Donne, Nietzsche, and Me
A review of the Pixar film Soul included these words: “ . . . the spark is simply a willingness to embrace life as a gift, not to win life like a talent contest.”
There are two kinds of life experiences: good and bad; pleasurable and unpleasurable; desirable and undesirable; wanted and unwanted. Can both be embraced as gift?
The good/pleasurable/etc. experiences are always a gift.
- The good grades one might be awarded in high school or college are gift. To be
sure, the student determinedly applied him/herself, but just as surely could never
have done so without having been nurtured by family, teachers, and friends. Gift.
- A person spends a considerable amount of money on a long and enjoyable cross-country road trip. The vacation time was earned as part of the good job for which the traveler was hired, and the person spent her own hard-earned dollars. But think of all the people who made the trip possible: those who made the nice SUV; those who built the roads; those who built and operate the gas stations, motels, and restaurants enjoyed along the way . . . all those who made the whole experience possible. Gift.
John Donne wrote in 1624 “no man is an island.” So for all the good and beautiful things we experience in life, we can thank the untold numbers of people who helped make them possible. And they will all be appreciated measurably more when we do that instead of thinking of them as prizes for one’s own intelligence and determination.
[Note: Thank a hospital maintenance worker, a restaurant waiter, a secretary, an honest, hard-working politician, a grocery store clerk. It just could make their day!]
As for the unpleasurable, unwanted life experiences . . . it can be a challenge to see them as gift. But it can be done, and doing so will often mitigate their negative effects.
We had a saying during my Marine Corps days: “Pain is good.” Why? . . . because it meant one was still alive. I don’t mean to be cavalier by mentioning this. I have had experiences where this actually worked.
One of my favorite quotes is from the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche: “What doesn't kill me makes me stronger.” Of course, this doesn’t happen automatically. It depends on what the sufferer does in the midst or aftermath of the suffering.
Thirteen months of my life were spent in Vietnam. While survivors generally do not talk about combat experiences, I will simply say that war is as horrible a thing as human beings manufacture. I wouldn’t recommend it to anybody. Anybody. Yet, I am in large measure the person I am today because of that experience. Family, friends, and a Marine colonel supported and guided me as I struggled to make sense of what I experienced while assimilating back into civilian life. Armed conflict is not intrinsically a gift, but, depending on what one does, the aftereffects can be. What does not kill me makes me stronger.
Embracing life as a gift. All of life. Good and not-so-good. Direct your gratitude wherever you think it should go. And never think of what is given as a talent contest reward.