Eternal Recurrence and Traumatic Re-Experiencing

What, if some day or night a demon were to steal after you into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: ‘This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and sigh and everything unutterably small or great in your life will have to return to you, all in the same succession and sequence’ … Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus? Or have you once experienced a tremendous moment when you would have answered him: ‘You are a god and never have I heard anything more divine. Friedrich Nietzsche from the Gay Science

A central idea of German Philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche, is Eternal Recurrence. That the life we are living now may, in its exact form, recur again and again forever, and that we will never live any differently for eternity.

Nietzsche was his most productive in the 1880’s after he had been romantically spurned by friend, Lou Salome. Nietzsche was serially unsuccessful with women. Salome rejected Niezsche’s marriage proposals three times. The great philosopher summered in Alps of Switzerland and enjoyed taking long walks in the high and healthy mountain air*. He was inspired by the majestic strength of the highlands and, through his writings, wished to influence people who were capable of greatness and great suffering to not shy away from the arduous path with its great risks and great rewards.

Suffering was something for which Nietzsche showed a great appreciation. Nietzsche understood the overcompensatory gifts of hardships. He was inspired by the creative power of destruction. He would have had an appreciation for anti-fragility.

Nietzsche may not have actually believed that we live our lives forever in a loop. However, it seems he did believe that acceptance of Eternal Recurrence would be the healthiest way to live one’s life. To live as if we wouldn’t change a thing and would gladly invite all of the difficulties and suffering that have afflicted us back again and again and again.

Seeing harsh naked reality as it is. And to live life wishing for nothing more and nothing less than we’ve been dished out. To take every bitterness and indignity and then to say to God or the Universe, “please sir, can I have some more”. This would truly be to radically accept our life. Someone who has done this would finally gain freedom from the jarring lurches between the cold hard truth on one hand, and wishful thinking and escapism on the other.

But, as far as we know, Eternal Recurrence is just a thought experiment.

But a real-life version of recurring experience happens all of the time. Traumatic re-experiencing.

When something terribly shocking occurs, a dangerous, threatening experience, our mammalian nervous system encodes it differently to other occurrences. Unlike mundane experiences, or delightful surprises, a traumatic event does not become our past. The trauma memory is not a memory at all, it is a recurring present.

The traumatised person re-enacts the trauma experience again and again. The trauma experience surges uninvited into consciousness: in nightmares or flashbacks or (most commonly) as a stereotyped emotional response when facing a trigger which echoes the original trauma event.

Many people, perhaps most, experience a “small t trauma” in their childhood. This is when a developmental emotional need is unmet. This is the process of schema formation, when we learn that the world is unsafe, or that we are unlovable, or that the people who love us will ultimately leave us. All these childhood experiences recur too, this is what a schema is.

And the traumatised person builds their lifestyle around coping with this trauma, this schema – avoiding certain places, avoiding certain topics. The traumatised person builds their personality around the trauma – over-compensating here, detaching there. These coping styles are exhausting and often lead to ever bigger problems.

Herr Nietzsche certainly knew about the benefits of overcompensating and was a fan of embracing suffering. But faced with real-life recurrence of trauma re-experiencing, what would he think?

Nietzsche’s beloved father died when he was five. His correspondence shows that he idolised his dad throughout this life. Nietzsche suffered some sort of mental breakdown in his 50’s and never recovered. He spent the last decade of his life as an invalid under the care of his mother and sister. He had never married and never attained fame whilst alive.

Reality can be wounding. People who have suffered big and little traumas in their childhood, especially those related to their parents, are very likely to suffer mental health consequences. These traumas can be coped with, but they won’t go away until the trauma memories are processed and placed in the past once and for all.

In schema therapy, the traumatised individual is invited to imagine another way. To imagine if their trauma had occurred differently and that their emotional needs had been met. This is not done for escapism. It does not sanitise reality like some psychotherapeutic soma. It is done to process overwhelming experiences that keep us stuck in a loop in the past. And to cut that loop. End recurrence.

Nietzsche regularly speculated on the psychology of renowned philosophers as a way to critique and understand the “genealogy” of their ideas. So, I think he would forgive a little speculation about how his wound affected his thinking:

Nietzsche lived in a recurring loop of abandonment and isolation. He wrote so much about embracing suffering, because he had no other way to soothe loneliness. The loneliness from his initial wound, his father’s death, and from the recurrent rejections he faced thereafter. He sought to overcome suffering like a superman and did in fact produce works of genius that remain hugely influential today. But he lived a lonely and unfulfilled life. And perhaps if he had known a way to end the loop, he would have taken it.


* This article owes a debt to Alain de Botton’s the Consolations of Philosophy for biographical details of Nietzsche

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