Nietzsche was right, if only partly: most people live their lives cocooned in a host of glib little self-deceptions. They will do anything to avoid the great crisis which would force them to stare straight at the truth about themselves, at what they have become, the crisis which would ultimately set them free.
Nietzsche realized that avoiding suffering and pursuing happiness was a vainglorious pursuit. What is necessary is to accept that suffering is inevitable and the real goal is to accept and learn from our suffering, to discover the most important and ennobling ability we possess – how much we can bear and stay straight and true.
No-one to my knowledge has ever expressed this better than Viktor Frankl, in ‘Man’s Search For Meaning’ where he writes of his experiences in Auschwitz and observed that those who survived longest were those who found meaning in their suffering and a reason to endure it. Great book.
Neitzsche’s greatest error was his conviction that belief in God and the life of the spirit was an anodyne for the weak, a comforter to cuddle in the cold winter of truth. Because accepting God imposes heavy burdens. Never mind all the obligations to pray and attend Mass instead of lounging in bed on Sunday morning – they are actually pleasures. Prayer can be like talking with a friend, and Mass is beautiful, uplifting, social, musical, a real worldly pleasure.
No, the hard part is in following Jesus’ instructions, about which he was unambiguous and forthright. “I was hungry, and you fed me. I was naked and you clothed me. I was imprisoned, and you cared for me.”
How about “If someone steals your coat, give him your shirt.”? Or “If your enemy strikes you on the cheek, offer him the other cheek.”
Anyone who thinks these are metaphors is sadly mistaken. Unfortunately, Jesus never added a rider to his injunctions. I wish he had said “Turn the other cheek (unless the bastard desperately needs a good hiding)” or “I was hungry and you surely would have fed me if you’d had a little more to spare and the time to get it organised, so you’re all good on that one.”
But he didn’t, and if we are to glory in the works of the Lord and truly fear no evil as we walk in the shadow of the valley of death, we have to deliver.
Worth taking particular note of, I think, is that reference to visiting prisoners. Of all the many good works, Christ singles out visiting prisoners as one of the ‘must-do’s’. Why? He doesn’t single out the unjustly imprisoned, so it’s not about that. I think it is because helping those in prison requires not only generosity but the all-important ability to suspend judgment. Succouring prisoners is like giving the thief your shirt; they don’t deserve it. Those who do so play an important social role, of course, because they counteract the natural tendency of the imprisoned to hate society and everyone in it. Rednecks who want to see prisoners given the stick, those who rant on about prison being a holiday camp do us all a grave disservice because they justify recidivism. I wonder I Jesus had that thought at the back of his mind?
Sorry Friedrich. You got that bit wrong.