Living to the fullest, like a child

Recently I have re-read German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche’s “Thus spoke Zarathustra” – and I have nodded and smiled, and even laughed on several occasions. What a book! What a celebration of living to the fullest, and of living courageously.

In the book Nietzsche unfolds an existentialist development theory, similar to e.g. French Philosopher Simone de Beauvoir’s idea of human development going from the Subman to the Adventurer and the Nihilist, until finally to genuine freedom, Jean Paul Sartre’s division between living in bad faith and in good faith, and Danish Philosopher Søren Kierkegaard’s investigation on living authentically, which holds the metamorphoses from the Philistine to the Aesthete, and from the Ethicist to the Religious man. In Nietzsche’s universe the human development steps are the following: the Camel, the Lion and the Child.

Most of us live as camels our entire lives; we carry our weight, and do what we are supposed to do without asking any questions. The camel is unfree, as he is governed by “should do’s”, traditions and norms of society as well as other people’s expectations. The camel accepts the weight that others put on his shoulders and doesn’t question the prevailing values. But the dominating values of the culture and time era he is a part of are not necessarily his values. And hence, living according to them, just because that’s what you do, makes him an unauthentic being.

The camel that wakes up and starts searching for true meaning and other ways of life, becomes a lion. The lion seeks freedom above everything else. He wants to break free from obligations, moral codes and duty. Everything feels false to him; he discovers that what he used to think of as being true and good or the right way to live is nothing but what others have “forced” him to believe. And he realises that he is free to break loose from expectations, traditions and obligations – and thus he starts breaking down assumptions. But the problem with the lion’s freedom is that it is negative. It is in it’s core a freedom to say “no”; no to what others impose on him, no to society’s norms, no to traditions – but there is no alternative to the lion’s shattered chains. The lion must learn how to live for himself and to create his own reality in order to be truly free. His freedom must be directed towards something – because just saying “no” to everything is not the equivalent to being free (which by the way also characterises both Simone de Beauvoir’s Adventurer and Søren Kierkegaard’s Aesthete; they turn away from everything, say “no” to everything, but are left with an empty existence).

In order to overcome emptiness and create his own meaning, the lion must become childlike. The child is characterised by being creative, playful and positive, and is led by the sacred “yes”. He doesn’t seek other’s approval, but is able to engage in pure creation, and thus in the creation of his own reality and virtue.

“But say, my brothers, what can the child do that even the lion could not do? Why must the preying lion still become a child? The child is innocence and forgetting, a new beginning, a game, a self-propelled wheel, a first movement, a sacred “Yes.” For the game of creation, my brothers, a sacred “Yes” is needed: the spirit now wills his own will, and he who had been lost to the world now conquers his own world.” (Thus Spoke Zarathustra)

What I particularly love about Nietzsche’s description of human advancement towards authentic, free living is that living to the fullest is symbolised by the child. Not by strength or seriousness or physical superiority, but by being childlike or living like a child. Why? Because being truly free and living to the fullest involves being playful, creative, and saying “yes” to opportunities and engaging mindfully or without disruptions in whatever you are doing. Just like a child that is engaged in playing. The child in Nietzsche’s philosophy is passionate and courageous. He embraces possibilities and takes chances.

The link between authentic living and being childlike makes really good sense to me. When I wrote by book Aesthetic Sustainability – Product Design and Sustainable Usage, I spend a period of my research time on a seemingly strange investigation. I looked into my oldest son, who at the time was 8 years old, and his treasures. My son has lots of treasures; things he cherishes and stores away in colourful, beautifully decorated boxes, and time and again looks at and touches.

“The emotional bond between my son and his treasures – his magical things – is strong. Each object represents something of great significance, and he uses them to make sense of the eight years he has been alive. Each might represent people he loves or places he has visited, but mostly they represent himself: his inner fantasy world, his way of thinking, and the games he plays. In other words, the objects are the essence of those moments of play when he reaches a flow state, forgetting about himself and becoming one with the act of playing, simply existing in the here-and-now, at peace with his surroundings.
Common to all the things – even the shiny, colourful, newly acquired – stored in my son’s boxes and chests is the fact that they have no economic value: either they did not cost anything, or they were very cheap, further, they have not necessarily been made from sustainable materials. Some of them, like the feather, are even coming apart. Their value, then, cannot be reduced to dollar and cents or to their material durability. Their value is rather of an emotional and aesthetic ilk.” (Aesthetic Sustainability – Product Design and Sustainable Usage, Chapter 5: The Magical Thing)

A couple of of my son’s cherished treasures.

As the above quote shows, I discovered that the beautiful state of flow that children are so good at reaching when they play, was in particular what my son celebrates when cherishing his treasures. And furthermore, that his collection of treasures are far from a materialistic celebration of the new and shiny. Rather, the collection represents moments of coherence, presence and pure satisfaction in his life. They are a manifestation of his most passionate, mindful moments.

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