In Ecce Homo: How One Becomes What One Is, Nietzsche declares, My formula for greatness in a human being is amor fati: that one wants nothing to be different, not forward, not backward, not in all eternity. Not merely bear what is necessary, still less conceal it—all idealism is mendaciousness in the face of what is necessary—but love it. There are many versions of this argument — from Buddha, Leibniz, Spinoza and many more, all with a different spin.
But the basic argument (whatever that is) looks something like this: There is no other life; all there is is all this. To wish it any other way — backwards as regret or forwards as hope — is nihilistic. It is to wish nothing. After all, life is what happens. To wish it otherwise is to go against life. Which is why Nietzsche calls it nihilism — a will to nothing — rather than a death wish. To hate death is to go against life, too. And is an all too common recipe for misery. How can you not be miserable if you want life to be other than it is?
This is why Nietzsche talks about Yes-saying, about affirmation. One popular version of this is his often misused line, That which doesn’t kill us makes us stronger. Everything serves our life; everything is our life — even sickness, even death. This is not to say that we should smile as the world kicks our teeth in. But it is to say that the challenge is to go with life in all its forms — sickness, pain, misery, death.
This is joy. Which is different from happiness. Happiness is great, no doubt, but it’s contingent and fleeting. You’re happy because something happened. You got a new haircut! Your crush texted you! You took some awesome E! And that is awesome, no doubt. Wooohoooo! But when it’s over, so goes your happiness.
Joy is another matter altogether. Joy is the affirmation of life regardless of what happens. It is the exuberance of life itself. It comes from the inside out, as it were, not the outside in. All kinds of things can be, and are, happening around you. They may make you happy; they may make you sad. But joy embraces it all. Joy says: Yes, this, too. I love this. I love having my heart broken. I love vomiting phlegm for three days (that’s Nietzsche’s experience). It’s all life; it’s all me; I’d have it no other way, wish it no other way, hope for it to be no other way. (I may will it to be different but that’s a conversation for another time.)
But then what to do with grief? If I truly affirm everything, feel that everything that happens is as it’s supposed to happen because it did in fact happen, what do I make of the intense grief I experience with the loss of a loved one?
As I’ve written before, my sister died a few months ago — my incredible, beautiful, brilliant, sweet, loving sister. She died at 49, the mother of three young(ish) children. She died horribly and quickly — five months from diagnosis to death as the tumors eviscerated her brain and evacuated her being.
At first, I was devastated. I wished it otherwise. I didn’t want her gone. I thought better me than her. I’m just some big nosed obnoxious fuck but she’s this sweet, caring, loving, vital woman so take me and spare her — as if all this worldly bullshit matters at all, as if the infinite pays heed and passes judgment. Which is absurd as life just happens as it happens, beyond our social and moral schemas, regardless of how elaborate or heartfelt.
Equally absurd, I found her suffering and then her absence more than I could bear. I wailed, long and hard. I punched myself until I was black and blue. I punched the walls, my hands now chaffed. I curled up in a ball and wept for hours, day after day. As if this might change the course of events.
And then, with the help of a wise guide, I let that go. Everyone dies; this was her time; so it goes. I was lucky enough to help her die, to be by her side as she began to vanish from this earth. I was lucky enough to talk to her, rub her head, lay next to her, hold her increasingly frail hand. I could feel the love — mine for her, hers for me. Rather than a lack of her being, there was an abundance of love.
For a few months after this revelation, I didn’t cry. In fact, I felt a certain woosh of her presence, of her love. It was as if I could feed off it, be fueled by it. I’d smile every morning at her picture magnetically adhered to my fridge.
And then that smile gave way. I found myself encountering her in long, detailed dreams. And then, upon waking, greeting that same magnetically clung fridge picture with tears, not a smile. At first, I thought I’d lost sight of the affirmation of things. If everything is as it should be, necessarily and not morally, why am I crying?
And then I began to understand: Because that is life, too. Because loss and grief are as constitutive of this existence as anything and everything. Before, I wailed because I could not, would not, accept what had happened. Now, I was crying because this is the affirmation of death. This is the affect — productive and beautiful — of loss. This is melancholy.
If joy is the affirmative exuberance of life’s happening, melancholy is the affirmative malaise of life’s happening. Flowers bloom and then they die. Both are essential; both are beautiful. While I love a flower’s bloom, am humbled in awe by its grandeur, I love its inevitable decay, as well. Joy witnesses the flower’s fruition and jumps in the air: Yes! Melancholy witnesses the flower’s decay and cries: Yes!
To feel regret, guilt, depression is to wish life other than it is. But to feel melancholy is to affirm the resonant pathos of life’s passing — its coming in, yes, but its going out, as well.
I have cried for my sister in at least two ways. In the first, I bemoan her loss, feel ripped off, feel denied, wishing life other than it is. In the second, I feel the fullness of her coming into being and passing into another kind of being — less immediate and sensual, of course, but no less palpable and powerful. And it makes me sad and this is beautiful and this is affirmative.
To grieve is not to deny life. Grief is not necessarily nihilistic. I can say: Yes, this happens and it hurts! I can affirm death, embrace death, and still cry. From the outside, it looks the same: me crying on the kitchen floor. But they couldn’t be more different.