“God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change…” So the famous Serenity Prayer begins. Most of us acknowledge the wisdom of accepting the things that are out of our control, that life throws us curve balls and we must learn to accept them. However, German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche takes this a step further (as do the stoic philosophers), and claims that we would do our best to not only accept our fate but to embrace it and even LOVE it (Latin: Amor Fati).
What does it mean to love our fate? And what is fate? Is fate something we can change? Is some of it under our control? Should we love the fact that something bad befalls us as a consequence of a poor decision? These, my friend, are the questions philosophers love to ponder.
While I could go down the path of free will vs. determinism, perhaps I’ll save that for another article. For now, I’ll focus on assuming that everything that befalls us is a part of our fate, whether we caused it or not, whether we had a choice in the matter, or that it was inevitable. The fact is, it happened, and now we are given the choice to deny it, accept it, be indifferent about it, or love it.
What does Amor Fati Mean?
So, back to the initial question, how do we love our fate? I believe we can do this with a mindset that embraces the following attitudes:
- `There are no good or bad situations, only our perceptions of them that make it so.
- We have the power to chose our perceptions and the framework with which we reflect on things that happen to us.
- There is a potential positive side to everything, even if we don’t yet see it.
So that brings us to the Latin phrase, Amor Fati: “To love one’s fate” or “The love of fate.” The popular use of Amor Fati is attributed to Nietzsche, having used it in his work Ecce Homo:
“My formula for greatness in a human being is amor fati: that one wants nothing to be other than it is, not in the future, not in the past, not in all eternity. Not merely bear what is necessary…but love it.”Friedrich Nietzsche, Ecce Homo
This thought pattern is not unique to Neitzsche, as it echoes some of the core tenants of stoic philosophy. Epictetus, a former slave turned philosopher living in the first century, has reflected upon similar sentiments in his writings:
“Do not strive for things occurring to occur as you wish, but wish the things occurring as they occur, and you will be happy.”Epictetus, The Enchiridion by Arrian
The logic in Epictetus’ words cannot be denied. If we wish for things to be as they are, then we truly would be happy no matter what. Of course, this is easier said than done—but is it impossible?
There are No Good or Bad Situations
Why do we look at situations as though they are good or bad? If something causes human suffering or death, we generally consider these events to be bad. There are usually exceptions to this rule, like when a dictator responsible for genocide meets their demise, people tend to consider that a good thing because it might end the suffering of many, and we also tend to feel that this person deserves the suffering or end of life that they’ve received. This, however, is a judgment call. It turns an empirical statement like “human suffering and death are bad” into an objective one, “human suffering and death are bad unless there is something else greater accomplished in the process.”
I’m reminded of a story about a Zen master who attempted to withhold judgment on certain scenarios that people would generally consider either good or bad:
On his sixteenth birthday the boy gets a horse as a present. All of the people in the village say, “Oh, how wonderful!” The Zen master says, “We’ll see.” One day, the boy is riding and gets thrown off the horse and hurts his leg. He’s no longer able to walk, so all of the villagers say, “How terrible!” The Zen master says, “We’ll see.” Some time passes and the village goes to war. All of the other young men get sent off to fight, but this boy can’t fight because his leg is messed up. All of the villagers say, “How wonderful!” The Zen master says, “We’ll see.”
Given the benefit of hindsight in this story, we can now look at the scenarios and withhold the immediate judgment of good or bad because we can see that the results of these scenarios can lead to a sense of a greater good. Given that, in this brief story, we don’t even know the entirety of the results of each of these scenarios, it seems that the most appropriate response to each one is “We’ll see.”
We Have the Power to Choose Our Perceptions
Compared to Viktor Frankl, I’ve had a pretty easy life. Austrian neurologist, psychiatrist, and Holocaust survivor, Frankl witnessed unspeakable atrocities in four concentration camps, including Auschwitz. He lost his wife and many members of his family to the Holocaust, in constant awareness of the reality that he is not likely to survive beyond the suffering in the concentration camps.
And yet, after his survival from the camps he wrote Man’s Search for Meaning, and reflected on the following:
“You cannot control what happens to you in life, but you can always control what you will feel and do about what happens to you.”Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning
Frankl’s reflections assert that it is possible, even in the most hopeless and frightening of circumstances, to choose our response. Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius reflected in his Meditations (his private journal that he didn’t intend to be published):
“A blazing fire makes flame and brightness out of everything that is thrown into it.”Marcus Aurelius, Meditations
The idea that it is within our power to choose our response to life’s scenarios is reflected over and over by humanity’s greatest philosophers and writers. Many of us can think of people we have come across who take the opposite view, that reflect upon how life keeps handing them a bad deal, and it’s everyone else’s fault.
People who live their lives with a victim’s mentality rarely find happiness, and overall live an unenviable existence.
I believe the philosophy of Amor Fati doesn’t consider whose fault anything is, there is no fault to be found, but simply to accept that what has happened has happened, and to attach positive feelings to this fate, as a discipline of choosing one’s feelings about life’s scenarios. Amor Fati is a discipline.
There is a Positive Side, Even if We Don’t See It
Seeing the bright side of a situation is a skill that takes practice and a little bit of faith. Some people are predisposed to be optimists, and this is easier for them, just as others are natural pessimists and it can be harder for them to arrive at positive viewpoints. Despite the natural tendencies any of us may have, it takes creativity to see potential positives in any situation, and this creativity can be exercised and made stronger through several practices:
- Make a habit of asking yourself, “What are some possible positive outcomes of this scenario?”
- Journal and reflect on times when you thought things were going to turn out “poorly,” and in the end something positive happened?
- Realize that true growth and change happens in adversity.
I realize that even in the statements above I am using terms that associate positive or negative emotions with circumstances, but we can’t all be Zen masters, so perhaps the best we can do with our mental capacities is to choose a positive feeling and reflection.
“Accept the fact that all events occur for a reason, and that it is within your capacity to see this reason as positive.”Robert Greene
This morning I had the opportunity to put this mental shift into good use. I was in the shower, shaving my head which has lost the ability to grow hair except for a horseshoe pattern around the sides. Our society views male pattern baldness as an undesirable trait, favoring the thick, wild hair of youth (side note: comparison is the thief of joy). I have accepted my fate and have decided to make the most of it, by removing all of the hair on my head with a razor and sporting a clean-shaven look. Intentionally, I specifically called out the positives of my grooming routine as I removed the stubble that grew overnight:
- I have a well-kept, clean look to my head all day long
- I save a lot of money on haircuts
- I have the opportunity to embrace this look with confidence instead of trying to cover it up or deny it
I’m at the point where I honestly don’t know if I would choose to have the thick hair of my youth if it were offered to me. I’m also not ashamed of my bald head either, I’m just a bit neutral about it and make the most of what is my fate. Now, if I could just apply this mentality to all things in my life and truly reach Zen master status (not likely in this lifetime).
Amor Fati vs. Accepting Fate
To conclude, I’d like to reflect on the difference between loving and accepting fate. I’ve accepted my bald head, do I LOVE it? Sure! Why not? It’s me. It is my fate. I can’t change it. I can get hair plugs, a transplant, or a wig, but all that changes is what I’ve done with my balding head. The head is still naturally balding, this fact is true. We can’t change things that happen after the fact, as much as we wish things were different, they can’t be changed. We can’t control the future either, but we can influence our NOW. Our now includes the feelings and reactions we have to our fate, and these can influence our acts in the present which then influence the future, and yet there is still the knowledge that the future is out of our absolute control.
Ryan Holiday tells the story of Thomas Edison in The Obstacle is the Way:
At age sixty-seven, Thomas Edison returned home early one evening from another day at his research lab. After dinner, a man came rushing into his house with urgent news: A fire had broken out at Edison’s research campus a few miles away. Fire engines could not stop the fire. Fueled by strange chemicals, green and yellow flames shot up six stories, threatening to destroy the entire empire Edison had spent his life building. As soon as Edison made it to the scene, he calmly told his son, “Go get your mother and all her friends, they’ll never see a fire like this again.”
How could Edison have maintained this mentality despite a clear setback to his life’s work? It is reported that he said the following to his son:
“It’s all right. We’ve just got rid of a lot of rubbish...[and] although I am over 67 years old, I’ll start all over again tomorrow.”
To see the positive in every situation and indeed to love the things that happen to us is hard. It isn’t natural, it doesn’t come easy, and it takes practice to cultivate. Those who dedicate their energy to seeing life this way, however, may have found the true secret to happiness, realizing that no person has absolute control over the fate that befalls them.
I think from here on out I’m going to tweak The Serenity Prayer when I say it to myself:
“God grant me the ability to love the things I cannot change…”