“You should really get a Fitbit.”
Her words caught me from behind. She’d been there for a while—maybe three or four miles—tailing me at distance that violated every tenet of basic running etiquette. As my pace had slackened, hers had remained annoyingly constant, a light pitter-pat on the San Diego boardwalk. Now she was at my hip.
“How far have you gone?
She didn’t let me answer. She was all business. Her bronzed arm shot forward as if to shake my hand. On her boney wrist, which was thicker than the rest of her arm, was a hot pink band and a flashing number: 17,845.
“See? You’re missing out on a bunch of steps.”
The downy blond hair on the back of her hand glistened with sweat. If I pulled gently, the hot pink band would just slip off. And I could hurl it into the harbor. Of course I didn’t do this. And I didn’t tell her that it was actually impossible to “miss out on steps.” That just isn’t how human movement works—either you take steps or you don’t. I also didn’t tell her that, in my experience, once you acquire a severe eating disorder it never really goes away. Or that after a certain number of years of fasting and exercising, you no longer need a handheld device to keep you in line. I guessed she was in her early twenties, a solid ten years younger than me. Maybe she would find out.
“Okay—gotta go,” she said. She wasn’t playing around, motoring past me, in search of those steps. What a perfectly efficient machine. I stopped running, slowed to a painful shuffle, and watched her disappear. I used to be like that. In my head, I still am.
For years I measured myself in steps and miles, pounds and inches. I did it so often, with such precision, that I no longer have to. My mother thinks that this means I’ve gotten better. And in a certain respect I have: the lanugo, the downy fur on my own hands and feet has disappeared; I haven’t passed out on the street in a very long time; I now drink beer and eat mostly normal meals. I have a job and a house, and a lovely partner and a daughter. I also still have an eating disorder born of running and walking too much, or in the wrong way. I haven’t gotten over my compulsions. Instead I live with them, or they live with me—quietly. They’ve become so ingrained and habitual that I no longer have to consciously serve them. I serve them without explicitly thinking about them. Maybe I’m better, but I’m probably not.
When I was nineteen, I spent nine weeks hiking, running, and hitch-hiking in Europe. Today I am a philosophy professor, but at the time I was just a student. I was supposed to be doing research on Friedrich Nietzsche, and most of my time was spent in Sils Maria, on the Swiss-Italian border, where Nietzsche had summered. I was trying to grasp Nietzsche’s writings on insanity and genius, but also his critique of the ascetic ideal—the modes of self-deprivation that arise in a decadent culture. “Ascetic” comes from the word for “monk,” but more directly from the Greek asketikos, meaning “rigorously self-disciplined.” Nietzsche observed that self-restraint often arises in ages of great decadence—at times when there seems to be no end to surplus—as a way for individuals to exercise their wills and to strive for something beyond the mundane ease of contemporary life. As part of my research project on asceticism, I stopped eating.
The week before arriving in Switzerland, I took a detour to Chamonix at the foot of Mont Blanc. If you walk out of town and cross the river on the outskirts, you eventually arrive at the mountain’s base camp. This is where championship walkers hang out, where they obsess over questions that seemed in step with Nietzsche’s perfectionism: How high did you go? What route did you take? Did you go by yourself? How hard was it? How long did it take you?
Hiking like this is not for the faint of heart or, honestly, for the wise; it’s a matter of exercising what I thought was the most radical forms of Nietzsche’s “will to power.” My new friend with the Fitbit and the downy blond fur on her hands knew this all too well. Her journey, I suspect, was about laying claim to life, taking hold of something that often seemed to run out of control. Who cared if it killed her? We’re all going to die, right? It was also about maintaining some sense of freedom. When you push a body hard enough, it begs to stop. Choosing to travel beyond the point of bodily refusal—this is matter of volition. I’m not saying it is advisable (it rarely is) but maybe the whole point is to act in the face of good judgment.
In the Will to Power, published posthumously, Nietzsche writes, “The higher man is distinguished from the lower by his fearlessness and his readiness to challenge misfortune.” If you walk far enough you will inevitably encounter ever greater forms of misfortune. I have pins in my ankles—one in each. My right talus, the boney ball that rests on top of my foot and connects it to my leg has been scoped—twice. I didn’t have a cataclysmic accident in the mountains, but repeated low-grade trauma, combined with overtraining, has left me hobbling in the mornings and late at night.
In everyday life, we walk on safe, well-tread paths, so wide and even that we hardly need our senses to navigate them. Despite the frenetic busy-ness of everyday life, I fear these sidewalks are made for the walking dead. Our walking is almost exclusively telic in nature—we walk with a clear purpose, a telos, in order to go from here to there. The problem, however, is that the destination and the route is often not of our own choosing. Where do you go? Why do you go there? Do you have a a good answer? Or are you simply walking automatically? Machines, not unlike the Fitbit, tell us where to turn and at what speed, where to exit and where to park. “I would be lost without this,” my student once said to me, pulling up Google Maps on her iPhone. If we need a gadget to find our way, we may already be irretrievably lost.
I think some people who suffer from chronic eating disorders, who engage in seemingly insane feats of endurance and strength, are responding to this fear, to the sense that the modern world is intent on curtailing the freedom of individuals. Measures, even dramatic measures, must be taken to counteract these stifling forces, even if this amounts to stifling or starving yourself. At least you get to choose. It is in the midst of decadence that these strange drives arise, “during which,” Nietzsche writes, “an impulse learns to cower down and abase itself, but also to cleanse itself and become sharper.” Every mad runner or dieter recognizes the truth of these words.
There is, however, a rather serious drawback to exercising the will to power in the ways that I’m describing. Every hike if taken in extremis necessarily becomes a solo hike. If you fall, or hurt yourself, or die—it is ultimately by yourself. I guess this isn’t exactly true: compulsive running or walking or fasting are companions of a sort, the most demanding acquaintances, and every waking moment must be spent to satisfy them. But they leave pitifully little room for anything—or anyone—else. Real lovers and friends, the flesh-and-blood variety who have desires and demands, typically get in the way of Nietzsche’s Will to Power. Or at least that is what I thought for most of my life.
There may come a point, however, when you push yourself so hard, so mercilessly, that you find yourself unexpectedly sapped. The will to power finally, after days or months or years, lays itself low. Maybe at the age of 36, the efficient machine running on the San Diego boardwalk breaks down.
I think this is what happened to me. I was 36, in sight of middle age. I went back to the Alps, to Nietzsche’s onetime home and I took my partner and daughter to retrace some of the hikes that I’d taken in my youth. Of course I had to take the journey in perfect repetition: I stopped eating (and stopped taking the anti-depressant that had helped me form a family). I was once again free, and wanted to abandon my loved ones and climb the most distant peak. I know exactly how ungrateful this sounds, and there is cosmic justice in the fact that I slipped badly. There is a moment when you fall—even from a height of twenty feet—a moment when you know it is going hurt very badly, that you will have to access if and where you’re broken, and will have the chance to either wish you’d been higher or wish that you’d never gone out in the first place. It turns out that slipping has its advantages: you sometimes get to see life a bit more clearly.
Walking is the most elemental, immediate, way of getting ahead, getting along, and getting away. The task, according to Nietzsche, is to figure out which way we are going. This is easier said than done, but an unintended interruption of one’s routine—a great sickness, a tragedy, an accident—can help. It isn’t that we should go looking for crisis but that we should use them when they inevitably come. This is one of the ways of reading Nietzsche’s concept of the amor fati, the love of fate, what I now take to be the necessary counterweight to the will to power.
Nietzsche asks us not only to bear our destiny, but to love even the most despicable or objectionable moments of existence, when the will fails us or when we employ it in ways that hurt others and hurt ourselves. It isn’t clear that even he could manage such a feat, but he does write, referencing his own physical and psychological crises, that, “I have often asked myself whether I am not more heavily obligated to the hardest years of my life than to any others.” He often seems to answer in the affirmative.
A series of unfortunate events can create a bit of critical distance on the facts of life. “My sickness,” Nietzsche wrote, “gave me the right to abandon all my habits completely, it commanded me to forget.” Perhaps we forget or lose our habitual way of being, but we may, in the process, remember and regain something far more precious—the ability to own up the paths we have taken, and to reassess life’s worth beyond its merely conventional value. In Nietzsche’s words, “Let the youthful soul look back on life with the question: what have you truly loved up to now, what has drawn your soul aloft?” It is a very good question.
At the time of my fall, at 36, there were many things that I loved—my regimen, my discipline, my exercise, myself—that did not draw my soul aloft. And very few that actually did. Thankfully, there were at least two.
When my daughter began to walk, we took her to the grassy stretch on Bunker Hill, above Boston, to let her try out her new legs. It was late afternoon, an hour before dinner. The child had an inborn sense that walking could take a body from here to there, and so she would shuffle from one patch of flowers to another, but the destination was largely unimportant. It wasn’t a test of will, or at least not in the modern sense of forcing yourself to get from one place to another as efficiently as possible. The shortest distance between two points is a straight line, but my daughter, who was simply spinning at that point, didn’t care. “I have learned to walk,” Nietzsche writes, “since then I have run. I have learned to fly: since then I do not have to be pushed in order to move. Now I am nimble, now I fly, now I see myself under myself, now a god dances within me.”
“We should get to dinner,” I said to my partner, pointing to the setting sun over the city. She nodded. “Let’s just sit for a little longer. This will pass quickly,” she said. Of course, she was right. Our child would grow up. She would tame or suppress her playfulness, and we would miss it dearly. There was no sense in missing it prematurely. “Just look at that,” she whispered as our two-year-old fell down in the grass and laughed. For one of the first times in my life I managed to “just sit” and to “just look.” I am not sure if it was my soul, but I felt something inside me being drawn aloft.
For a long time I thought that “real men” could be found hiking the hardest trails, scaling the highest peaks. But I suspect I was sorely mistaken. Becoming what you are has nothing to do with one’s step count. “In every real man,” Nietzsche insists instead, “a child is hidden that wants to play.” It hides well, but it is thankfully never fully gone.