“The whole life of the individual is nothing but the process of giving birth to himself; indeed, we should be fully born when we die.”
— Erich Fromm
The three phases of a great life
To die without having lived is a tragedy like no other.
Realizing that, although you have been around for thousands of days, you have yet to live through a single one, is a terrifying thought.
Sadly, it’s also the fate of most people: of those whose will has been quenched, whose minds have been dumbed, whose mouths have forgotten the ways of Yes and No.
Friedrich Nietzsche believed those of us willing to escape this lifeless wheel must embark on a three-stage journey; he called it the “three metamorphoses of the spirit.”
We must—he famously wrote in a chapter of Thus Spoke Zarathustra—become first a Camel, then a Lion and, finally, a Child.
Let me explain.
Phase I: endure, humbly.
Those with an eager spirit must first be willing to become a Camel—a beast of burden.
The Camel represents the strong and ambitious individual who wants to take on heavy loads. He bows down and asks: “what is the heaviest thing, you heroes, that I may take upon me and rejoice in my strength?”
The Camel is willing to suffer and experience burden without any self-pity, excuses or complaints. Instead, he endures it, becomes hardened by it (in durare, in the language of yore) and runs eagerly into the desert.
We all carry the weight of the world with us: society’s values, norms, expectations, responsibilities… but very few people bear it with dignity. This first stage represents the individual who is humble enough to experience the world without outright rejecting it. It’s the young artist looking up to his master; the soldier standing firmly before his general.
The Camel understands one must first live the rules before trying to break them.
Phase II: rebel, ferociously.
Deep into the desert, the spirit transforms itself into a Lion—a beast of rebellion.
Where the Camel says yes, the Lion says No. He doesn’t want contentment: he wants freedom.
The proud Lion sheds off his heavy load and prepares to fight his ultimate enemy, a terrifying dragon called Thou Shalt.
The dragon arrogantly shows off how each of its scales has a commandment written on it—things one must or mustn’t do—and tries to intimidate the Lion into submission. Alas—he cannot. In a final act of defiance, the Lion looks at Thou Shalt in the eyes and defeats it with his most powerful roar: “I will!”.
This is the stage of the individual who wants to rule his own existence by tearing at the ruling system: the pre-given values, the commandments, the social norms, the blind faiths, the Gods, the parental expectations—everything. Tired of carrying the weight of the world, he wants to separate himself from it, if only to feel like he has a say.
The Lion is our desire to say “I’m here! I’m alive! I choose!” as well as all the adrenaline and power that comes from actually doing it.
Phase III: create, unconditionally.
Finally, only the greatest of spirits are able to come to terms with the final challenge: becoming a Child—a beast of creation.
Rebellion makes you feel alive at first, but it also brings with it a deep existential breakdown. Now that the Lion has liberated himself from all the heaviness of the world, there’s nothing but dust and debris in its place. There lies his irony: the Lion can only be what he is not.
This is exactly why he must now become a Child: because where the Lion said No, the Child says Yes… but his own Yes. The spirit of the Child, having separated itself from a predetermined existence, now “wills its own will […] and wins its own world.”
The Child embodies a new beginning, a regained innocence, a wiser second chance. Like an architectural genius, he builds back up the space that the Lion had flattened: only this time, with structures that are truly his. This is a stage of absolute creation—without any resentment, bitterness or cynicism—and genuine fascination towards the whole of one’s world.
The Child is the spirit’s attempt at being its own god.
This is the irony both Fromm and Nietzsche were trying to portray through their texts, and that I have tried to summarize today: to leave this world being fully born, one must go back to how he entered it.