‘Sometimes moving through life feels like wading through a thick, foul syrup’

Accepting a situation does not mean embracing it, or that you have to stay there forever

Wading through life can be hard. Photograph: iStock

Wading through life can be hard. Photograph: iStock

 

It isn’t clear why, as time goes by, I keep coming back to Nietzsche.

I don’t precisely like him, but he was certainly right about quite a few things. As the philosopher for a post-religious age, he is particularly applicable to the challenges of navigating a modern, largely secular environment.

I have a particular passion for the Stoics, and Nietzsche’s concept of Amor Fati, or love of fate, is particularly useful.

He is not suggesting that your life is written for you, though some deterministic philosophers do make arguments that touch on this idea. It is rather that you might as well work with the circumstances in which you find yourself. After all, what is the alternative?

I happened upon American writer Willa Cather’s Selected Letters last week, when I felt particularly slow and sullen as we all sometimes do, as though moving through my life was wading through a thick, foul syrup and I would never get anywhere.

Bon is an enormous, affectionate wiry idiot with the attention span of a chocolate Kimberley biscuit

Cather was the black sheep of her wealthy family; gay and rather mouthy. She wrote a letter to her younger brother Douglass in 1916 when her life had taken a miserable direction.

Apart from being a gay, mouthy woman in 1916, the woman Cather loved had just left her to marry a man, and Cather felt that she had lost her home. Her writing had gone limp and it seemed to her that she could not muster a win in any area.

Optimism

The letter is a beautiful read; an entirely relatable account of several personal catastrophes accumulating simultaneously to leave Cather not exactly wanting to die, but completely without any of the optimism, interest or passion we need to work toward improving our lives.

She had lost all enthusiasm, all investment, all intensity , and was simply drifting. “I can fight it out . . .” she told her brother, “ . . . but I’ve not as much heart for anything as I had a year ago. I suppose the test of one’s decency is how much of a fight one can put up after one has stopped caring, and after one has found out that one can never please the people they wanted to please. I suppose it’s playing the game after that, that counts.”

What Cather describes is Amor Fati. If you can embrace your circumstances with enthusiasm, that is great. If you can’t (and that is the case for pretty much all of us at one time or another), then the best thing to do is not to be like my brother’s puppy, Bon.

Bon is an enormous, affectionate wiry idiot with the attention span of a chocolate Kimberley biscuit. He is still learning to walk on the lead, and will pull on walks when he wants to change the route even though he isn’t in charge, and the route has been decided for him. He swivels and snaps at the lead. Sometimes he tangles his great gangling limbs and has to be rescued from his own resistance. He wastes his energy in this endeavour a few times a week. Thankfully, as a puppy, he isn’t lacking in excess energy. The rest of us are another matter.

Fundamentally accepting a situation does not entail embracing it, or accepting that you have to stay there forever. Rather, it entails a refusal to waste time in passive resistance. You can resist your circumstances constructively by working to change them and to solve problems insofar as you are able to.

This is Amor Fati – the mental state which does not waste time in chagrin and self-pity, or in railing against the universe for dumping an injustice – however large or awful – at your door. Amor Fati is simply accepting that where you are now is where you are now. You do not have to feel delighted about it, or be indifferent to it, but you cannot become submerged in it such that you have not strength or will to move.

Nietzsche understood that life is lonely. Injustices occur, freak accidents happen. Sometimes we engineer bad outcomes and sometimes it feels as though they have been tipped over us like a bucket of fish heads. Usually, and unjustly, the person or thing that harms us cannot and will not fix us. We must fix ourselves, and we cannot change what we will not face.

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