Things happen — sometimes planned, sometimes unplanned. According to several philosophers, making the best of jubilation and tragedy is essential to a life of equanimity, given the inevitability of both.
Nietzsche put it this way in The Gay Science:
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.
Of course, Nietzche didn’t live every day as he tried to, but he offers a helpful description of a much-needed way of achieving a well-balanced life. This man understood all kinds of joys and sorrows would be unexpected, haphazard, and absurd.
The German philosopher suggests we come to terms with whatever happens to us — the fluctuating experience of our human life no matter what. Positives and negatives come close to being guaranteed in any long lifetime.
Dean Martin’s rendition of That’s Amore (Italian for romantic love) reminds us that chance meetings often drive affairs of the heart. Amor (Latin) also means love but applies to many things, including fate, as in the expression Amor Fati or love of fate.
That is what Nietzche expresses: accepting the nature of life as a first signpost to the emotional overcoming and acceptance of disappointment, failure, and unfairness.
The Stoic philosophers additionally referred to the limits of what we can change and must concede. They believed our brief lifespan gives us a silent push to make the best use of our finite opportunities and a reason for adherence to the highest values.
Professor Luke Timothy Johnson said the following about the difference between the worldview of a man like Marcus Aurelius, the Stoic “philosopher/king” of second-century Rome, and our way of thinking about “the good life:”
Marcus Aurelius was obsessed by the transitory character of all existent things. We (by contrast) take our institutions for granted. We think that life is long. We assume that we should be healthy.
Marcus Aurelius spurned pleasure and sought duty. We are driven by the notions of feeling good, and the pursuit of happiness is often identified with the pursuit of pleasure. Marcus Aurelius identified freedom as a call to virtue and duty, whereas in present day America, we often think of freedom as the most radical form of individualism and doing what we like.
The writing of the Englishman Wordsworth, too, reminds us to make the best use of our abilities in worthwhile actions:
The world is too much with us; late and soon, Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers …
Camus, the French writer, Existentialist, and political activist, goes beyond the conventional notion of acceptance in The Myth of Sisyphus. His title character, a figure from Greek mythology, was a man in extreme distress who achieved equanimity, triumph, and nobility despite it.
The gods condemned Sisyphus to spend the rest of his life pushing a large rock up a tall hill. Of course, the boulder rolled down each time, requiring him to walk down and repeat the meaningless act.*
In the view of Camus, this man does not rage against the gods for his misfortune nor forever despair at his sentence to such a life. “His fate belongs to him” to the extent he can look at it for what it is. This target of the gods has to realize “there is no sun without shadow, and it is essential to know the night.”
In taking on the job required of him as his own, “Sisyphus knows himself to be the master of his days.” The creative sufferer buys into what is inescapable.
The last line of the writer’s essay reads, “One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”
Captives in war, like Vice Admiral James Stockdale, relied on the teaching of the ancient Stoic philosopher Epictetus when imprisoned and tortured during the Vietnam conflict. The brave officer thereby found a way to endure seven years of captivity.
The following is from Wikipedia:
James C. Collins related a conversation he had with Stockdale regarding his coping strategy during his period in the Vietnamese prison. When Collins asked which prisoners didn’t make it out of Vietnam, Stockdale replied:
Oh, that’s easy, the optimists. Oh, they were the ones who said, ‘We’re going to be out by Christmas.’ And Christmas would come, and Christmas would go. Then they’d say, ‘We’re going to be out by Easter.’ And Easter would come, and Easter would go.
And then Thanksgiving, and then it would be Christmas again.And they died of a broken heart.
This is a very important lesson. You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end—which you can never afford to lose—with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.
Collins called this the Stockdale Paradox.
The idea of finding solace in the infamous “Hanoi Hilton,” so-called by the U.S. prisoners who inhabited and mocked it, also seems absurd. Yet the message is affirmative: the experience could be endured, the awfulness would cease, and life would go on.
Think of chronic pain, another matter of endurance, as comprised of two parts.
The first is the physical affliction itself, the signals your body sends to you from the site of the injury. The second part, however, is where your agency — your control — can be found, depending on what you do with the “idea” of suffering.
Suppose you focus forever on your distress, worry it will intensify, think how unfair it is, rage at what caused it, and despair at what you have lost. In that event, your psychological state and unhappiness will grow.
Instead, imagine you learn to meditate and calm your mind, concentrate on your breathing, engage in mind-capturing tasks, or distract yourself with T.V., computer games, and other pastimes.
In that case, the possibility exists of overcoming a significant aspect of your misfortune.
One more thing. In your attempt to understand Stoicism, realize they did not dismiss the need for grieving. Rather, they added something to it.
I am not suggesting you or I share the fortitude of either the mythic Greek or the heroic Congressional Medal of Honor winner Stockdale. At times pain triumphed even for the Stoics.
I have tried to offer an awareness of an uncommon way to approach the act of living and consider whether it may include something both true and worthy. If you think it might, perhaps it will change your life.
*Please do not confuse the legendary Sisyphus and his punishment with the origin of “Rock and Roll.” I hope you get the pun. Imagine Sisyphus laughing from the hilltop.
The three images below the youtube video are all of the same Amor Fati Coin, available from the Stoic Store U.K. and easily found online. I have no financial or other involvement with this product or those who manufacture and sell it.
Presumably, it is used by some of those attached to Stoic philosophy as a reminder to seek the love of fate.