The Eternal Recurrence and Rejecting Do-Overs

A little discussion on Facebook about Nietzsche’s remark that his greatest objection to the doctrine of eternal recurrence was that he would have to repeatedly confront his mother and sister’s existence serves to remind me of a tiny thought experiment I’ve often conducted: wondering about ‘doing over’ something in my life, of getting a chance to ‘get it right’ the second time around. Sometimes this is sparked by a mistake that has ruined my day: an angry, intemperate, careless remark; locking myself out of my apartment; not saying ‘no’ to another drink; and so on. At times like those and many others, I wish I could roll the clock back to bring about a different state of affairs. Sometimes my thoughts are a little more expansive; I wonder about my life’s trajectory, look at the many ‘mistakes’ made; perhaps I regret career decisions or personal choices, matters which affect my professional standing perhaps; sometimes I wish I had given up smoking cigarettes sooner; the list goes on. And on. Dreaming of make-overs like these might be one of the most common fantasies we indulge in. (It’s a common enough theme in movies and novels.)

A clear pattern emerges in my thinking; the further back I would have to go to ‘make things right’ the more my desire diminishes to redo things. Most promisingly and cheerfully, this is because of contentment: my professional and personal stations have much to them that strikes me as worth being happy and satisfied about. But this doesn’t fully explain the reluctance to go back too far in time. The reason for that lies elsewhere.

When talking about the doctrine of eternal recurrence in class, I have joked with my students that the reason for this is that I’ve screwed up my life enough as it is, and I have little desire to place myself in a situation where I might land up messing up things even more. (This invariably provokes a few titters from my audience.) This answer is obviously quite revealing of deeply held anxieties and fears about the terrible uncertainties of our life’s paths, subject to, and attenuated by, a multitude of forces beyond our control. Hence: Were I to take myself back in time in an attempt to do things over again, without the benefit of hindsight, who is to know that I would not make another mistake, possibly a worse one, perhaps compounded by the actions of those who also now need to remake their decisions? This worry then, about the finely balanced state of affairs that life is, one utterly indifferent to my happiness, acts as the primary reason for saying no to this opportunity to do over. From this perspective, my satisfaction with my lot in life is also an expression of relief, a grim acknowledgment that things could have been worse, given all that life could have dished out on my plate; the sweepstake numbers have been noted, and I’ve come out ahead; why would I want to roll the dice again? Better to forge on, hoping one’s luck holds.

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