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?