The creative life is not simply a life without limits, but is more about freely choosing the limits that define your desire. Without definition, the creative desire that Nietzsche called the human spirit splashes out and seeps away, falling short of realization. The other side of it for Nietzsche was the degree in which our limits can strangle the spirit and pull us down into mediocrity.
When I sit with a client, one of the things I’m interested in is his or her behavior. What are you doing? How are you conducting your life? Quite frequently we will discover that the individual isn’t really “conducting” it at all. Instead, the client feels pinned down under the weight of social duty and moral expectations. “I’ve been doing what I’m told, and now I feel like a fake. I’m not living my own life.”
Sometimes it becomes obvious that the individual’s behavior is on automatic pilot. Perhaps it’s not so much the obligations attaching to his or her social roles as it is the dead inertia of habit, trudging on without passion or engagement. This is really Nietzsche’s point, even though he’s most misunderstood here. The individual, moved for so long out of obedience, never truly awakens to his or her own freedom to choose life. It’s not that “morality” is bad, but that it can put us to sleep inside its neat little boxes.
Desire originates as an impulse, rooted in the urgencies of our biological life. The natural aim of desire is to find satisfaction by gratifying this impulse. At this level consciousness is fully contained in our animal nature. A newborn baby exemplifies the impulsive life, in the way its behavior spontaneously seeks out the satisfaction of basic needs.
But a human being is also “hard wired” for relationships, not only by virtue of our early dependency on providers but also because these social bonds are necessary to the formation of identity. In the construction of ego, the tribe shapes an animal nature into an obedient and cooperative member of society – or at least that’s the intended outcome. The tribe accomplishes this through the imposition of various constraints; think of them as the “hold” and “push” that gradually train an animal nature into something more domesticated and well-behaved.
Don’t do that. Do this instead. That’s what I mean by a “push” constraint. A “hold” constraint is when the instruction is more simply about not doing something, at least not here, not now. There’s a time and place for that, and this isn’t it. Hold that impulse and keep it to yourself. “Hold” constraints often carry the tribe’s shadow, in the fear, condemnation, and consequent shame that get attached to certain animal impulses.
For a while this force of social constraint needs to prevail over the individual’s impulse for immediate gratification. Tribal order and the common good require that some impulses get trained into compliance, some get sublimated in more refined outlets, and some others are kept in the closet. Nietzsche had some trouble with that, as you might expect, but his real complaint was with what typically happens next.
Over time, the control system of social constraints gets internalized, in what Freud would later name the “superego.” Not to be confused with conscience, which refers to an inner sense of how we can best get along together in community, the superego is the pressure of the group on the individual to conform. The real danger is that this “inner parent” will supervene on the individual’s evolutionary need to take control and live his or her own life.
Habit is a marvelous adaptation in the way it submerges routine behaviors into “thoughtless” performance, in order to liberate conscious attention for higher pursuits. But habit is also the rut where we can curl up and fall asleep to the challenge and mystery of being alive. As social duty is pressed upon the individual and gradually insinuated as the superego, this rut of moral obligation can become the permanent “depression” of the spirit.
This is what Nietzsche (and many others) saw all around him, but it’s not merely a nineteenth-century problem. In his opinion it is the dilemma that represents a critical break-point in human evolution. We will either wake up and start living the life we really want, or we will die in the rut of our daily grind. For Nietzsche it was fulfillment or obedience. After doing what we’re told for long enough, it comes time to choose.
But you need to be awake to choose.
The control system of tribal morality is necessary to the construction of personal identity (ego). Our animal nature with its powerful and insistent impulses needs to be domesticated and trained into a cooperative member of society. The way it should work is that these external constraints (“hold” and “push”) gradually assist the individual in developing internal restraint, where he or she is able to “pull” back on impulse and give opportunity for the consideration of options.
What I’m calling internal restraint is not repression, which is about “push” again, this time back and down into a shadow of shame. Restraint is that critical piece of self-control where the individual is able to do something with the impulse, rather than be done by it. Paradoxically restraint is the birthplace of freedom – the evolutionary threshold that Nietzsche announced and prophesied about.
Self-restraint thus opens the field of awareness to at least two options: act now or wait til later. But almost always there is a variety of other options that present themselves as well. Maybe you don’t act on your impulse at all. Maybe instead of swinging back you choose to let go. Maybe you find a more compassionate or courageous way to move your life forward.
The point here is that restraint makes consideration possible. Once you have options, you need to weigh them against each other to figure out which one has the best feel and fit. If you are truly free to live the life you want, then your choice cannot be coerced – not by god, government, church or superego. A forced choice is not a choice.
Finally, this foreground of consideration begins to clarify some future goals – outcomes and consequences that are likely to follow upon one option or another. At this point the individual is stretched in his or her thinking to imagine a preferred future. As the picture becomes more vivid and compelling, some ideals grow in strength as priorities and illumine the path ahead.
Nietzsche’s ideal was of the fully awakened and self-responsible creator. There’s no room here to expand on it further – I have in fact explored the idea in previous posts (see Waiting Around), but this is what I see in the mythological god. This principal figure of religious myth can be observed evolving over many centuries and across cultures, into a “fully awakened and self-responsible creator.” In other words, the mythological god is the literary representation of our human ideal, the Great Attractor of our higher potential as a species.
Unfortunately – and as Nietzsche saw it, tragically – whereas religion might have been the midwife of this spiritual birth, it too often goes the other way. The tribal control system refuses to let the child grow up and take the lead in his or her own life. The god of dogmatic orthodoxy regresses back into an authoritarian, jealous and vindictive anti-ideal. True believers strive almost neurotically to please, placate, flatter and impress their god. Just don’t piss him off, or it will surely be curtains for you.
More than ever – and this has always been true – our future as a species hangs in the balance. And as in all other times, now is the time to choose.
It’s time to step creatively into the life we really want.