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Hermann Hesse : "Action and Suffering"

Extract from:

Hermann Hesse, "Zarathustra's return"

(In "If The War Goes On: Reflections on War and Politics")


“What ought we to do ?” you ask me. You ask me time and time again, and yourselves as well. “Doing” — action — is so important to you, indeed all-important. That is good, my friends, or rather — it would be good, if you fully understood what action is !

But you see, the very question “What ought we to do ?”— What action ought we to perform ? — this question of an anxious child, shows me how little you know of action.

What you young men call action, I, the old hermit of the mountains, should call by a very different name. I can think of any number of droll or appealing names for this “action” of yours. I should not have to roll it between my fingers very long to turn it neatly and amusingly into its opposite. For it is an opposite. Your “doing” is the opposite of what I call “doing.”

No true action, my friends — just listen to the word, listen well, wash your ears with it ! — no true action has ever been performed by one who first asked: “What ought I to do ?” An action is a light that shines from a good sun. If the sun is not good, if it is not sound and many times tested, or, worse, if it is the kind of sun that asks itself anxiously what it ought to do, it will never shed light. A true action is not the same as “doing something,” a true action cannot be cogitated and contrived. Very well, I shall tell you what a true action is. But first, my friends, let me tell you how this action, this “doing,” you speak of strikes me. Then we shall understand each other better.

This “action” you wish to perform, which is expected to spring from searching and doubting and meandering — this action, dear friends, is the contrary and mortal enemy of true action. For your action, if you will forgive me an unpleasant word, is cowardice ! I see you growing angry, I see in your eyes the look I am so fond of — but wait, hear me out !

You young men are soldiers, and before you were soldiers you, or your fathers, were merchants or manufacturers or the like. Taught in a deplorable school, they and you believed in certain antitheses that were thought to have existed since the beginning of time and to have been created by the gods. These antitheses were your gods. From one of them, the antithesis between man and god, you inferred that a man cannot be a god, and conversely. Zarathustra can find no plainer, simpler way of showing you the dubious and despicable character of those time-honored, sacrosanct antitheses than to open your eyes to the antithesis you so staunchly believe in: that between action and suffering.

Action and suffering, which together make up our lives, are a whole; they are one. A child suffers its begetting, it suffers its birth, its weaning; it suffers here and suffers there until in the end it suffers death. But all the good in a man, for which he is praised or loved, is merely good suffering, the right kind, the living kind of suffering, a suffering to the full. The ability to suffer well is more than half of life — indeed, it is all life. Birth is suffering, growth is suffering, the seed suffers the earth, the root suffers the rain, the bud suffers its flowering.

In the same way, my friends, man suffers destiny. Destiny is earth, it is rain and growth. Destiny hurts.

What you call action is a running-away from pain, a not-wanting-to-be-born, a flight from suffering ! You, or your fathers, called it “action” when you bustled about night and day in shops and factories, when you heard many many hammers hammering, when you blew quantities of soot into the air. Don’t misunderstand me, I have nothing against your hammers, your soot, or your fathers. But I cannot help smiling when you speak of your bustling as “action.” It was not action, it was merely a flight from suffering. It was painful to be alone — and so men established societies. It was painful to hear all manner of voices within you, demanding that you live your own lives, seek your own destiny, die your own death — it was painful, and so you ran away, and made noise with hammers and machines, until the voices receded and fell silent. That is what your fathers did, that is what your teachers did, and that is what you yourselves did. Suffering was demanded of you — and you were indignant, you didn’t want to suffer, you wanted only to act ! And what did you do ?

First, in your strange occupations you sacrificed to the god of deafening noise, you were so busy with your activity that you had no time to suffer, to hear, to breathe, to drink the milk of life and the light of heaven. No, you had to be active, perpetually active, perpetually doing. And when the fuss and bustle proved futile, when the destiny within you, instead of ripening into sweetness, decayed and turned to poison, you multiplied your activity, you created enemies for yourselves, first in your imagination, then in reality; you went to war, you became soldiers and heroes.

You have made conquests, you have borne insane hardships and done gigantic deeds. And now ? Are you content ? Are your hearts happy and serene ? Is destiny sweet to your taste ? No, it is bitterer than ever, and that is why you are clamoring for more action, rushing into the streets, storming and shouting, electing councils, and loading your guns again. All because you are forever in flight from suffering ! In flight from yourselves, from your souls !

I hear your answer. You ask me whether what you have suffered was not suffering. Was it not suffering when your brothers died in your arms, when your flesh froze to the ground or quivered under the surgeon’s knife ? Yes, all that was suffering — suffering that you brought upon yourselves by your own obstinacy, impatient suffering, a striving to change destiny. It was heroic — insofar as a man who runs away from destiny, who wants to change it, can be heroic.

It is hard to learn to suffer. Women succeed more often and more nobly than men. Learn from them ! Learn to listen when the voice of life speaks ! Learn to look when the sun of destiny plays with your shadows ! Learn to respect life ! Learn to respect yourselves !

From suffering springs strength, from suffering springs health. It is always the “healthy” who suddenly collapse, who are laid low by a puff of air. Those are the men who have not learned to suffer. Suffering toughens a man; suffering tempers him. Those who run from all suffering are children ! I love children, but how can I love those who want to be children all their lives ? And that is how it is with all of you, who, in your dismal infantile fear of pain and darkness, run from suffering into activity.

See what you have accomplished with all your fuss and bustle and sooty occupations ! What have you got left ? Your money is gone and with it all the glitter of your cowardly busyness. And what true action has all your activity engendered ? Where is the great man, the shining hero, the man of action ? Where is your Kaiser ? Who is to take his place ? And where is your art ? Where are the works that would justify your times ? Where are the great, joyful ideas ? Ah, you have suffered far too little and not nearly well enough to produce anything good and radiant !

For true action, good and radiant action, my friends, does not spring from activity, from busy bustling, it does not spring from industrious hammering. It grows in the solitude of the mountains, it grows on the summits where silence and danger dwell. It grows out of the suffering which you have not yet learned to suffer.

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