Nietzsche, Happiness, Hardship, Alain de Botton
Through Alain de Botton’s book The Consolations of Philosophy, I came across Nietzsche’s notion of hardship, elaborated upon in Nietzsche’s book The Gay Science. De Botton’s interpretation of Nietzsche is that life is not always supposed to be easy and comfortable. In fact, in order to reach a fulfilled life — what else does one want, if one argues that fulfillment is one of the main sources of happiness and happiness is the goal of most– one will come across of a lot of suffering and must overcome great hardships.
De Botton offers a nice metaphor to Nietzsche’s idea of hardship in the form of a journey up a hill.
1. At the bottom of the hill, you are in a state of mediocrity
2. In your long journey up the hill, you suffer and are in a constant physical and mental pain
3. But once you made that painstaking travel to the top of the hill, you forget all the effort it took to get up there and utter your amazement of the great view you have come to see — a feeling of fulfilment.
This is Nietzsche in his own words in The Gay Science, part 338:
should you refuse to let your suffering lie on you even for an hour and instead constantly prevent all possible misfortune ahead of time; should you experience suffering and displeasure as evil, hateful, deserving of annihilation, as a defect of existence, then you have besides your religion of pity also another religion in your hearts; and the latter is perhaps the mother of the former – the religion of snug cosiness. Oh, how little do you know of the happiness of man, you comfortable and good-natured ones! For happiness and misfortune (Gluck und Ungluck) are two siblings and twins who either grow up together or – as with you – remain small together!
I would like to substitute the word misfortune with difficulties.
I personally feel that the things which make me the happiest are the things that I had to work hard for to achieve. One of my most satisfying achievements in the last few years was the completion of my Master’s thesis. Not necessarily because I got a good mark and positive feedback, but because for the first time in my life I left I actually knew something, no matter how marginal my knowledge was. And that sense of fulfillment came when I was giving a presentation in a course and I felt that I knew much (again a very relative and subjective word) more than I had time to present. I reached this point through a constant and careful planning of research and writing, with which I started about 9 months before handing it in; a hardship for me, because I had never taken upon myself such a large ‘project’.
After having read De Botton’s book and trying me make sense of this notion of hardship, at work I decided to ‘torture’ myself by telling my boss that I am willing to start taking calls in German as well, besides the English and Dutch I was contracted to do (I worked as first-line support for service stations). Right after taking up this extra language, surely not my favourite one, I felt that I had made a big mistake. However, after getting used to the calls, it gave me a sense of joy that I overcame the hardship and that I can do this.
The challenge of doing things of which you are not sure you can do them, then actually doing them, and succeeding, is a personal victory. And victory feels good.
I believe that one can stretch this whole idea further. Standing up for your rights at work (talking about why your boss is wrong in not promoting), in personal life (don’t allow your family or friends to manipulate you in doing things which you don’t really want) or other daily activities (convincing, if you know that you are right, shopkeepers that they sold one a product which does not meet the requirements). Of course this requires one to think different than: “Never mind…”, or “I’ll just leave it, not to cause any confrontation or conflict”. However, the choice to let things just happen is what I think De Botton meant with staying at the bottom of the hill — mediocrity. At the times I allowed myself to just accept the unfortunate situations that happened to me, I caught myself feeling unsatisfied, weak, betraying my pride and screwed over.
Being assertive and proactive might be stressful and invigorating at times, but the results are much more satisfying than just letting misfortunes happen.
I often tend to recall one moment where it gave me a great sense of fulfilment. The occasion was where a piece of clothing of my (then) partner broke hours after she purchased it. We went to the shop,she showed the damage incurred (a rip in a stocking), and the shop assistant told my partner that these are objects which tend to rip easily, especially if not used with care, and that the shop is not allowed to replace the stocking. My partner said we only went for lunch and thereafter the particular piece of clothing had already ripped. The shop assistant wasn’t convinced. I decided to ask for the manager of the shop and explain the situation. The manager repeated what the assistant had already said– that stockings easily rip and that my partner must have done something incautious. Moreover, that it is company policy not to replace stockings that are damaged after usage. However, my being convinced that the fault lay not in my partner’s use of the stocking, I insisted that the stocking be replaced with a new one. I must have repeated my statement that this is an unacceptable flaw only to be solved through a reimbursement or replacement 7-10 times, before the manager all of a sudden gave in and went on to tell the assistant to give my partner a new stocking. After leaving the shop, I went home with the feeling that we had just won a great psychological fight against the forces of injustice.
For a great book on assertiveness, consider Manuel J. Smith’s book When I Say No, I Feel Guilty.