“He who has a why to live for can bear with almost any how”

Yesterday was a surreal day at Bethel University:

  • In the morning, a couple hundred employees crowded into a room in our student commons to hear our president explain significant cuts and restructuring in academic programs and co-curricular/administrative staffing, necessary to avoid the multi-million dollar deficits projected for the next two fiscal years.
  • In the evening, 1,500 people crowded into Benson Great Hall for a free lecture by New York Times columnist, NPR/PBS commentator, and bestselling author David Brooks, who came in part to praise Christian colleges like Bethel as “thick” communities that take spiritual and character formation seriously.

David Brooks speaking in Bethel's Great Hall

In a span of less than twelve hours, we experienced Bethel at its best: an educational institution that forms the hearts and souls, not just minds, of students and hosts important, irenic conversations about faith, meaning, community, service, and virtue… and Bethel at its worst: seemingly always on the verge of fiscal crises that put what’s best about us in chronic jeopardy.

Me being me, I live-tweeted parts of Brooks’ talk, which flowed out of his most recent book (The Road to Character) and seemed to preview a coming work on spiritual and civic revival in America. Before I drove home, I concluded with this thought:

But one particular example of Brooks’ erudition evoked more complicated feelings about my job and my employer:

I goofed: the Nietzsche line is actually, “He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.” Brooks recycled it from Road to Character, where it appears in a passage on suffering that features Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl.

A psychiatrist in Vienna, Frankl was seized in 1942 and imprisoned everywhere from Auschwitz (where his mother and brother were killed) to a sub-camp of Dachau (where his wife died). He survived and in 1946 wrote a reflection on his experience of suffering, later translated into English as Man’s Search for Meaning (1959). The Nietzsche quotation comes from this description of Frankl’s approach to helping fellow survivors heal:

…any attempt to restore a man’s inner strength in the camp had first to succeed in showing him some future goal. Nietzsche’s words, “He who has a why to live for can bear with almost any how,” could be the guiding motto for all psychotherapeutic and psychohygienic efforts regarding prisoners. Whenever there was an opportunity for it, one had to give them a why—an aim—for their lives, in order to strengthen them to bear the terrible how of their existence. Woe to him who saw no more sense in his life, no aim, no purpose, and therefore no point in carrying on. He was soon lost.

It’s embarrassing, potentially offensive, to compare any situation too closely to the Holocaust. But there is a principle here that Brooks thinks is instructive in helping us make sense of other experiences that are less traumatic but still involve suffering and loss:

Brooks, The Road to CharacterOnce [Frankl] became aware of the task events had assigned to him, he understood the meaning and ultimate purpose of his life and the opportunity the war had given him to realize that purpose. And once he understood the meaning of these events, survival itself became easier. As Nietzsche observed, “He who had a why to live for can bear almost any how.”

As people who serve at a Christian university, we undoubtedly have Nietzsche’s “why,” Frankl’s “future goal,” and Brooks’ “task.”

The Mennonite historian and Messiah College president Rodney Sawatsky once argued that Christian scholars ought to integrate not just faith with learning, but hope: “Meaningful scholarship must be inspired by a purpose, by an ideal end toward which it strives.” He quoted the Jesuit scholar Walter Ong, who described Christian learning as “a quest which is impossible to realize entirely but which is promising always, and often exhilarating… Our quest for understanding lives in Christian hope, a hope in Jesus Christ, who became incarnate in this world.”

Indeed, it’s the quest of “faith seeking understanding” that often brings people without faith into our lives. As I hinted in my tweet, it might seem odd that someone as anti-religious as Nietzsche was being quoted at all in last night’s setting — much less from a work in which he castigated Christianity as one of Europe’s “two great narcotics” (alcohol being the other). But it’s precisely because our why at Bethel is to seek after truth and wisdom, justice and peace, that our how includes listening not only to Christian figures like Dorothy Day and St. Augustine (both quoted by Brooks in his conclusion, and both part of our reading packet this year for Bethel’s foundational Christianity and Western Culture course) but critics like Nietzsche (who has also featured in CWC).

Reading someone like Nietzsche challenges us to ask better questions of our pat answers. The why/how line comes near the beginning of Twilight of the Idols, part of the philosopher’s last burst of writing in 1888. (Brooks and Frankl leave out the second half of the aphorism: “Man does not strive for pleasure; only the Englishman does.”) Later in the work, Nietzsche proclaimed it truly moral

1899 drawing of Friedrich Nietzsche
Sketch of Nietzsche drawn less than a year before his death in 1900 — Wikimedia

To die proudly when it is no longer possible to live proudly. Death freely chosen, death at the right time, brightly and cheerfully accomplished amid children and witnesses: then a real farewell is still possible, as the one who is taking leave is still there; also a real estimate of what one has achieved and what one has wished, drawing the sum of one’s life — all in opposition to the wretched and revolting comedy that Christianity has made of the hour of death. One should never forget that Christianity has exploited the weakness of the dying for a rape of the conscience; and the manner of death itself, for value judgments about man and the past.

In this moment of figurative or metaphorical death for our community, I want to wrestle with the first two or three lines. But ultimately, I think Nietzsche’s wrong. I believe that the crucifixion of Jesus Christ renders death neither a “wretched and revolting comedy” nor a moment of pride; I trust his words that it is in dying that a seed “bears much fruit.” And because the Cross gave way to the Empty Tomb, I try to follow the Apostle Paul’s admonition to “be steadfast, immovable, always excelling in the work of the Lord, because you know that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.” (I’ve jotted down a reference to that verse every time I’ve signed a copy of our book on “hope for the renewal of Christianity.”)

So yes, our why at Bethel helps us to bear a how that takes away the jobs and potentially careers of some of us and likely requires more work for less compensation from those who remain. In those teaching, researching, and writing moments when I experience the why most vividly, I can temporarily forget that this present how required me to spend hours this summer working with five other professors and one dean to make recommendations for which programs should be cut.

But a hopeful why can also tempt us to move too quickly past a cruel how. The death of programs and positions — perhaps the dying of our ethos, ideals, and vision for Bethel — is not freely chosen and does not come at anything close to the right time. We should indeed look back and celebrate what’s been achieved, but that “estimate” can’t offset the loss of what’s been, what is, and what can no longer be. And those of us who remain are bound to notice Nietzsche’s “almost any” and wonder if the how could someday become unbearable — or worse, cause us to revise the why.

I hope this doesn’t sound too dire. I love my work and the people with whom I do it: colleagues, students, alumni, even bosses. And I don’t mean to say much more in this space about our current situation.

Instead, I feel like my most immediate why is to listen to my sisters and brothers in Christ describe their current how and to offer whatever consolation I can.