The Next 10 Years
Would you live your life over if given the chance? Like most interesting questions, this one has haunted the West for over 2,500 years. During the 18th Century Enlightenment thinkers took it up with special relish.
No wonder: they were living in the first time in memory when individual human lives became the subject of change. Before the Enlightenment lives were determined by your father’s father’s father’s and his place as a slave or a free man.
Once life was no longer viewed as given by God. No longer fixed in place by social and political forces that claimed to have his blessing. Then the question of whether you’d choose your life again began to make sense.
On the cusp of the Enlightenment, the optimist Leibniz held a surprising position. He thought most people at the point of death would take up their lives again. But only on the condition that their lives, if no better, would be different next time around. We would insist on variety before going through it again.
Voltaire was more scathing. He agreed that most of us on our deathbeds would choose to take our lives back, but this was just about fear of dying. Even then, we’d insist on variety too: better to die of anything else than to die of boredom. The fact that we cling on our deathbeds to lives we’ve done little but complain of is, he believes, just one more proof that humankind is mad.
Hume’s view was even more cheerless. He suggested that if asked if whether we should live the last 10 or 20 years of our life again we would desist, protesting, however, that the next 20 will be better.
Rousseau thought such statements were their problem, not is. He was convinced that well-bred, well-fed men like Voltaire and Hume created their own misery yet his own choice was unclear. Few people wrote more poignant descriptions of happiness, or more passionately of their own. But he often repeated that life held more suffering than happiness.
A century later Nietzsche turned the question into a cornerstone of his philosophy. He promised a test. Imagine life was circular. That it might recur over and over again for eternity. Face the specifics. Face your suffering. Think of pain and heartbreak and all the things that make you wonder on occasion if you’d be better off dead. Could you live that life, with all its contents and contingencies, over and over for all eternity?
Would you live your life again?
Can the question serve as a tool for us?
Not over and over, as Nietzsche suggested. Once would be enough.
If the answer looks like Hume’s did – not the last 10 years, but the next 10 will be better – then you’d better get to work. How many choices you’ve made are fixed? What parts of your life are changeable, and what do you want to keep?
You may not have the next 10 years.