The Meaning of Life

“To live is to suffer, to survive is to find some meaning in the suffering.”  – Friedrich Nietzsche

I’ve always thought Nietzsche was an interesting study. A German (Prussian) philosopher born in the mid 1800s, his writings are both profound and controversial. His beliefs centered around the concept of good and evil, struggle and survival, an assessment of humanity as incomplete, and its need to evolve to a new set of values (as knowledge destabilizes old values). And to be clear, I don’t necessarily agree with all his writings or his beliefs. But taken in parts, his writings can often be very thought provoking.

Such is the case with this quote. I heard it recited by an American veteran recently in a documentary on the causes and outcomes of the Vietnam war. For those of you who are students of history, you know that war was one of tremendous suffering – for all sides involved. And the trauma it left for those involved has taken decades to heal (if at all). But this is not a story on the lessons of Vietnam. Rather, it’s a testament to the profound nature of the words of Nietzsche.

“To live is to suffer…” I don’t know that I have ever heard life put in that context. As an optimist, I’ve always looked for the good in life. I’ve always espoused a focus on the positives. This is where Nietzsche and I differ, as his tendency was for a more pessimistic outlook. But in fairness, there is truth to his statement. Life is a struggle. History shows that time and time again. Whether its political, racial, economic, geographic, physical, or emotional – life itself is a difficult proposition.

Not to make it trivial, but every cycle of our lives is faced with challenges. As a young child, I grew up the son of a mother who made very little money as a parole officer. I’ve told stories in past blogs about those times. I was also “blessed” with red hair as a child (bet you didn’t know that one), and the name “Carrot Top” still stings when I hear it used on others. As an adult beginning to earn my own way, I remember all the times I was asked to do grunt work to “pay my dues”. And even now as a leader, I find that every day brings its own struggles – losing business; employee resignations; making payroll; customers crushing down bill rates – the list goes on. Nothing like that soldier in Vietnam, but my own personal brand of “suffering”. I’m not here to debate the degree of suffering, only to suggest that Nietzsche may have been on to something with his statement.

“…to survive is to find some meaning in the suffering.” What I like most is the second half of Nietzsche’s quote. It provides a promise for that suffering. While that may sound like a stretch, it suggests that there can be a purpose for each of us – leveraging our past struggles to bring meaning and value to ourselves and others.

Together these two halves provide an intriguing roadmap for all of us. In one sense, it recognizes we all come from different pasts, have different challenges, and have all experienced suffering in some fashion (certainly in varying degrees). Perhaps that’s the one equality we all share. On the other hand, it suggests a meaning to life if we are willing to embrace that past, and embrace our struggles, for our own personal sense of purpose. Perhaps THAT is the meaning of life…

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