A Life Design Experiment

Overcoming hardship, Nietzsche style

by Holly Em on February 4, 2012

When facing hardship, it’s difficult to put things into perspective. No matter how many times you remind yourself that there are people (many people) worse off than you, it still doesn’t make you feel much better about your situation, not for long at least.

Personally, when people tell me to think of the starving children (or similar) I want to punch them in the face (figuratively). Like I need yet another reminder of life’s suffering and to be made to feel stupid for not being able to apply this “simple” advice. It’s the same when someone says to me “just give me a smile” when I’m feeling shit. Insert fist into face (figuratively). Thinking of starving children and putting a fake smile on my face does not solve my problems.

The philosopher Nietzsche had an interesting take on dealing with hardship. Although I don’t agree with all his revelations, he does make some thought-provoking points. He believed that all varieties of suffering and failures should be welcomed if we are to be truly happy. We should regard them as tough challenges to overcome in the same way a climber might tackle a mountain.

In keeping with the mountain analogy, Nietzsche believed that the finest views came from the tops of mountains, but naturally it is very hard to get to them. He thought that to reach anything worthwhile, you have to go through an extraordinary amount of effort:

“Nietzsche was unlike other philosophers by viewing serious setbacks as advantageous. The heart of Nietzsche’s philosophy is simple: Difficulty in life is normal. We shouldn’t give up when we experience it. We feel pain because of the gap of who we are at the moment, and the person we can ideally be. It’s because we can’t master the ingredients of happiness straight away that we suffer as much as we do.

But it’s not just enough to suffer, if hardship was all it took to be fulfilled, then all of us would be happy. The challenge is to learn to respond well to suffering.”

So far, I like this guy. I like him because he’s real. He’s not going around telling us life is beautiful and easy and that we should deny our inner most darkest thoughts (because life is beautiful you know…).  He’s telling us to confront these feelings, accept them, truly accept them, and then try to use that energy to create something good.

“Nietzsche believed you can take situations that look seriously ugly and dark and make them beautiful.  Even our most negative, ugly feelings can be cultivated into something fruitful, but it’s entirely up to us to make this happen. Envy can lead to bitterness, but it can also spur us to compete with a rival to produce something wonderful. Anxiety might make us panic, or it might blossom into an accurate analysis of what’s wrong, and so piece of mind.”

On one point I don’t agree is Nietzsche’s belief that every success comes from hard work and sacrifice. I do believe there are people who have naturally good luck in their lives and that good things happen to these people much more easily. Rod Steward didn’t write the song “Some guys have all the luck” for nothing. Of course, everything is relative, so to those people they most likely believe they have made deep sacrifices to earn their good fortune.

Another interesting point Nietzsche made was in order to reach great happiness from life, you have to live dangerously, to “build your homes on the slopes of mount Vesuvius”, which might seem reckless, but it would give you magnificent views of the ocean and mountains. He felt that life is a risky business. No pain no gain. You have to take a chance at some point.

In some respects I agree with Nietzsche. In most cases you have to take great risks in order to enjoy great reward. However, I don’t believe that people who haven’t lived adventurously aren’t truly happy. Some of the most stable, satisfied people I know are living proof.

On dealing with hardship, Nietzsche thought it disastrous to drown away your sorrows at the pub. By doing this, you are only temporarily escaping your troubles and you miss out on the relationship between happiness and hardship.

“Happiness does not come from escaping troubles, it comes from cultivating them to your advantage. The last thing we should do is drown them. Our worries are vital clues telling us what’s wrong with our lives, pointing the way to our ultimate improvement.”

Interestingly, Nietzsche insisted that there are great similarities between the consolation available in a church and that in a pub. He believed that in the short term, going to church might make you feel good (like a getting drunk does for many), however in the long term it dulls pain (like alcohol), and therefore dulls the energy that it can give us to overcome problems, and so reach real happiness.

In some respects, I can see his point. However I don’t believe Church should be a discredited source of dealing with hardship.  Different types of support help different types of people, as we all have unique histories and ways of making sense of this world. Hence, why there are so many distinct religions and philosophies.

So how does Nietzsche suggest people deal with setbacks exactly? We should deal with setbacks by not pretending that we don’t want the things that are difficult to for us to get. He believed we should practice acceptance of our problems and not deny our pain, but to use the energy of that pain to make something good.

It’s true. Not everything that makes us suffer is bad for us, just as not everything that makes us feel good is actually good for us.

So I’ll leave you with his most famous quote:

“That which does not kill you, makes you stronger.”  

…if you deal with it in a clever manner, that is. ;-)


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