A Dionysian Affirmation of Life and Nietzsche’s “Great Health”

If you have ever heard of the Greek god, Dionysus, you probably think of him as the god of wine. You are not wrong. However, there is depth and nuance to this ancient god and archetype beyond the reputation that precedes.

Dionysus was a god of duality, and paradox. He was the god of the highest love, bliss, and ecstasy (think of the first delirious flush of romantic love, layered over by just the right amount of wine-buzzed, and you’re close). Simultaneously, he was the god of frenzy, and even flesh-rending and blood lust. He was even sometimes referred to as the “dying,” or, the “suffering god”. Because of his dual nature, he was sometimes referred to as “the mad god”. Now, through each god, a vision of the world as we know it can be glimpsed.

I don’t know about you, but when I see the world reflected through the image of Dionysus, not much changes. It already appears we live in a mad world, where the most beautiful and exquisite aspects of the mysteries of life and love exist coevally with what seems like totally senseless and unending suffering. Dionysus makes spades, and spades, of sense to me.

German existentialist philosopher Nietzsche thought so, too. He wrote that most people are not constitutionally capable of looking squarely into the inconceivable suffering of the world, and “man’s inhumanity to man,” in a consistent manner. Most people find ways to “anchor” themselves into smaller, more comfortable versions of reality, and this helps them stay happy, healthy and sane. There are, of course, those who are incapable of making this intellectual move, and who seem eternally bothered by “the way things are”. Many great writers, artists and thinkers fall into this latter category. And this point of view is valid, BUT . . .

Nietzsche coined the phrase “the great health” to describe the state of seeing both the unbearable beauty and the unbearable “darkness” of life and summoning a resounding, “YES” to all of it; to life. This is not easy to do. Interestingly, the image at the very end of Ulysses by James Joyce is essentially a gasping “yes” to life, in spite of everything. I am sure many readers can relate to reaching a point of uncertainty about whether or not you even want to keep on keeping on. And whatever surges through when it seems like nothing else is left, your personal mythology, your loved ones, your ancestors– this is the greatest love story of all time. The story of love between a genuine human heart that refuses to put the blinkers on, and life itself, in all its mystery, sorrow, beauty, pain, and music. YES!!!! I want that. I want it all. This is “the great health”.

I find this concept particularly helpful in these extraordinary and distressing times. Whenever I am reminded of the collective human Shadow, I am made more firm in my commitment to be deep as a therapist: “deep” in the Depth Psychology sense of the word, but also in the “not shallow” sense of the word. I do not just want to help people find and perfect their coping mechanisms and their blinkers and blinders, their anchors into a nicer, smaller, and more comfortable world of their making. I want to help them find their YES to life, to all of life– I want to help them find “the great health”. It is what the world needs more than anything now: People who are engaged fully in life, while also looking at all of life squarely. It tends to make people more active and kind.

Published by annaliseoatman

I am a heart-centered, trauma-focused, licensed therapist with five years of experience working with traumatized, system-involved children and youth, adults moving through addiction and recovery, and older adults in skilled nursing facilities with HIV/AIDS-related health struggles. I earned an Oxbridge Masters in Philosophy (Mental and Moral Sciences) at Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland, and a Masters in Social Work, with a concentration on mental health and direct clinical practice, at the University of Southern California. I love empowering, and healing trauma, and doing soul work with passionate, free-thinking, creative women, or anyone who has ever identified as having the female experience. My approach is warm, empathic and grounded, and I integrate an attachment perspective with a somatic and depth approach to healing trauma.

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