Sometimes life sucks. Bad. Really bad. And you feel like you want a refund.
But, of course, we need to accept that Life Avenue is going to have its share of potholes. Albert Ellis, one of the most influential psychologists ever, knew that "acceptance" is key to coping with the curve balls life throws at us. It makes sense. Walking around constantly expecting life to give us everything we want is not only comically entitled and ridiculous, but would make existence a hell of perpetual frustration.
But here's the thing: Some of the wisest people who ever lived take it further than acceptance. A lot further.
Many of the greats embraced the concept of "amor fati": to not only accept everything that life brings you, good or bad, but to love it. To embrace it. To revel in it. Every single bit of your life. Yes, even the truly horrible, awful, regrettable, don't-ever-want-to-think-about-it-again moments.
To which I initially responded with a big honking: Huh? Seriously?
The Stoic philosopher Epictetus said:
Don't seek for everything to happen as you wish it would, but rather wish that everything happens as it actually will — then your life will be serene.
And Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius agreed:
All that is in accord with you is in accord with me, O World! Nothing which occurs at the right time for you comes too soon or too late for me. All that your seasons produce, O Nature, is fruit for me. It is from you that all things come: All things are within you, and all things move toward you.
And this seemingly loony idea persisted. In the 19th century Nietzsche wrote:
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 — all idealism is mendacity in the face of what is necessary — but love it.
So we should wake up and think "amor fati"? We should wake up and think a lot of life is going to be awful — and then love that? And this is the key to a joyous life filled with great achievement?
I repeat: Huh? Seriously?
We're gonna need a little help to fully unpack this one. So I gave somebody a call who knows this stuff. Ryan Holiday is the bestselling author of The Daily Stoic and The Obstacle is the Way. His latest book is Conspiracy. He's going to help us get to the bottom of how loving everything in your life — including the truly awful stuff — is one of the most powerful ideas around. And a great way to start your day.
Let's get to it.
How to "amor" your "fati"
The Stoics never said "amor fati" — it was Nietzsche who coined the phrase. But Ryan feels those two words best encapsulate the entire philosophy of Stoicism. He credits author Robert Greene with turning him on to the idea. Here's how Ryan defines the term:
Amor fati is a mindset that you take on for making the best out of anything that happens. Treating each and every moment — no matter how challenging — as something to be embraced, not avoided. To not only be okay with it, but love it and be better for it. So that like oxygen to a fire, obstacles and adversity become fuel for your potential.
That's profound ... and it also sounds really damn hard. (I'm not sure I have it in me to love life when there's a paper jam and I want to throw my printer out the window.)
But a better understanding of Stoicism helps here. The Stoics were big on "the dichotomy of control." So much of your life is not under your control. You can't control the world or other people. Often you can't control what's going on in your head. The only thing you can control is your deliberate thoughts and actions.
So to let our happiness and self-worth hinge on what we cannot control is futile. Ridiculous. We often unconsciously default to thinking that we have control over everything — and then we're angry, sad, or frustrated when the universe quickly reminds us that we don't.
We cannot control most things. But we can control how we feel about them by changing the expectation that we're entitled to have everything go our way all the time. We can treat life less like a capricious opponent, and approach it with a curiosity and a respect for its challenges. Here's Ryan:
We don't control most of what happens in life. That seems like a weakness. But we do control what our reaction is to those events. What we tell ourselves they mean to us and how we will integrate them into our lives. On the one hand, we're powerless, but on the other hand we're deeply empowered. To the Stoics, most of what happens is outside of our control, but we have this superpower of being able to love, embrace, accept, and make the most of what does happen. That's this idea of amor fati. If you think about it, it's fate. Fate is implying a lack of control, and love, in regard to your reaction, implies an intense agency that you choose to love that fate.
Life is not gonna give you what you want all the time. You'd agree with that, right? Then why are we so frustrated when we don't get what we want? We take pleasures for granted and are frustrated by the difficulties. Yet we readily admit difficulties are inevitable and pleasures must be worked for. It's totally inconsistent — and the source of most of our bad feelings.
So try taking the difficulties for granted instead of the pleasures. Accept them. Love them as challenges that can help you grow. Robert Greene said, "With (amor fati), you feel that everything happens for a purpose, and that it is up to you to make this purpose something positive and active."
You're on a journey. Your unique journey. "Accepting fate" sounds like you're about to be executed or something — but it shouldn't. Think about concepts like "patriotism" or "parenthood." With these, we know and accept there will be pain and there will be sacrifice but it all serves the greater journey. And we welcome the problems.
Everything is not and should not be easy. You can get where you are going, but you need to start here, with your life and its circumstances, whatever they may be. It's not a perfect life, but there is no perfect life. There is only your life. Love it. And rise to the challenges it offers you.
So this all sounds great but next time the printer jams, what's to stop all this fancy philosophy from going right out the window along with your patience? What do we do in the moment when life reminds you you aren't in charge and won't be getting everything on your existential Christmas list?
Denial and complaining are the enemy
As the old saying goes, "If you find yourself in a hole, first, stop digging." Denial of reality is rarely recommended by professionals, but often employed by most of us. And complaining wastes energy on resistance that could be used toward an effective solution.
Our first response to anything bad is usually some version of "This should not be happening!" You can shake your fists in anger and mope around like a surly teenager — or you can speedwalk to acceptance, and get to work fixing things. Here's Ryan:
Lamenting, crying, complaining ... not only do they not make you feel better, they actively make the situation worse. They're diverting critical resources. First step is "Do No Harm." I'm just not going to let my attitude make this worse, by feeling singled out or hurt.
Some will complain, "But if I just accept everything, I'll be passive and never accomplish anything!" Accepting you have a broken leg doesn't mean you don't go to the doctor. It means you don't waste time complaining and don't kid yourself that you're going jogging tomorrow. And maybe you embrace your reduced mobility by saying this is the perfect time to catch up on reading your favorite blog. (Ahem.) Here's Ryan:
You're going to come around to some version of acceptance and pragmatism at some point. There's not really another option. If I throw you in jail, you can deny that you're in jail. For a while. But, the truth is you're in jail. Eventually, you're going to have to come around to the idea of "All right, I'm in jail. What am I going to do with it?"
Resisting denial and not complaining make sense — but they're very difficult to do. So what can help?
Flash forward to the future
In the moment, even small frustrations can feel like the end of the world. But if you take a second and realistically think about the future, you know that things are never that bad.
It's the worst thing ever ... and then it's not even worth thinking about. Until the next problem, which is the worst thing ever ... and then not worth thinking about. It's a silly pattern we repeat endlessly.
So think about the future when this "disaster" will (very likely) be trivial. And get some perspective. Here's Ryan:
Practice the exercise of flashing forward to the future. "How will I feel about this with the passage of time?" Usually the answer is: "I won't feel whatever it is so acutely." The loss of a loved one, a breakup, some public embarrassment ... In five years, are you still going to be mortified, or are you still going to be wracked with grief? Probably not. That's not saying that you won't feel bad, but you're not going to feel as terrible as you do now. So, why are you punishing yourself?
This thing that is the end of the world right now might even end up as a self-deprecating joke you happily tell others. Or maybe it will be an epic story of triumph you brag about. Either way, put it into perspective so you can embrace it and love it for what it will likely become, rather than being overwhelmed by transient unproductive emotions. Here's Ryan:
We fight desperately against the things that are happening to us as they're happening. But, then with the benefit of time and hindsight we understand that was naïve or foolish. Winston Churchill says, "When tragedy strikes, we never think that it might be saving us from something worse." But, it's true. It can always be worse. I think the idea of amor fati is stepping back and viewing your own life objectively. Amor fati is the advice that you would give your friends.
The challenges make the story exciting. Your journey cannot be epic without them. So love them not for how you interpret them now, but for how they will fit into the bigger picture.
So you're feeling a little better about the gross, horrific injustice that has so unfairly fallen upon you. Now that your head is on straight, how do we resist passivity and move forward toward earthshaking epic greatness?
Treat life as a game
Nobody ever started a game saying, "I hope there is nothing here that challenges me."
And nobody ever reached the second level of a video game saying, "I hope the challenges don't increase." You'd be disappointed if they didn't.
Welcome the challenges of life instead of clinging to results outside your control that you "must" have to be happy. It's whack-a-mole but the moles are fati and your whacker is amor. Here's Ryan:
It's like in a game, right? Let's say I throw you into a football game. If you stop and spend all your time arguing over the rules, you're never going play. Maybe it doesn't make sense that the overtime rules are this way or that quarterbacks get special protection, or this or that, right? There's all these different rules that make no sense that are arbitrarily how the game has developed since its inception. The Stoics are asking you in some ways to accept the arbitrary rules. Then they're saying you play the game with everything you've got.
When I spoke to a Navy SEAL, an Army Ranger, and a Special Forces instructor, they all said that reappraising their arduous training as a "game" — rather than something that would make or break them — was key to getting through it. Life is a game. We can try and fail and try again. Games are fun. Frustrating, at times, but still fun. Life can be the same way if we welcome its obstacles.
You're not in denial and you're not complaining. You're accepting the tough times and treating life like a game. Now how do we bridge that final gap and get to truly loving our fate?
Feel gratitude — for the good and the bad
It's not hard to make a case for acceptance and striving. But maybe truly loving the bad moments still feels like a hard sell. And that's because when "bad" stuff happens, you're so darn sure you're right. That you have all the answers. That your spur of the moment interpretation of this "awful” situation is objective truth.
But we can't be objective in the moment. We don't yet have the benefit of history. We don't know what this "difficulty" will mean in the big picture.
Missing your flight is enormously frustrating ... but what if the plane ends up crashing? Frustrating thing not so frustrating anymore, huh? We can't predict the future. So we can't pass final judgment on anything that happens. So welcome the challenge. Be grateful for it. Here's Ryan:
Epictetus says part of the reason you're not grateful is that you see this "problem" in an unobjective way. You see it as unfair. You see it as impossible to overcome. You see it as any number of these subjective interpretations. No wonder you have trouble feeling grateful.
With this attitude, a gratefulness for everything, you're not trapped in the moment. You're focused on the journey. Your journey. And that perspective not only lightens the burdens of life, it makes you ready to take them on, and happy to do it. Here's Ryan:
Amor fati translates to "a love of fate."
Instead of wishing for things to be different, to be better, Robert Greene says, "You not only accept them but you love them, you embrace them fully for what they are." And that is the ultimate source of power and strength. A weaker person needs things to be a certain way. The truly unstoppable person loves it all because they can make the most of it.
And research consistently shows gratitude is one of the most powerful ways to make yourself happier. So love the hard times. Be grateful for everything in life, instead of being disappointed with the gift you've been given.
Okay, we've learned a lot. Let's round it all up and find out how to get started with amor fati — even if you don't feel like you're up to it.
Here's how amor fati can make you happy:
- Amor fati: Merely "accepting" life is not enough. You need the Platinum Pro package. Love every bit of life, good, bad, and ugly. (Yes, that includes traffic.)
- Denial and complaining are the enemy: Whatever it is, you will accept it eventually. So sooner is better. And whining is wasted energy. The universe doesn't check its Complaint Box.
- Flash forward to the future: Will this still bother you in a month? A year? Then don't let it bother you now.
- Treat life as a game: It's no fun if it's easy. If your personal story has no conflict, please do me a favor: Don't tell me your story. It's boring. Do you want a boring life?
- Feel gratitude — for the good and the bad: You don't know what, in the end, will be good or bad. So be grateful for it all. And then work to make the short term bad turn into long term good.
Amor fati is a truly epic concept ... But sometimes you don't feel all that epic. I hear you. Again, take the big picture perspective. You truly are stronger than you think. Here's Ryan:
You come from a long line of people who have beaten the odds. You come from people who survived the plague, who by definition survived World War II and World War I and the Middle Ages and the Dark Ages and the Inquisition and the decline and fall of the Roman Empire. You come from people who crawled out of caves and created civilization. We come from an incredible lineage. But, we often adjudicate that legacy. We think, "Oh, I'm just this kid from the suburbs.” Maybe you are, but you're also a child of the frontier or immigration or a survivor of war. Everyone alive right now survived the greatest economic collapse in modern history, which was only a few years ago. I guess my point would be, you're stronger than you know.
You don't get to make the rules in life but, have no doubt, this is your journey. Your game. There are power-ups if you can find them. And even some cheat codes. But there is no "god mode." And amor fati teaches us that you wouldn't want to play that way anyway. Really, what fun is that?
So when you wake up tomorrow, you may be tired. You may not feel ready for the challenges ahead. But remind yourself: "Amor fati."
Don't complain. Flash forward to the future. Embrace the game. Feel gratitude for it all.
That song says, "Love the one you're with." It's good advice. Love the life you're with. Every little bit of it.
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