Was Nietzsche right, way back in 1887?

Friedrich Nietzsche, who neither read nor spoke English, and who never visited the USA, wrote in 1887:

“The Americans strive for gold above everything else. Their breathless haste in working is already spreading to Europe. I think of an American as eating lunch, with one eye on his watch and the other eye on the financial page of the newspaper he’s reading. I’m afraid that as we Europeans become more American, we will lose the vita contemplativa (“the contemplative life”).

We Americans do many things well, but if you ask anyone from another country how they see Americans, that person will almost inevitably say that we tend to be hectic workaholics. After all, we put in more work hours (and so have less vacation time) than citizens of any other industrial nation.

It well may be that we have indeed lost the contemplative life. This is why I offer trips to the Trappist monastery (a community of contemplative monks) every October and a May workshop in which we learn contemplative practices: times of silence, meditation, walking in nature etc. I had dinner last night with a friend with two young children and I told him to make sure that he and his wife teach them some contemplative practices and help them to appreciate times of silence.

At a recent interfaith meeting, I heard a rabbi say that she has little cloth bags that are called “sleeping bags”. She asks her teenage congregants to stop in her office before the Friday night service and put their cell phone in a sleeping bag. She keeps these in her office and the young people can pick them up after the Sabbath ends on Saturday evening. She told us that many of them are coming to enjoy this as they learn to appreciate what the Sabbath really means. One Jewish friend of mine, who is intensely involved in activities all week, told me that without his strict observance of the Sabbath, he would probably have gone crazy a long time ago.

Maybe we all need a Sabbath, not necessarily twenty-four hours, but some number of hours when we truly rest, not thinking about our jobs or about our bills or about anything else than the present moment with the miracle it can offer us if we’re paying attention. Why is this so difficult for us? As one of my students responded after I said something like this: “But time is money”.

And that brings us back to Nietzsche’s comments. The reason we’re so hectic ties in to our obsession with money. One of my former students was recently telling me about his boss and what a great guy he was. “He works ten hours a day, Ron, and is usually at the office all day Saturday, and sometimes even on Sunday.” I responded: “Your boss is not a great guy; he’s a sick man without a life”. This former student remembered then my mantra to graduating students: “You have to make a living, but don’t forget to make a life. They’re not the same, you know”.

It’s amazing what we learn as kids from our parents. My dad was in the brokerage business and, when I was young, the market was open half a day on Saturdays. So my dad would take me with him sometimes and I would walk around talking to the other brokers, all of whom were in one room so that they could read the board. And the board was literally a chalkboard. Ticker tape came off a domed machine and an old guy, chalk in hand, would tear off a couple of feet of tape and climb up on a ladder to mark any price changes on the stocks listed on the board.

There were chairs in front of the board and some men could regularly be found sitting there, usually smoking cigars. One day my dad said to me, “All those men are millionaires”. My eyes lit up and I said “Wow”. Then my dad said, “Why are you impressed? They have nothing to do on a Saturday morning but watch their money grow. I have my son with me and we’re going to enjoy a great lunch after this and have some fun today. I’m much richer than they are.” Since that day, I don’t think I’ve ever thought more highly of a person simply because he had a lot of money.

But as Nietzsche realized, this American obsession with getting more and more money has become our hallmark. Recent happiness surveys have indicated that making more money, up to around $70,000, does make most Americans happier. In other words, we all want enough money to pay bills and not constantly be worrying about whether or not the next check we write will bounce. But what was interesting in these studies was the fact that, beyond $70,000, more money had no appreciable effect on how happy a person was. As someone once remarked: “When you’re on your deathbed, it’s unlikely that you will regret not having spent more time at the office”.

By Ron Miller – February 2011

1 thought on “Was Nietzsche right, way back in 1887?”

  1. After reading Ron’s piece about having a life, and not just living, I thought of when I, along with a friend, had “a nursery school” in the backyard to earn extra money when I was 12. My mother told me she was proud of me for being ambitious. She often told me I was ambitious. I guess having a large family (4 children) today would be considered ambitious. I work at my almost 30 year marriage. I work at conscious parenthood of kids and animals companions too. I have always worked in a meaningful career at least part time outside of the home, since being a mom.

    Recently, “The Lazy Song,” by Bruno Mars has been in my head. and today, other than taking my cat to the Vet, and almost doing myself in on the tennis courts in the late morning, “Today, I am not doing anything!!
    What happened to the lazy hazy days of summer? Wasn’t that a song way back too?

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