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An existential struggle

By Debra Dobbins

One of the joys of working with Scandinavian sailors in my twenties was hearing them wax philosophical, usually after a few liquid libations. (I think the Scandinavians’ refined art of conversation is genetic. It likely comes from having to while away long winter nights before the advent of 24-hour television.)

During one discussion Per, a Swedish friend who was – and still is -- a rugged individualist, commented, “Life should be a struggle.”

I remember the remark, but I forget its context. Maybe I was simply bemoaning the fact that I frequently totaled up bar bills incorrectly while working the night shift as a purser assistant. As the cruise ship’s hotel purser, Per often had to start his workdays by cleaning up my mathematical messes while I got to run ashore at yet another exotic port of call.

I would prefer to think that that particular discussion was on a higher mental plane than discussing my professional failings, because we did have many deep conversations about “life,” but I just don’t remember now.

In 2001 Per and I got together for lunch in Copenhagen, along with my mother, my son and a friend of Per’s. I reminded him of his comment and asked him to write it on a piece of scrap paper. He obliged, signing the statement with a flourish. He used his full Christian moniker, complete with two middle names.

By that time, as a remedial student in the school of hard knocks, I had realized just how right Per was.

I still have the scrap of paper. When life seems challenging, Per’s words help me remember his faith in me, despite my mediocre math skills, and they reassure me I will most likely survive each and every crisis du jour.

With that story in mind, I’m pretty sure Per would agree with German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche: “The individual has always had to struggle to keep from being overwhelmed by the tribe. If you try it, you will be lonely often, and sometimes frightened. But no price is too high to pay for the privilege of owning yourself.”

(Skål, Pelle! Here’s to self-ownership.)

Friedrich Nietzsche, 1869
Photo courtesy of Wikipedia

 

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