Nietzsche, Evolution, and Alina Șerban

Alina Șerban performed “The Best Child in the World,” a one-woman play sponsored by ARCHER at the Romanian Community Center on June 21 in Chicago.

Alina is Roma, she grew up poor in Bucharest, she is a woman, and yet, she is a successful actor, writer, and director. People watch her films and come to see her perform, she gets great reviews, and she wins awards. This is a remarkable story, and she tells it wonderfully. But that is not her message.

People are impressed with her because this story fits the narrative of what society likes. We value this kind of stuff. We look at everything she has had to overcome and think, “Wow, what an inspiration!”

But that is not her story. The values reflected in that story are not her values. She is in pursuit of her “true” value and the representation of her “true self.” “The Best Child in the World” is her statement of just how difficult it is to do this and what she is up against.

Photo by Florin Ghioca

Friedrich Nietzsche

Alina is not the first person to think about the hurdles one needs to overcome to enhance one’s life. German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900), famously offers his conception of “Übermensch” in Thus Spoke Zarathustra.

This “super person” is someone willing to take risks, plays the game of life by their own rules and values, not by what society establishes, and is willing to do this at the expense of their individual pleasure and happiness. Nietzsche calls this power, and it is the highest human value one can achieve.

In Nietzsche’s Values John Richardson describes it this way: “Power is “more life” not by its mere continuation, nor by its multiplication, but by life’s being raised to a higher level of capacity and control; Power is transition to a higher level…a “self-overcoming”… the point to my life is my growth or strengthening and [this] lies not merely in expanding but in ascending, which involves overcoming previous states of myself.”

Unlike previous philosophers who spent their time developing ideals that aren’t all that impressive (“And as ye would that men should do to you, do ye also to them likewise.”- Luke 6:31), Nietzsche opens the idea of ascendance into a whole new dimension.

Nietzsche is well known for not thinking much of religion, but he wasn’t overwhelmed by evolution either (more life isn’t multiplication). While in a general sense he accepted it, he didn’t think highly of the particulars. Responding to Herbert Spencer (he probably never read Darwin), Nietzsche had serious problems with the idea that evolutionary life was about moving to the “perfect creature” or the “ideally moral man” (Nietzsche thought the Renaissance human was far superior to the human of the 1800s.) He was also bothered by the idea of adaptive power. For Nietzsche, power is willful, it is self-determining and has intentionality; the idea that human development occurs through environmental interaction and the struggle for survival is weak and insulting.

By focusing on adaptation and natural selection: “one mistakes the essence of life, its will to power; in so doing one overlooks the essential pre-eminence of the spontaneous, attacking, infringing, reinterpreting, reordering, and formative forces, upon whose effect the “adaptation” first follows; in so doing one denies the lordly role of the highest functionaries in the organism itself, in which the will of life appears active and form-giving” (On the Genealogy of Morality).

Overcoming the Evolutionary Self

The evolutionary self is our given self, the stuff of instinct, the lowest form of human development. To overcome this, we must undergo three metamorphoses (developed in the Introduction of Thus Spoke Zarathustra):

One (Become a Camel): Become unafraid of discomfort, possess the discipline to obtain new knowledge, and be able to bear the burden of social constructs.

Two (From Camel to Lion): Become independent and rebel against those social constructs.

Three (Become a Child): Seek truth on your own and become aware of yourself.

Nietzsche’s approach is obviously very individualistic, while the evolutionary self is biased towards the benefits of social tolerance and cooperative behavior. That adapted self readily gets attached to our psychological needs; we are constrained to seek compassion and contentment at the expense of the suffering and pain that are necessary for growth and progress.

Bucharest – a city of stark contrasts.
Photography from the personal collection of Ana Hojbota. All rights reserved.

Upon forced separation from her mother, Alina committed herself to further progress toward being the best child she could. This is her value of choice. Born and raised in Bucharest, she is the first one in her family to graduate high school. She also graduated from the Tisch School of the Arts in New York, obtained a master’s degree from the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London, represented Romania at the Cannes Film Festival in 2018, and won the Best Actress Award at the German Actors Guild Awards in 2020 for her performance in “Gipsy Queen.”

She lists these achievements in her presentation. Then she surprises you. She states she has derived little comfort or self-satisfaction from any of this, and that bothers her. Why? Because society has determined that this should make her happy and content. But it doesn’t. She is bearing the burden of these social constructs. If Nietzsche is right, she is going to have to overcome this. But what is it about the evolutionary self she needs to overcome?

The Compassion Dilemma

In the evolutionary model, our brain is organized as a set of programs, functional components, or systems. We have a lot of these programs, as different problems require different solutions. Some are new, some are old, some work better than others; and none of them come close to being optimal (check Tooby and Cosmides for a great summary of how this works.)

We all know about the system of threat. It is strong, dominant, and dated; good for when you encounter a bear; not so good for struggling with self-doubt. We also have a system of drive, where selection favors those who are goal-directed, attentive, and motivated. These two together wreak all kinds of havoc. When facing a threat, people tend to use their drive system to distract. “I need to work harder.” When this fails, we see another threat: “If I was more disciplined, I would not have this problem.” People with drive want the dopamine rush for achieving their goals; but the system of threat (doubt, discomfort) keeps this from happening. It’s like watching a tennis match between two mediocre baseline players, “this is painful, get me out of here!”

It would be great if we had a third system that regulated and coordinated this problem for us. Well, we do. Paul Gilbert calls it the “soothing system.” This is our care-giving system, created when we figured out social interaction supported survival and reproduction. The evolutionary home of compassion, it is powerful and basic, not an adaptation to take lightly. According to Gilbert, we can use this social-based system to offset self-focused competitiveness. “If you are able to support, nurture and soothe yourself, you are more capable of being there for yourself if you fail… You will be able to handle disappointment without spiraling into self-criticism and self-attacking or shame… You learn from your mistakes.”

This sounds wonderful. Self-compassion taps into all kinds of neurochemicals such as oxytocin, endorphins, and opiates, that weaken the toxic effects of the threat system. It brings us a sense of calm, contentment, and strength; and unlike what Nietzsche thought, the evidence is strong that this naturally reactive response enhances our ability to achieve many of the qualities necessary for ascension.

If you are having a tough time, or if you are caught in the rut of threat and drive, Nietzsche says ignore the pain, or even embrace it, keep pushing forward. Conversely, a well-functioning evolutionary self asks how you can care for yourself at that moment. Self-attendance means stepping back from the drama and achieving balance, objectivity, and perspective. Neff and Vonk find that self-compassion is linked to curiosity, the opening of the mind, and the willingness to take on new initiatives. “Self-compassionate individuals are motivated to learn and grow, but for intrinsic reasons – not because they want to garner social approval.”

So, what is the problem? This complete system doesn’t work very well. It would be nice if adaptation spent a little more time on coordination. but it hasn’t. After millions of years, it is made up of an incredibly complex mishmash of adaptive systems that exist to solve various kinds of problems, few of which are directly relevant to our modern struggles. Modern psychotherapy tries to step in and help; some psychologists are becoming famous for singing the praises of courage; while others emphasize the benefits of self-compassion.

The problem is, Nietzsche is right; we need to overcome our fears and discomforts to grow and become a child. Alina needs to break free of evolutionary constraints, societal definitions of who she is, false perceptions of Roma and Romani identity. She is trying to free herself from the social prescriptions of what is valuable: make money, win awards, fill the theaters. This is all part of her “false self.”

Alina is of the belief that to be the best child in the world; she needs to be courageous. She also believes that to be the best child in the world, she must show self-compassion. At the end of her play, she is talking to herself. She is on screen, and she is there in person. The Alina on screen tells her she needs to be more compassionate and understanding of what she has gone through and what she is going through. Alina in person nods knowingly. She knows she is beating herself up. She also knows that to be the best child she can be, there are times she needs to be courageous, and there are times she needs to show self-compassion. But this is a struggle for her.

The most important evolutionary transformation was when socially aware humans started to adapt better than those who were not socially aware. The next important transformation is when self-aware humans start to adapt better than those that are not self-aware. Alina’s message is that if we wish to survive and ascend, we need to better understand the relationship we have with ourselves

  • I wonder where we as society and community come in? Do we have any role to play? We do have a role in inflicting pain, so I believe we also have a role in facilitating healing…and maybe that is her plea as well: to be seen, as a human being, as a Roma, as a powerful force for change.

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