Our daughter Kara, the woman who will try everything once, intends to climb Mt. Apo again just before New Year’s Eve so that from the summit, she may report on the first millennial sunrise. I wanted her to stay home. I am quite certain it will rise the same way, I told her; it is the same sun, how would you portray it so it would look different?
It is difficult enough to tell one solar eclipse from another, I said in a desperate effort to dissuade her. I can’t imagine how you can depict the difference between one daybreak and another. The difference is in the mind; it is wholly one of perspective. The sun itself is unlikely to put up a dramatic performance on that day. We will stand in awe of this particular sunrise only because our counting system has made us believe that it is the first of a new millennium. But then there are other people who stand firm in the logic that the start of the new millennium will not happen till the year 2001.
She gave me an unconvinced look, as if to say, “This is my own private milenyo, where is yours?” Nietzsche could have asked the same question a hundred years ago while wrestling with the idea of “eternal recurrence.” In the classic work “Thus Spoke Zarathustra”, he wrote:
“Everything goes, everything comes back; eternally rolls the wheel of being. Everything dies, everything blossoms again; eternally runs the year of being. Everything breaks, everything is joined anew; eternally the same house of being is built. Everything parts, everything greets every other thing again; eternally the ring of being remains faithful to itself. In every Now, being begins; round every Here rolls the sphere There. The center is everywhere. Bent is the path of eternity.”
How should one live with this thought? With the weariness of someone who, having seen it all, can find nothing refreshing in the world? Or with the joy of someone who likes herself enough to affirm everything, and revels in the “beautiful folly” of being able to name and re-name things?
If we were told that everything that has happened in our life will happen again in exactly the same way, would we embrace this life or would we reject it? It was, to Nietzsche, the ultimate question about life. We cannot accept some parts of it while rejecting the other parts. For what we are is a product of both the good and the bad. If we like ourselves enough and have willful plans for the future, we would be disposed to say “yes” to an eternally recurring life. On the other hand, if we do not like ourselves and cannot recover from past pains and resentments, the thought of eternal recurrence would fill us with terror and gloom.
It was clear to Nietzsche that while events and experiences of the past can never be undone, what they mean to us is something that we can control. Their significance resides completely in their connection with the present and the future. Many things about the past acquire new astonishing meanings within the shifting stories we tell of our lives in light of what we have become, and what we expect to be in the future. Strong characters can look back and say of past misfortunes and tragedies, that everything has been a preparation for the battles they must face today.
“To be incapable of taking one’s enemies, one’s accidents, even one’s misdeeds seriously for very long,” wrote Nietzsche, “ – that is the sign of strong, full natures in whom there is an excess of the power to form, to mold, to recuperate, and to forget.”
Such a view can lead one to delusion, of course. And Nietzsche was well aware of that danger. One cannot re-imagine the past arbitrarily; one has to be able to assimilate it into the future in such a manner that one can draw blood from it to nourish oneself. What is important is that a recollection of the past should always strengthen rather than weaken one’s resolve to face the future. Or perhaps, one should say that our narratives of the past should always make us embrace life and not make us afraid when “all things themselves are dancing: they come and offer their hands and laugh and flee – and come back.”
The other day, my ailing mother asked to be brought to the mountain refuge in Bataan of my brother, Father Ambo. From her wheelchair, she looked at the garden as if she was seeing it for the first and last time. She marveled at the bright yellowbells that had covered one side of the house. She felt the cold December wind on her face, and said, “I am so happy to be back here. I never thought the flowers could be so lovely at this time of the year.” She prayed by the grotto and basked in the soothing sunlight.
Two months ago, we thought she was dying. She still thinks she is. But that thought precisely allows her to greet each morning as if it were the last. She brings to each day the same anticipation and wonder that my daughter Kara has reserved for her New Year’s Day millennial sunrise at Mt. Apo.
To a despairing Zarathustra expressing disgust over existence, Nietzsche spoke: “Do not speak on, O convalescent! But go out to the roses and bees and dovecotes. But especially to the songbirds, that you may learn from them how to sing.” Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to one and all!
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