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Overcoming One's Past

The overman is not the man of the future; it is the man who is able to reconcile with and liberate himself from his past. Self-transcendence begins with freeing one’s self from the past. And this liberation is one
in which what we took to be what merely happened to us in the past can be assumed as the burden of one’s own doing, that one will heroically take on what merely ‘was’ as one’s own and so transform it into ‘thus I willed it’ (Hollingdale, xxxi).
Why the sudden turn to the past instead of the future? Why is the past the object or target of self-overcoming?
         Perhaps because the self that you are is precisely the sum or the result of your past. What is problematic, though, is that the past is that which we by definition can no longer overcome and change. We are in a word powerless in front of (behind?) our past. This is why Nietzsche said that the sadness of the will is that it is not able to “will back.”

         Also, when I look back at my life I see that most of it is marked by contingency. Accidents, the decisions of others, “God’s plans,” unexplainable or absurd events, what we in other words did not choose or will—all these shaped, formed, and altered the course of my life in such a way that I may now be so far or so different from what I planned on becoming then. (It’s true for me.) Before this fact one can say that “all is chance,” that we therefore have no control or power over our lives, and that we are slaves to circumstance. Understanding that you are not responsible for your life, we can add, can lead you to either despair or hope in a god who we then believe has the power we do not possess. Either way: loss or transfer of will. Nothing is overcome.

         The alternative which Nietzsche proposes is for us to embrace what ‘was’ by changing it into ‘I thus willed it.’ Now of course we know that we really did not in fact will or choose much of what happened to us in the past. What I can change however is my view of or attitude to it. Even if I cannot say I chose all that happened to me, I can nevertheless say that “all is well,” that “I wouldn’t want it any other way.” By doing so I also overcome my accidental or contingent self, and turn it into a self I am satisfied with, or perhaps even learn to love.

          We all know that uncanny feeling when, in those moments you recall your past as you get older and older, you slowly see some semblance of meaning in your life. What were once events you did not understand—those painful and trying times that shook your faith and made you dramatically (and cinematically) ask God or the world “Why?”—those events may now make some sense to you. Meaning, like wisdom, always comes late. You have to let time do its “work,” as it were, so that the meanings of once seemingly meaningless events may emerge. And in that blessed moment you do see how things have fallen into their proper places—kahulugan—that is the time you realize that your life indeed has a sensible if not meaningful story, one which you can now call your own.

         You now see that the events that crushed you and you regret were necessary in forming your story. Perhaps it only in this way that we should understand Nietzsche’s famous “What does not kill you can only make you stronger.” In claiming your own past, you must also claim the pain you experienced. It is now in this sense that Nietzsche says that the overman is able to will the eternal recurrence of the past, with all the pain one endured along with it because “All things are enchained, entwined, enamored” (263). Because of this, saying Yes to the joys of the past means saying yes to the pain as well: “Have you ever said Yes to one joy? Oh my friends, then you also said Yes to all pain” (Ibid).

         Those instances when the past suddenly makes sense could be what Nietzsche referred to as Augenblick. In the blink of an eye you see your whole life spread out before you. You see why the past was necessary and why you are what you are now. Upon knowing this, you then recognize what you have to do and where you have to go. Whereas you were merely an actor in your own life story before, now you take the reins and direct your own life. The self of the past is thus overcome by the self of the present and future. Reconciled with your past and knowing that everything can now be willed, you can finally begin creating yourself with consciousness and responsibility. It is perhaps in this context that we can also understand Nietzsche’s “Become who you really are.”

"Augenblick" (Sariaya, Quezon)


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