No! Life has not deceived me! On the contrary, from year to year I find it richer, more desirable and more mysterious – from the day on which the great liberator broke my fetters, the thought that life may be an experiment of the thinker – and not a duty, not a fatality, not a deceit! […] “Life as a means to knowledge” – with this principle in one’s heart, one can not only be brave, but can even live joyfully and laugh joyfully!
(Friedrich Nietzsche, Gay Science, Aphorism 324)
Discovering life as an experiment
Much of life’s journey as I experience it is a constant effort to re-evaluate who we are and re-define who we want to be. This process is especially relevant during our teenage years when our intellectual and physical maturation usually requires significant adjustments to our self-identity. Role models play an important part in guiding us through these challenges and changes.
From the age of 14 on, Friedrich Nietzsche was one of my most influential role models. His writings stimulated me intellectually and challenged me on an existential level. My perceptions of him as a person fascinated and inspired me tremendously.
Among my favorite Nietzsche aphorisms was – and still is – the one quoted above. As I had moved from being a devout Catholic child to an atheist teenager, I was struggling to find a convincing source of meaning in life. When I first read of the idea of life as an experiment, I, too, could feel the thought’s liberating effect that Nietzsche is describing.
As an often ambivalent person who tends to see a lot of shades of gray where others seem to see black and white, I have a tendency to overthink things and make life more complicated than it presumably needs to be. Seeing life as an experiment meant I could be free to try out choices, even try out values and lifestyles, and thus discover my own truth by trial and error. Free of God’s presumed control, I was free to try new things. It opened up my horizon of possibilities.
If this sounds potentially rebellious, it was mostly just rebellious on an intellectual level. I did not take it to a destructive or self-destructive level of “anything goes.” Maybe I still had a strong enough moral compass – which I ultimately attribute to Christian values of my childhood. Or maybe I realized that seeing life as an experiment should not mean that we leave aside all common sense. Experiences are futile if they just aim at boasting how self-destructive or rebellious we can be. A scientist would not waste time on an experiment that evaluates a proposition that is obviously not in line with accepted and established concepts.
Certainly, there are other problems with this approach. Human knowledge is naturally passed on through the generations. It would not be reasonable for each physician in training to first conduct all the experiments to re-establish all the wealth of medical knowledge we are fortunate to have today. Could the situation for moral and spiritual knowledge be similar? Are there moral, social, and spiritual truths that are passed down through religion over the ages, although due to the vast nature of the topic admittedly in imperfect shapes and forms? How much do we truly have to learn from scratch, and how much can we learn from the mistakes and successes of people who came before us? – Or, one might argue, can something that was a terrible mistake for one person be exactly the right thing for another?
Fruits of experimentation
On some level I still continue to approach life as an experiment. Maybe this is why it was relatively easy for me to make some quite unconventional choices in my life and turn them into uniquely positive and satisfying experiences. Along the process, I developed talents I never knew I had and pursued a career I had never originally considered for myself, yet it all flowed naturally from my larger goals and aspirations. I learnt to try and readily put myself into unfamiliar and potentially intimidating situations and thus to grow and develop into a more balanced person.
More recently, I believe this approach allowed me to again open my atheist mind to religion. I re-discovered the value of religion at a more mature and expansive level. More specifically, I felt free to choose Mormonism – not because I believe it to be the only “true” church, but for a variety of other reasons such as the fascination with the lifestyle and theological ideas, the spiritual framework to wrestle with existential themes, and the positive results it brought to my life. I felt free to try Mormonism until I felt ready to commit myself to it – for I do believe in commitment.
I’m still experimenting in many ways, although many of my experiments are merely thought experiments that never see the light of day. I’m still continuing to find my place in life, in the human community, in church, in family relationships, in professional, academic, and leisurely settings. I’m still discovering and developing my needs, talents, and beliefs, and I’m still experimenting with arranging my life according to any humble insights I might have.
To members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, there is a familiar duality between obedience to church leaders on the one hand, and seeking personal revelation from God on the other hand. Some members seem to focus more on obedience, while others emphasize personal revelation and spiritual confirmation. In my opinion, the idea of personal revelation and developing a direct relationship with God clearly wins. It’s an experimenter’s approach of sorts. We think things through, seek spiritual confirmation, then make a few steps is the direction that feels right, and re-evaluate through introspection, intellectual analysis, and connecting with the divine, feeling free to leave the presumed safety of the pre-existing social expectations if we feel called to do so. It is not a smooth process, but one full of setbacks, road bumps, mistakes, small insights, and occasional leaps of growth or moments of clarity that make it all worthwhile.
I believe what ultimately matters the most in life is for us to live in such a way that on a deep and honest level we can truly be at peace with ourselves and with God. As long as our path brings us this sense of profound peace and we are secure in our relationship with God, the specific aspects of our individual lives can differ widely from one person to the next. In fact, at times the socially most accepted patterns might also be quite limiting, whereas if we tread a path of thoughtful experimentation (much emphasis being on thoughtful), we may travel a vastly different journey that we can truly claim, because it is uniquely ours.