Amor Fati vs. self-help: some thoughts on acknowledging fate and embracing creativity

Here’s a thought that I’ve come to again and again in my work: we commonly believe - incorrectly in my view - that we ought to be striving for more control over our lives. In doing so, we miss out on the ways we might have genuine influence. That real influence would consist in creative responses to the fate in which we are inextricably caught. Let me try to make some sense of this…

I have been thinking a lot about Nietzsche’s amor fati – the command “love thy fate!” - and modern trends in self-help. I think there are two common assumptions that are deeply misguided, and most of the gurus out there make one or the other of them (and some who are very confused make both). I think Nietzsche offers a better direction for how to flourish because he avoids these errors. The claims are 1) that we have a great deal of control over our lives and what happens to us and 2) that the right response to our fate is always to look on the bright side (the Forest Gump thesis).

As for the first claim, I think it’s safe to say that so much self-help overestimates how much we can control, and so tries to convince us to be more proactive in shaping our character and our circumstances. Amor fati by contrast begins by acknowledging, as do most credible scientists these days, the utter powerlessness of each of us in the face of what happens to us. It seems to me that this is just fact – unless you are the type of religious believer who holds that there is this mysterious thing called free will bestowed by God, you really must accept that we have no way to control the events that befall us, and much if not all of what we ourselves do.

Of course this introduces questions of free will that can’t be adequately addressed here. In the meantime, Google Sam Harris’ talk on free will, or read Sapolsky’s Behave, for convincing arguments and evidence that we are all of us material points of contact in a thoroughly material world that is not shaped by individual acts of will, but by forces and interactions in which we are caught up like everything else. These arguments don’t seem to have made their way into popular awareness, where we still tend to aim for a kind of control that really isn’t possible.

I think the belief is always some version of ‘be more in control of your life and your character, and then the life you want will come to you’. So when we try these techniques and inevitably fail in the face of chance, we feel bad and helpless. People all over the world stand in front of their mirrors every morning and say “This is going to be the day. This day is going to be different. Today I take charge and control my fate”. But unless this is the day you plan to defy the laws of physics, it isn’t going to happen – at least not just because you decide it will. And giving up this illusion would allow us to save our energy for what we really can do to effect some sort of change.

The next step for amor fati tells us what to do with this understanding and where we might more effectively put our energies. Even if we can’t control, well, pretty much anything that happens, we can control what we do with that fact. This was the insight of the Stoics – it was Epictetus who said something like that we can’t control our circumstances, only our reaction to those circumstances. So this has become a fairly commonplace saying, and lots of self-help seems to acknowledge a lack of free will in this way, but how should we respond? The usual story is that you can choose to be happy or sad about what happens, and that if you choose to be happy or positive you will be better off. But surely sometimes being happy about what happens is an absolutely terrible reaction, a choice to remain blissfully ignorant. Nietzsche’s sense of loving fate is not like this – to love one’s fate can’t be about ignoring anything that isn’t sunny and cheerful. And it isn’t exactly about making the best of our circumstances, either, although this is getting closer.

What I think amor fati means is that we need to find a way to make what happens to us the first move in a new game that sets us in a different direction. Instead of trying to be positive about terrible luck, we need to be creative and figure out how to take what has happened and give it our little imprint of resistance. If we are a part of a physical system where every action reverberates through a chain of effects, then our sphere of influence amounts to the way small effects can be reinterpreted by us to cause a slightly different, unexpected ripple down the chain. A little blip in the machine. We mostly all play predictable and conservative roles in keeping the status quo moving along smoothly, and even if we have each our idiosyncracies, they almost always fall within the expected and accepted ways in which people might keep the chain of effects moving. But think of how an artist or a revolutionary takes what’s given and pushes against the status quo, looking for and revealing new realities that nobody sees yet. I am suggesting that we could all be artists and revolutionaries of our own lives and environments.

I know, so much more needs to be said here, but let me leave it at this for now, as food for thought. What if we really acknowledge that we control nothing - in the sense of having any actions in the world fully subject to our choosing or willing? In relinquishing the illusion of this kind of control, might we gain something more like influence, the power to input the system in a more conscious way? And then, what if the right response to what happens to us is not to try to always be positive about it, but to try to always be creative with it?

Family Happiness: Plato and Tolstoy on Erotic Love and Shared Horizons

It is a great irony for the modern couple that having a child together can be at once such a deep expression of love and a source of bitter conflict. I have even heard it said that these two things – romantic love and raising a family – are not meant to be integrated, that this is a mistake that misunderstands the historical institution of marriage. But this is where we’re at: many of us want both in the same place, and so we are faced with the difficult problem of reconciling the expectations of romantic love with the realities of co-parenting.

Nurturing a loving relationship with someone with whom we are raising young children is breathtakingly hard. What we assume is that it’s hard because we don’t have enough time or energy just for being a couple; we are told that we need to make that time and nurture a distinctly romantic relationship, the way couples without children do. Ideally, we keep that excitement in each other going in between our parenting duties. On Saturday nights or during naptime. More often, we just wait it out until the kids are older and we can hopefully resume our intimacy, celebrating the fact that we made it through hell and back together and can still look at each other without crying. But it’s these assumptions that I think need to be challenged.

When we work at keeping or getting back ‘the magic’ in this way, we are treating child-free relationships as the ideal. And this inevitably leads to disappointment, when laundry and night feedings get in the way of spontaneity and erotic desire. This aspiration also, I suspect, misses an unequaled opportunity: the opportunity to grow and learn and love alongside the other. I want to propose that instead of couples with children trying to emulate couples without, on the contrary the model of co-parenting love might be a good model for all relationships. This might not sound new, as I think we often suspect that there is something deeper to be found here, but I think that because we fail to appreciate specifically what this is, we continue to aspire, consciously or not, to the child-free kind of love.

What we are trying to get back, of course, are those early days when we’re so into one another that we can barely think of anything else. It’s what Plato characterizes as an exclusively erotic kind of love. He uses for this the imagery of the face-to-face relationship, where the two lovers are gazing only at one another, desiring and being desired, affirming and being affirmed. There’s no question that this is an exciting and stimulating time in the history of a couple. But it’s limited, as Plato’s image illustrates. It grows tiresome. It’s never enough.

This is where Platonic Love comes in. This is not, as the common (mis)understanding of the term would have us believe, simply a relationship without sex. In fact, a relationship can be both Platonic and sexual. Platonic love imagines the partners in a couple no longer facing one another but side by side, facing a common horizon. Rather than gazing at one other, they are aspiring to something beyond themselves, and aspiring to this beyond together. This is the relationship in which we find ourselves when we give up our narrow and self-oriented desires for love, recognition and desirability, for the broader value of building or nurturing something in the world. This kind of project exposes us to the unknown and to the possibility of genuine self-expansion. It also affords us a view of the other that is unavailable to us when our sole desire is for self-affirmation.

It is here that I find a person who is fundamentally unknown to me because he is not a finite object but an element of my open-ended project. At the same time he becomes all the more precious to me as I become responsible for what is so deeply precious to him. My parenting work actively cares for what he cares for, nurtures what he loves, and contributes to something he is building. And vice versa, of course. And this has the interesting effect that we are no longer just reflections for one another, but two persons apart with independent life. We are not fused as one, we are engaged as two, distinct yet related by a common vision. What we can love in each other becomes so much more than how we make each other feel.

From this perspective my lover becomes my challenger and my co-learner, and rather than an insular gazing at the other gazing at me, I find beside me the person who forces me to be a bigger and better human in many crucial ways, a person who pushes me outside of myself. And where in the exclusively erotic relationship disagreement is something unpleasant; something to be endured; something that damages the process of loving and feeling loved, here it becomes the catalyst for constant learning and self-questioning. If we are able to see it as such, that is.

What then becomes of the erotic when our relationship evolves in this way? Is the face-to-face relationship entirely consumed and superseded by the Platonic? I suspect that what actually happens, in the best-case scenario, is that the erotic engagement remains but is itself changed. I’m genuinely not sure whether it remains important, but in any case I still like to gaze into my partner’s eyes, I still desire his attention and his affirmation of my own desirability. But facing him, I see at the same time beyond this limited horizon. Gazing at him I see worlds, and not even possible worlds but actual worlds that our union has brought into being. That can also be exciting and thrilling and it can be a much greater source of wonder at the singular beauty of another human being. But it is not the same as the thrill of those early days, for reasons about which many long books have been written.

These reflections may seem rather abstract and idealistic, in contrast to the very real and sometimes monotonous details of raising children. But as a philosopher, I believe strongly that learning to see things in new ways can have a profound influence on how we feel and behave. If having children with someone brings with it the opportunity for a new and very different kind of love and happiness, then a great deal of misery and disappointment can be avoided by recognizing this and moving beyond the longing for what is lost.

Tolstoy’s lovely short story Family Happiness illustrates just this resistance and bitter disappointment, and an eventual epiphany that restores happiness. Masha spends years in anguish at the perceived loss of her husband’s love. As a young woman, her husband remarks of her that she comes alive only to be admired, and indeed the reader gets the impression that her grief is for the loss of this self-to-be-admired. When the epiphany that reveals a different kind of happiness, the titular family happiness, is finally achieved, it is expressed as a letting go of this self-oriented perspective. For Masha it is a letting go of what seemed like the only thing worth living for, and I suspect that many of us feel such a strong attachment to the idea of love as self-affirmation that we can only see its loss as the loss of the relationship. Tolstoy’s story suggests that on the other side of such a letting-go is a relationship where exclusive intimacy opens up to a love that makes way for something more, something beyond the self. This is the moment for Masha when she comes alive again, when she learns to really adore her children, as well as her husband not as her lover but as the person who also adores them.

This would mean that parenting is not an obstacle to a relationship but an opportunity. For couples without children (because I in no way want to endorse the idea that having children is superior to not having them), such an opportunity might be created by having a shared project of another kind. A very long time ago, a boyfriend suggested to me the value of this shared project idea, so we started a poetry magazine together. It didn’t end up going anywhere, and in the end neither did the relationship, but I now understand how much we each gained in being so much more for one another than self-reflections. A topic for further consideration might be what kinds of joint projects can give rise to this Platonic love and what are their similarities and differences from the co-parenting project. Plato’s own culturally-specific view of where this higher love might be found is itself a great source of ideas, of course, but Plato doesn’t seem to have regarded co-parenting as among those common horizons.

So instead of parents looking to childless couples for inspiration on how to be more spontaneous or more romantic or more sexually exciting, perhaps the beauty of the common horizon should be what we all aspire to, at least as a second or further stage of a relationship’s evolution. As Tolstoy says “each time of life has its own kind of love”. I’m not saying that parents can’t or shouldn’t go in for all that ‘reviving the romance’ stuff, but the sources that are selling us that can’t begin to capture what it’s like to be madly in love with your children together.

  • photo courtesy of Julia Nathanson Photography

Losing your patience with winter? Nietzsche insists that cold weather makes us stronger. Miller writes that it just makes us boring.

In the next few weeks, with any luck, people will begin straggling out of their homes, dazed by the light and unsure of whether to trust the promise of spring. Survivors from a long, harrowing war. For some, winter is so psychologically devastating that spring is almost a full resurrection. For most of us around these parts, I imagine, spring will be welcomed this year more than ever, like a dear friend who was lost and presumed dead.

But what really is the relationship between happiness and weather? We’ve all heard of, and quite possibly experienced, Seasonal Affective Disorder – when you just can’t face getting out of bed only to be met by yet another grey and disheartening sky. But there may be a difference between how weather affects our mood and how it affects the quality of our lives more generally. Consider two different though similar views on the relationship between human well-being and intemperate weather:

The first is from Henry Miller, who complained bitterly about the effects of extreme weather:

why do people live in outlandish climates in the temperate zones, as they are miscalled? Because people are naturally idiots, naturally sluggards, naturally cowards. Until I was about ten years old I never realized that there were “warm” countries, places where you didn’t have to sweat for a living, nor shiver and pretend that it was tonic and exhilarating. Wherever there is cold there are people who work themselves to the bone and when they produce young they preach the gospel of work – which is nothing, at bottom, but the doctrine of inertia.

Miller seems to think that the majority of humans can’t possibly be at their best in cold weather. It saps any potential for feeling really alive and motivated, reducing us to getting through the day, postponing all living until work (or winter) is done – which is never (and in the case of winter, far too long). His view is that the entire Protestant work ethic was developed as an excuse for the inertia that sets in when one lives with the cold.

Miller also wrote that humans learn very well how to protect themselves from the cold, so that we may “rot in comfort”. And this represents his general attitude towards human civilization: rather than pushing ourselves to grow, we prefer, if given the chance, to hunker down and ride it out safely. We keep ourselves entertained and comfortable, and thus lose sight of all the amazing possibilities life might otherwise offer us. Bad weather is just an excuse for this ‘natural’ attitude, which we might be pushed to overcome were we outside in a t-shirt more often, exposed to the natural world, to interaction with other humans, and to the unknown and unfamiliar – something that we rarely find in our warm living rooms.

Friedrich Nietzsche shares this critique of the human love of safety and comfort. Yet he feels rather differently about cold and extreme climates. For Nietzsche the worst enemy of human intellectual and psychological growth is indeed the instinct to self-preservation, but a clear sign of this is the human desire to avoid cold, harsh climates. What is different with Nietzsche is that he happens to be one of those who genuinely believed that the cold weather is tonic and exhilarating. Nietzsche loved to climb mountains, breathing the thin, brisk air and challenging both body and mind. For him, to face the harshest elements and the greatest extremes was a way to remain alive and in contact with what drives away the deadening comfort of a safe and sheltered life.

So what should we take from these discussions? If we accept Miller’s view that we use the cold weather as an excuse for mediocrity, his own example shows us that this need not be the case. After all, he lived through countless New York City winters and his books are among the most vibrant and intellectually stimulating that I have read.

What made Miller an exception to his own rule is not entirely clear: natural intelligence and prophetic vision, landing in the right time and place, having learned not to take himself too seriously – all these are possibilities. But for much of his early life, he didn’t write. Instead he seems to have intentionally positioned himself on the edge of sanity and survival, in order to live intensely and observe the grittiest and most extreme forms of life around him. Misery, like the cold, can cause us to retreat behind our picket fences. But life at the extremes, if we care to come outside and inspect it, just might be where something like the truth lies.

As the spring weather finally arrives our moods will inevitably brighten and our spines soften, and this is a cause for celebration. But we might do well to remember not to lose ourselves in pure enjoyment and the comfort of the warm air, but rather to use the opportunity for a renewed sense of growth and discovery. And next winter, may we remember to find our inspiration not by the fireside, but by the very act of embracing every minute of this painful but exhilarating climate that humans were mad enough to populate.

Changing our minds about stress

Following on my last post about ‘yoga class philosophy’, I wanted to share this amazing TED talk for those who haven’t seen it yet. I think it might well be life-changing. In my work with clients I have been finding that there is an undue amount of anxiety about being stressed and anxious and challenged, which was part of what inspired the post. And now I find there’s some fascinating studies that back up my idea that the problem is not stress itself, but the second-order stress that makes us worry so much about it. In this talk, Kelly McGonigal demonstrates how to change your mind about stress, thereby changing your body’s response to it.

I hope this TED talk gets shared widely, and I suspect it will, as there seems to be an emerging trend against all this ‘close your eyes and breathe and avoid unpleasantness’.

Here it is – please watch and share! : How to make stress your friend

Searching in vain for untroubled waters? Maybe it's time to embrace the storm

I wonder when we collectively forgot that life is hard, that the struggle makes it richer, and that smooth sailing often leads to a deadening effect. Think of the difference between the exhilaration of manning the sails in a storm and the ease of lying on deck tanning – the latter may feel like the sweet life for a stretch, but ultimately doesn’t have much to offer in the way of experience and growth.

Recently, I was talking to a young woman about her struggles as an artist. In the course of conversation it became clear that her immense unhappiness and anxiety was due, in part, to the fact that she hadn’t figured it all out yet. She didn’t yet know exactly where her focus should be at all times, or where she would end up. She didn’t yet have the security and certainty for which she was clearly yearning. And she seemed genuinely surprised by my suggestion that perhaps the journey of the artist is not meant to be an easy one. When you choose to be an artist you are very clearly not taking the path of least resistance, the easy road to a safe and structured life. This may not be why one chooses to be an artist, but it is an indisputable fact that it tends to go with the territory.

It’s more surprising to hear this complaint from an artist, but I see the same attitude as more or less pervasive today. People seem genuinely disturbed and anxious by the idea that they should have to tarry with life. To some extent, this is natural; worrying and fretting is part of the struggle itself. But the worrying is better directed towards the details, because when it’s directed towards the entire fact that life is not settled, that one is struggling at all, then I’d venture to say that we’re missing the point of life, its real substance.

I blame it partly on what I think of as yoga class philosophy, a shallow and often completely incorrect interpretation of Buddhist philosophy that tells us to aspire to a state of peacefulness and non-judgment. What Buddhism actually means by this is something that I find very valuable, but the perversion of it into a kind of willful ignorance about real suffering and the value of deep and risky engagement with life can lead us into a very superficial kind of existence. ‘Be in the moment’ often seems to get translated into ‘tune out life’s problems and tune into a state of happy peacefulness’. But remember when the Buddha decided to leave the safety of his palace and face human suffering and death? That fairly important point has somehow been glossed over. We want to be happy Buddhas who remain within the blind walls of the palace.

Furthermore, reasonable levels of worrying and insecurity are often in our society looked upon as so harmful that they are considered symptoms of diagnosable mental illness. In this context, much has been written about the DSM 5 and its inclusion of experiences like grief and caffeine withdrawal in the catalogue of mental illnesses. We worry too much about worrying. And then we try to meditate it all away.

And then we have our economic realities, which have led to a culture where we supposedly can’t afford to treat life as a grand experiment or expand our minds for the love of it but must narrow our paths towards a practical specialization or skill that will get us a steady and secure job. And we better not change our minds once we settle into that career that we’re lucky to have.

Positive psychology adds another nail to the coffin: just focus on the good stuff, be grateful, smile and say nice things to people and your chemistry will reward you with good feelings! Yippee! But wait…isn’t this Soma, Aldous Huxley’s fictional happy pill for the masses? And we saw where that went. Upbeat feelings are nice and all, but they absolutely do not amount to a life well lived.

The message all around us is that if we play the game right, life should be simple, straightforward, and pleasant. Facing difficulties and welcoming actual challenges (and I don’t mean the Lotus Headstand) suddenly appears to be a sign of our failure to get this message.

I’m not arguing that we shouldn’t aspire to some sort of stability. It’s part of our maturation process that we start to want to build things, to invest in certain of our interests and commitments, and to take on responsibilities. But too often these things, which should be part of life’s ongoing adventure, become mere securities. They kill our sense of being alive because existing actually does become easy and this can cause us to forget about living.

This state of deadened existence, where we finally have it all figured out and can stop struggling, is what we seem to be aspiring to. How different is this from the Christian worldview that had us aspiring to a life after death, failing to live fully in this world out of a belief that the reward for riding it out without rocking the boat would come after all this living business was over? Martin Buber wrote that “our human way to infinity is through fulfilled finitude”. To me that lovely idea has always implied a life full of the misguided adventures, risk, mistakes, uncertainty and restlessness that comes with being human and always incomplete. The yoga teacher/self-appointed lifestyle guru seems to want us to skip straight ahead to infinity, nirvana, a life-denying sense of quiet timelessness.

It feels good sometimes to stop and rest, to no longer have to struggle to build a life. But then you die. Because what’s left when you stop building, stop searching, stop being uncertain about what comes next?

When Buddhist wisdom exhorts us to find peace, I don’t think it’s asking us to retreat to an inner sanctuary away from the real world. On my reading, it’s telling us to make peace with and embrace the ongoing struggle, suffering and impermanence of a life well lived. Being anxious and unsettled is part of the human journey. Yoga class, besides helping us get tighter thighs, should help us relax about that.

The world without us: seeing the future for our children

Children are the almost unfathomable embodiment of the other-in-the-self, and as such they present us with our own limitations. We begin with an exercise in self-multiplication and what we get is a human that I think is most striking for not being a reproduction of the self. An extension of the self that is not the self, that goes beyond. Even while I’ve heard that adoptive parents have that moment of “yes, this is my child” just as strongly as do birth parents, I have also had my own experience of thinking “who is this alien being that came out of my body?” corroborated by others.

One of the effects of this uncanniness is that it forces us to confront our futural imaginations, or lack thereof. Suddenly the world that will outlive us matters to us quite intensely, and yet I don’t think we can really get our heads around this future-without-us. When I look at my small darlings, I often get a feeling of profound sadness for them. When I try to articulate it, I can only come up with a sort of vague sense that they will never get to experience life as I have because the world is ending. This is a crazy thought! And yet it’s always there, lurking under the surface whenever I picture the future, or more properly whenever I fail to do so.

Is this because the world is, in fact, headed for large-scale disasters of the environmental and political kind? The sense that the world is indeed on the brink tends to dominate our news these days, and yet I don’t think this really explains my feelings. I have read somewhere that every generation has always believed itself to be the last, and when I examine my explicit views it is clear to me that I don’t in fact think that the end is coming, not quite that soon anyway. What I suspect is that we are just deeply self-centred and cannot as such invest our minds in the idea that the world will really and truly continue to exist without us.

The phenomenological tradition in philosophy has language that sheds some light on this. Phenomenologists talk about ‘world’ and ‘self’, not as concrete objects, but as the framework for our experience. World is not itself an object of experience but a sort of background for everything else, a condition on which things can be experienced. This sense of world depends, in turn, on the self as a sort of centre, the locus of the experiencing itself. Put otherwise, self is a sort of hub of experience and world is the radius of that experiencing.

This seems to help explain why I can’t really imagine the world without myself. Of course I can believe in it, can even speculate on what it might look like, but then what I’m doing is really an intellectual reflection in which I consider things that might be the case in this future. But since the activity of imagining (in the sense of anticipating real events, rather than in the sense of indulging in flights of fancy) is a sort of projecting of myself into the future, there is a structural impossibility to conceiving in this way of a future in which I don’t exist. If this distinction seems overly academic, just try it. Try to anticipate the details of a holiday you will take with family or friends. Now try to anticipate that same holiday without you: of course you can picture it, but as you do so it’s as if you’re still there, watching it unseen. That’s what it feels like to try to anticipate more generally a world in which you don’t exist.

I wonder if this isn’t also the source of that old-age delight that we call “old-fogeyism”. If we can’t picture the world without us, is it also true that when we get older and less supple, less receptive to learning and new experiences, that our selves-as-centre begin to calcify? If the problem is that we can’t experience in imagination the world when we’re dead, are we also unable to really see the world as our children do because the world has moved on without us? Of course we can never see the world from any perspective but our own, but the experimentation of being young is all about trying out new perspectives, trying on new convictions and belief systems, and these are the glasses through which we see the world.

Henry Miller describes the way that he empties himself out constantly in order to be a receptacle for the world, for experience that is fluid and changing as the world fundamentally is. At some point, I imagine, this self as locus of experience starts to become rigid, unable to see the world through any lens other than the last one we tried on that has dried up and become part of our face. When we see the world changing rapidly around us and we can no longer adapt to new perspectives, is that when we write it off and say it’s all going to hell? Is that when we feel sad looking at our children? Are we thinking that they’ll miss out on life as it really ought to be when the problem is that we ourselves aren’t fluid enough to continue to see the world as it really is?

Of course the greater problem is not that we are cranky and inflexible when we’re old, but that we seem unable to live for future generations, to preserve the planet for them, to leave behind sustainable economic structures. Though we may save for our children’s education and carefully prepare our wills for them, we can’t seem to live as though the world they will live in matters. Perhaps this should be our goal as a species – yes, we can have species goals! In fact, having species goals is exactly what ought to be our species goal. Nietzsche’s Overman is a being who sacrifices himself for a better future for humankind. He’s better than us because he has overcome this structural limitation; either he has somehow become capable of anticipating the world beyond, or he has become capable of living for something he can’t anticipate. Either way, this ought to be a goal – instead of believing that the world will go on and living as though it won’t, might we just imagine the possibility that it may not and live as though it depended on us?