A Final Thought: The dragon of "thou shalt"


By Mitch Allen

According to Friedrich Nietzsche’s Three Transformations of the Spirit, we humans are destined to experience three stages in our lives.

The first is that of the camel. When we’re young, we drop to our knees obediently and declare, “Put a load on me,” and society responds by loading our backs with countless rules and instructions about what we need to do to live a responsible life. We walk around like that for a long time, struggling under our heavy burden.

Later in our adulthood—if we’re lucky—we wander into the desert where we transform into a lion, the heavier the load we carried as a camel, the stronger the lion will be. The lion has only one job: to slay a dragon. In this case, it’s the “Dragon of Thou Shalt.”

On every scale of this beast is printed a “thou shalt,” thousands of them, some passed down for millennia through stories, myths, parents, teachers, clergy, media, etc., while others may have popped up on our Facebook feed just this morning in the form of a meme, yet new rules for what we’re “supposed” to do.

It takes great courage to kill such a beast, which is why we must take on the form of a lion to do it.

Once the dragon has been slain and all of the “thou shalts” overcome, the lion is transformed into the third and final stage—a child who moves easily and naturally out of its own nature with no more rules to obey. It’s in this state of authenticity that Nietzsche says we can finally be our true selves.

I like to think I killed that dragon some time ago, perhaps in my early forties, when I quit my big corporate job, stopped shaving every day, and started wearing plaids with stripes. I never thought I’d be the kind of person who’d walk to the mailbox in a bathrobe, but here I am.

A quote that first helped me recognize the existence of the dragon was this one:

“The only time you should ever put ice in your wine is when you want to.”

Wine snobs will tell you that you thou shalt never put ice in your wine because it waters it down. But so what? If that’s the way you like it, then do it and let all the wineauxs roll their eyes.

There are plenty of thou shalts to overcome and they’re different for everyone. I have friends who believe thou shalt never arrive late to a meeting, and twist themselves into knots trying always to be early. Others say thou shalt always send a handwritten thank you note, and are disappointed and judgmental when receiving a thoughtful email instead.

Thou shalt change your oil every 3,000 miles.

Thou shalt not wear white after Labor Day.

Of course, all these rules are essential to the socialization process, to converting the human animal into a civilized being, yet, alas, few people become rich and famous by following the rules, by coloring inside the lines. As Joseph Campbell said, “It comes the time for using the rules in your own way and not being bound by them. That is the time for the lion-deed. You can actually forget the rules because they have been assimilated. You are an artist.”

Nietzsche, however, was wrong about one thing. I don’t think we go through these transformations once. We go through them all the time. One day, I’m a carefree child, taking the road less travelled and speaking my mind as freely as Joan Rivers. The next day, I go right back to being a guilt-ridden camel filled with anxiety that I’m not doing enough with my life, not carrying a heavy enough load. On those days, I have to wander again into the desert to fight that dragon.


Categories: Smart Living