So I’ve been thinking a lot about Nietszche’s concept of the ubermensch lately (a process about as geeky as I’m sure you’re picturing it to be). This concept, introduced to us in a torrent of German, basically boils down to the idea that there is this ultimate image of self dangling just in front of us at all times; there is a person there that is our ever forming “who I will become”. The personality carrot.
I think we first develop this personality carrot when we engage those older than us and think “that’s who I want to be.” When we’re seven, the ten year olds a few years ahead of us in school are incredibly “grown up”; they are the image of good behaviour. Intelligent, experienced in relationships, and clearly having figured the world out, we look at them and see the person we want to be.
Now of course, as adults we find this idea comical. Those are kids, right? And we see them as such. Fifth graders don’t know everything there is to know about relationships (though I swear sometimes they know so much more than they let on). But think about the next time that we collectively do this process: say the age eighteen. When we are teenagers, we think that when we graduate, when we become “legal,” then we’ll have it figured out, at least a bit more. We reckon that at such an age, we’ll have sorted that confusing bit inside of ourselves that lends insecurity to social situations. We’ll stop fumbling when we speak, or when we write, or when we run. We’ll be so much stronger; and in that image, we take a great deal of comfort. Because if we can just reach eighteen, no matter how much we mess up along the way, surely all of those efforts will come out as our carrot personality, and we will have made it.
And then we reach eighteen. And you know what eighteen is like? Well, it’s a lot like seventeen. It’s a lot like nineteen. The reason behind this being, we reach that point we’d set for ourselves as our ultimate, and we’ve arrived there as...surprise...ourselves. A little older, probably a tad wiser, but nevertheless, still that person that was the original package.
In fact, the sooner that we realise that we aren’t going to reach a set date and BECOME, the better off I think we are. Because as it stands, the more that we wait for the day that we’ve truly figured it out, the more time we’re taking to waste away this incredible person who has dreamt the capacity of that goal. I don’t think we should discount that person. I don’t think we should throw away that incredible, if yet confused, faith of self.
Because when we dream about our carrot personality, faith of self is exactly what we’re expressing. It’s simply misplaced. We both trust that we have the capacity to become, and doubt our ability to BECOME in the present. The result is that we don’t build ourselves up to who we truly want to be. We’re waiting for the enriching to be done for us, instead of taking part in it ourselves.
I’ve struggled with this conundrum a few times over the years. Once before my eighteenth birthday, as I pondered how I saw myself as changing (and then realised that I wasn’t going to be that different). Once again as I approached twenty, and then finally, during a random check up trip at the doctor’s, just before graduating University.
Sitting in the office, talking about my general check up with my very capable GP, I mentioned off-hand that sometimes I experienced a flutter in my chest, and that I’d have to cough and breathe really deeply to get it to go away. I say off-hand because I assumed that this was nothing, and the reasoning behind THAT was that I’d had this condition as far back as I could remember, a statement that the doctor also found interesting. She asked how far back I could remember experiencing it, and I recalled waking up as a child once when I was about ten and feeling my chest go all kinds of crazy. A racing, fluttering, and then a dull thud.
The doctor looked at me with alarm. Then, she carefully listened to my pulse, and gave me a look of concern. She immediately set me up for a referral to a cardiologist, and put me on a Halter Monitor, which is a portable machine for tracing heart rhythms. See, what I had written off as just random fluttering was my heart malfunctioning, as it turned out, upwards of thirty times a day. Chambers, randomly, would stop beating. Or they’d double beat. Or the top half would work, and the bottom half would shudder. Untreated, this condition was rather incredibly dangerous. My heart could stop; I could pass out. I could fall over, hit my head on something, stop breathing.
The tedious and frightening process of paying hundreds of dollars to be tested over and over, finally diagnosed, and to be placed on treatment (on which I will remain for the rest of my life, as far as we can see), left me feeling very distinctly mortal. And I’ve gotta tell you, in that moment, I was thinking about that personality carrot of my own.
See I was just coming into the time of my life where I felt like I had a great deal of control over the outcome of events around me. I could shape myself. I could choose my friends and my career path, I could engage in literary discussions, become a deeper person, explore relationships. And here was this massive thing that could have taken it all away from me all along, even before I’d hit that mark of eighteen. It, like so many of the accidents in our lives, felt to me as though it had been lurking.
My body felt like a time bomb. I sat down on my bed and swore I could feel myself decaying and malfunctioning. Twenty-one years old and permanently damaged. I was scared of my insides, and I started to be afraid of my dreams; why dream them if they’d never come true? What if this was the end of it? If they figured out I had some untreatable ill, some sort of cancer, or maybe some sort of surgery would be needed...so many unknowns.
Then, the answer occurred to me; why not be who I want to be, now? Why should I wait to become? This image that I had of myself in the future, this confident woman with networks and love and courage; why couldn’t I be her now? Fuck the heart condition. It’ll take me when it does. For now, I was in charge.
So to help me through the next steps of diagnosis, I started focusing on facets of that person that I wanted to be. The largest part, for me, was the courage. I had a lot to face up against, and I needed to become my own stronghold.
The process of becoming a person who could make her way through such a frightening diagnosis and come out the other end alive, and without that lingering sense of fear, has made me a person who IS, within a moment. I am who I want to be. I forget, sometimes now, to continue to push myself to be that person, but I always try to bring myself back to recognising myself not as a victim of circumstance, but as a commander of my own development and life, with a great deal of faith in myself to push forward.
I think this applies to us all, at any age. Whether we’re facing a medical crisis or a midlife crisis, we need to begin to merge the image of the ubermensch, the personality carrot, with our own self-nurturing behaviour. And if we have yet to develop self-nurturing behaviour, then we need to start investing in that part of our lives, as well.