TO THRIVE OR JUST SURVIVE?
Like the Stoic philosophers of ancient Rome and Greece, Friedrich Nietzsche (the nineteenth-century German philosopher) believed that the path to happiness is in accepting life exactly the way it is. He thought that to be given any kind of hope is delusional as the uncomfortable truth is that life is hard. In fact, it’s often terrible. Instead, the consolation that he and the Stoics offered is that despite this truth, everything will be okay: we are resilient creatures that possess the resources to cope with whatever life throws at us. In fact, obstacles and adversity are good for us: they are grist for the mill, fuel for our potential. Nietzsche proposed that while philosophy itself cannot help us to escape from life’s harsh realities, it can help us to identify our illusions about life and enable us to live more vibrant and meaningful existences. He famously said:
“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.”
Nietzsche proposed that ‘amor fati’ – which translated from the Latin means ‘love of one’s fate’ – is not just about accepting one’s fate but embracing it. Nietzsche and Stoics such as Marcus Aurelius (the Roman emperor and philosopher) advised that it’s the embracing of the things that happen to us that makes the difference between our thriving or just surviving.
FUEL FOR THE FIRE
Aurelius believed that “everything you throw in front of a fire is fuel for that fire”,meaning that one should treat every single thing that happens in life as though it is fuel for one’s potential. We strive and strain to make our external circumstances favourable and to match up to our vision of how we wish life could be: for example, by attaining worldly success, money or an ideal romantic partner. In other words, we wish for the things that we believe will allow us to experience happiness and to avoid suffering. However, at its core, this kind of thinking is deluded as life is rarely, in fact, never so cooperative with our wants and desires that our path is smooth enough that we endure no suffering. Even when a person has the good fortune to experience mostly ‘positive’ life circumstances, at the very least, one day a loved one will die, and they will experience grief and sadness. And of course, one day they may experience illness and suffering before they die themselves.
THE POWER OF LEARNING TO LOVE YOUR FATE
We agonise over whether our lives would have turned out better if circumstances had been different or if we’d made different choices. In reality, it’s impossible to know if this is true, as so many things affect the way someone’s life turns out: a person’s life is always as it is and not as it could be. We probably all know on some level that looking back with regret at the past and feeling sorry that things didn’t work out as we’d planned is a waste of energy. We probably also know that this energy would be better spent taking positive action towards achieving our goals; however, this, to some extent, is human nature. But getting the balance right between processing and reflecting on the things that we perceive to have gone wrong instead of regretting and lamenting them is for most of us, not at all easy. The best antidote to this problem is to do as Nietzsche says: to love and embrace one’s fate, treating adverse circumstances as utterly necessary for our development and essential for becoming mentally strong.
THE IMPORTANCE OF HAVING GOALS THAT INSPIRE US
The Stoics believed that a life without adversity is boring and unlikely to provide us with the goals we need to push us towards fulfilling our highest potential. Similarly, for Nietzsche, life is only worth living if we have goals that inspire us to live. His writing tells us that our circumstances should be embraced, not avoided, no matter how challenging these may be, and it is only through this knowledge that we may become truly happy. It is our regrets, our ‘what ifs’, that drain us psychologically and emotionally, rendering us less capable of making our next step to a more beneficial and life-enhancing one.
The Stoics urge us always to take responsibility for the things that are within our control. Whenever we start to think “why me?”, our mental resilience begins to erode. Even though we may not be to blame for many of the things that have happened to us, being able to recognise when things are or are not within our control is highly empowering. This allows us to clearly see what the best possible course of action should be in the future. By leaving our regrets firmly in the past, we move forward as wiser people, with only the inner resilience we’ve built up as a result of life’s adversities. This also allows us to embrace the present moment more fully.
THE STOIC METHOD: THE “PREMEDITATIONS OF EVILS”
One method we can use to develop such resilience is what the Stoics called the ‘Premeditations of Evils’. They suggest that instead of adopting a childlike optimism, we should regularly meditate on what it would be like if things went disastrously wrong. The Stoics believed that it was only by doing this that we will equip ourselves to deal with the worst that fate has in store for us. This, of course, will not be a popular technique given the current popularity of positive thinking. However, rather than engendering a deeply pessimistic attitude through these meditations (as one might assume), in allowing us to contemplate such darkness, there is a helpful realism and a paradoxical positivity to this technique. It also helps us to be more grateful for the good things in our lives and to love the present moment more.
When we analyse the concept of amor fati, we realise that its logic is indisputable. After all, what other choice do we have? The alternative is to feel like a leaf in the wind: blown about with no control over our fate or what we choose to do about it.
Through my personal experiences, I have always held a strong interest in human suffering and satisfaction; this greatly influenced my career path. I graduated with a bachelor’s degree in philosophy before completing a master’s degree in psychology at Regent’s University London.
I then completed a postgraduate diploma in philosophical counselling before being trained in ACT(Acceptance and commitment therapy).
I’ve spent the last eight years studying the encounter of meditative practices with modern psychology.