On a scale of 1 to 10 — where 10 is you all arms wide open in a welcoming embrace, and 1 is you all teeth-baring, brandishing your weapon of choice — how accepting are you of your fate in life?
Are you fully open and accepting of your past, present, and whatever happens in your future (i.e.: 10/10), or are you hellbent on controlling your outcomes, memory lane, and the weather (i.e.: 1/10)?
Nietzsche, the German philosopher famous for quips like, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” churned out a few other thought-provoking gems that didn’t happen to fit on coffee mugs. Here’s the one I have in mind for our discussion today — from the last of his work in 1888 before his apparent descent into madness (be warned, kids: syphilis isn’t all it’s cracked up to be):
“My formula for greatness in a human being is amor fati: that one wants nothing to be different, not forward, not backward, not in all eternity. Not merely bear what is necessary, still less conceal it… but love it.”
He elaborates here: “I want to learn more and more to see as beautiful what is necessary in things; then I shall be one of those who makes things beautiful. Amor fati: let that be my love henceforth! I do not want to wage war against what is ugly. I do not want to accuse; I do not even want to accuse those who accuse. Looking away shall be my only negation. And all in all and on the whole: some day I wish to be only a Yes-sayer.”
Oh, how we reflexively wage war against what is “ugly,” don’t we (unrequited love! Bankruptcy! Psoriasis! Not being born filthy rich!).
Oh, how our lips curl in disdain for what is “necessary,” when we’d rather skirt any kind of suffering altogether (having to “pay our dues” before being eligible for that promotion! Buying the kid-friendly minivan instead of the motorcycle! Needing a root canal! Saving for retirement instead of living here and now!).
We cling so fiercely to the notions of living right, living a touched-up past and living a carefully constructed Very-Best-Life-Even-If-It-Kills-Me future, that we fail to realize we’re clinging to something inherently un-clingable. Clinging to the notion of a well-controlled life is an exhausting undertaking in futility. Control is un-clingable.
Accepting vs. Settling
A low-grade tension pushes and pulls itself around this amor fati premise, doesn’t it? And you can feel it too, can’t you?
Accepting our fate can feel like delicious surrender at times; it can be a downright relief to gently place the weapons we’ve been pointing at ourselves down on the table. Beating ourselves up for that failed first marriage, for that business idea that floundered, for that Thanksgiving Dinner Debacle of 2016, for being born with cellulite, for our perceived mistakes of all shapes and sizes. It’s also relieving to strive a little less, isn’t it? Granting ourselves permission to turn the intensity dial down on Reaching Our Goals by Midnight allows us to catch our breath and not pull countless all-nighters.
So on one hand, amor fati feels generous and calming, like a healthy pour of Sauvignon Blanc at the end of a tough day…
Accepting our fate can feel like we’ve dimmed the flame of ambition that burns within us. The shadow side of surrender is that it looks a lot like we’ve reclined on the La-Z-Boy with crushed empty beer cans strewn all around us. If we fully accept fate and let it dictate our reality, does that mean we’ll throw the towel in on creating, trying, and improving? If we chalk our circumstances up to fate, does that mean we’ll strip ourselves of agency to change the things that might benefit from changing? Will we settle for mediocrity because we’ve taken amor fati a touch too far?
Would your life be better if you unclenched your sweaty, death-grip fists from your desire to have things go Just So?
I don’t know what the answer is for you (or for me for that matter), but I do have a hunch, and it involves the word Yes.
No one is suggesting that we’re going to throw our hands up in the air while embracing fate. It’s likely a tad dramatic to think we’ll languish endlessly in a less-than-thrilling job or relationship, because we drank Nietzsche’s amor fati kool-aid and lost our inclination or ability to take action.
If we sip the amor fati kool-aid (rather than guzzle it), it affords us an extraordinary chance to be with ourselves and our lives. Imagine accepting what we can’t control, rather than railing against it? Imagine loving our lives, warts and all? Imagine having a full appreciation for the ups and downs, for our trials and tribulations, rather than toiling to change the inevitable “ugly” and “necessary” circumstances?
Imagine living a life that strikes a balance of acceptance for what is/ was, and a healthy dose of action to influence what could be? As Nietzsche said, only be a Yes-sayer! (Except to syphilis. Maybe be a No-sayer to that.)
Oh and just in case you missed it… please take 16 minutes out of your life to watch my TEDx talk!