How to become who you are, according to Nietzsche

In Hiking with Nietzsche: On Becoming Who You Are, American professor of philosophy John Kaag shows how important and salient philosophy’s role in everyday life is. By hiking through mountains and experiencing what the Swiss Alps have to offer, Kaag illustrates a view of Nietzsche’s life that provides an intimate understanding of the challenges for which the German philosopher sought answers. Comparing himself to Zarathustra and Dionysus, Nietzsche actualizes his true potential in a way that other philosophers struggle with. He’s overcomes the limits and disadvantages of discourse and rumination and, instead, writes about the urgency of addressing issues of his time – many of which persist in the present day.

“As it turns out, to ‘become who you are’ is not about finding a ‘who’ you have always been looking for. It is not about separating ‘you’ off from everything else. And it is not about existing as you truly ‘are’ for all time. The self does not lie passively in wait for us to discover it.” I was incredibly satisfied by the immense level of reflection and thought put forward in analyzing and taking apart these arguments. It was a way of treating our thoughts and ideas as truthfully and justifiably as possible while still leaving room for the reader to maintain their own view of the issues Nietzsche brought up. It takes a tremendous amount of courage to address these issues, and, without the persistent and relentless work of both Nietzsche and Kaag, I’d struggle to even put these issues in words. I found the experience of reading the book absolutely insightful and eye-opening not only in the way Kaag depicted Nietzsche and the struggles he faced, but the way I related to them within myself. As I studied science and philosophy at Indiana University-Bloomington during my undergraduate years, I faced a tremendous amount of psychological and existential struggles. Things would get so worse with my mental health, social situations, academic performance, and even the thoughts I had about myself that, throughout senior year, I was just trying to leave my university as quickly and shamelessly as possible. I lost sight of the purpose in everything. My courses became tremendously more difficult, and I couldn’t ever figure out what to do. This book provides me with the ideals and arguments by which I can address those issues with far greater precision and clarity. I look forward to reading more Nietzsche in this thought-provoking and self-healing way such that I can continue to address these issues wherever I find them.

Even the pain and suffering that the individual experiences in society have home in Nietzsche’s work. By this, I mean that the way we react and deal with conflicts that cause us to suffer are taken with serious inquiry such that the individual can discover the true causes of what they are and the best ways to address them. As I read the book, I couldn’t help but compare the work and methods of the philosophers to how therapists approach individuals suffering from existential crises. A patient seeking help from an educated, wise therapist will often find him/herself at a loss of words and dumbfounded in terms of how to address his/her issues. It leaves the soul to suffer at the hands of a world that is wrathful, intimidating, and merciless. In concrete terms, this may include mental health issues such as depression or anxiety but also severe physical ailments such as cancer. Medicine and doctors should adhere to these truths and wrestle with them in their work in ways to treat patients and make the world a safer, healthier place by all means of measurement. Amazing work by physicians such as Richard Gunderman, Rita Charon, and Atul Gawande all hold the potential for making these changes happen. The way we internalize our suffering as part of a greater understanding of suffering that society has given us can let us internalize the reality of how and why we are meant to suffer. What might seem pessimistic and gloomy in our methods to understand the world turns out more encouraging and resilient to face whatever issues we experience in life.

Among the several lessons that Kaag and Nietzsche share discourse over include Nietzsche’s argument that self-discovery requires and undoing of the self-knowledge you assume you already have. This means that becoming yourself is a constant cycle between finding the self and also losing all sight of it. We can only truly become who we are as we overturn the fundamental truths and ideals that we believe make us who we are. This means there should be a level of trust and security as we perform these actions and do these things in life to become who we are. Nietzsche also elaborates that modern life distracts and deadens us in ways that prevent us from becoming who we are. The pleasures and fleeting desires of this world are nothing to compared to the near-unsurmountable challenge that is becoming who you are.

Kaag provides a clear example of these statements: “I remember too vividly an argument with my ex-wife that terminated with three words that I screamed before slamming our front door: ‘Let. Me. Be!’ I now know what I actually meant: ‘Get out of my way.’ Let me find my immutable essence. Unfortunately, there is no such thing as an immutable essence, at least not in my world. And so I left, but I never found what I was looking for, not even with (my new family) Carol and Becca. I found something else.” Carol is Kaag’s wife and Becca is his daughter.

Kaag can mention life story lessons as he ventures with his wife and daughter, and he draws upon his own personal experience in describing what Nietzsche himself sought to describe. The decadence, or decay, of the society around him, as Nietzsche noted, provides a careful, yet effective way of internalizing and dealing with the existential woes of today. As any philosopher dabbing in existentialism might come to realize, these concrete, realistic situations of philosophical truths come together in a neatly woven story. And the power which Nietzsche provided for his arguments has allowed them to resonate for decades.

As Nietzsche himself, said “It is an excellent thing to express a thing consecutively in two ways, and thus provide it with a right and a left foot. Truth can stand indeed on one leg, but with two she will walk and complete her journey.” (The Wanderer and His Shadow, 1880

Near the end of the book, Kaag explains how “‘Become what you are’ has been described as ‘the most haunting of Nietzsche’s haunting aphorisms.’” Indeed, it’s troubling to hear how who we are is something which we have to become, but that the thesis what we need to be is ourselves is all the more encouraging and reassuring for the reader.

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