself down and curse the demon? Or would you say, ‘You are a god and never have I heard anything more divine.’”
This is heavy stuff, am I right? That was my first thought when it became part and parcel of my first assignment in Burt Bradley’s creative writing class at Northwest College in the early 1990s. Our task was to interpret this question posed by Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900), the noted German philosopher.
Nietzsche’s query reminded me of the 1993 Bill Murray movie, “Groundhog Day.” In that flick, Murray had to relive Groundhog Day over and over until “he got it right.” Nietzsche’s query was simple: If I had to live my life over and over, like Murray’s dilemma, would it be a joy or a scourge?
And would I change anything to leverage my life one way or another?
Paul and Jamie Buckman faced a similar question in an episode of one of my favorite, 90s sitcoms, “Mad About You.” As they faced the unexpected death of a friend, they wondered if they’d spend the day differently if they had known it was their last. Consequently, they spent the rest of the day telling their family and friends how much they meant to them.
I can see where the Buckmans were coming from. I’ve always had a “just in case” philosophy, but even more so now that I have far fewer days in front of me than behind me! So, just in case I’m broad-sided by an RV on Sheridan Avenue or fall off a ladder trying to replace the battery in the smoke detector, I want all the fences mended, all the walls torn down.
Even when I worked in an office, my coworkers and I had adopted an “if I die” strategy. Whenever any of us were out of the office for any length of time, we were compelled to ensure our work was in order before we left. None of us relished the thought of relocating to the Great Beyond, only to hear our name accursed down below because we didn’t leave instructions for the printer before our departure.
Is Nietzsche’s question a curse or a divine gift? I’m not entirely sure. Certainly, there are episodes in my life that I would just as soon forget. But there are others that I could live over and over like “dragging Main” on a summer night, the first glimpses of my children’s tiny faces or those great times with grandkids.
You see, my take on the Nietzsche assignment was the importance of living life without regrets, “being without excuse,” as it were. I admit I don’t always get the words said or the deeds done, but I hope that just because I falter doesn’t make the concept any less valid.
In fact, I think I’d better call some folks today.