What we have here is a rare and magical moment. The baby has decided to sleep in. The spouse has left for work. The dog has been walked and is back asleep. The dishwasher is emptied, tea has been brewed, and the house is more-or-less tidy. I have a few minutes of undisturbed selfishness this morning for some much needed self maintenance. Shall I spend those minutes in meditation, squeezing in a workout, reading a book, surfing the Net, answering emails, or staring blankly into space?
I’ve decided I will spend them blogging. I’m not going to write about COVID-19 or serious public stuff. This time is for personal contemplation which I will weirdly make public.
As I’ve made clear in recent posts, I’ve been fascinated by stoic philosophy for some time, and recently decided to formally incorporate some of its teachings into my life, though much of it has been informally part of me for decades. And one of Marcus Aurelius’s wonderful pieces of advice was to keep a journal. This post can be considered a type of journal, I think.
There are a couple of thoughts I’d like to get into print before the baby awakes and my morning of chaos begins. The first is regarding the stoic mantra, “Amor Fati.” This is such an important sentence that I wish more people understood it and wished to embrace it. And I hope I am fully understanding it, though it is likely that I am missing some of its nuance.
Poorly translated, “Amor Fati” means “love your fate.” In practice, it is a directive to appreciate challenges in your life.
I was late to the world of driving. I got my license at age 16 but promptly forgot how to drive and had to re-learn in my late 30s. (This is a good thing. I’ve lived and travelled all around the world. I’ve had to master public transit, cycling and the pedestrian life without dependence on the evil automobile.) When I did finally start to drive regularly, in addition to instantly gaining 10 pounds of stomach fat, I experienced that thing that so many drivers detest: gridlock.
I remember one winter evening stuck in unmoving traffic for hours. The car horns honking all around me were thick as fog. I could see the angry, frustrated looks on the faces of other drivers clearly through the falling sleet. But me? I still remembered what it was like to be a pedestrian, freezing my ass off waiting for a bus, or slogging on a bicycle dangerously close to inattentive cars. To be safe, warm, and dry inside an unmoving car was bliss. I was happy. Why should I resent the inconvenience of gridlock? It gave me time with my thoughts. It was a gift. I loved my fate.
This pandemic has been a grand exercise in Amor Fati for me. In the past two years, I entered a common-law relationship, had a child, bought a house, had a parent sink into dementia then pass away, had additional close family members die, experienced the world-closing pandemic like everyone else, achieved improbable national fame because of it, was subject to endless online abuse, suffered almost crippling daily impostor syndrome because of my sudden role as public educator, started a new job, and dealt with a variety of personal medical challenges.
It’s been a lot; and it shows no signs of slowing. I think people would understand if I closed down under the weight of any two of those things. But I have relied heavily on “Amor Fati” throughout it all. These stresses, these challenges, these affronts to my sanity and stability have all been opportunities to put my philosophy to the test. So while I wish so many of those events had not happened, especially the decline and death of my father, I whisper a prayer of gratitude that they happened to me and not someone else, because I can mostly take it, and because I see the opportunity to refine and strengthen my life philosophy under the duress of stress.
Life is finite and short. It’s not meant to always be safe or fun or comfortable. The purpose of life, as I see it, is to construct and discover meaning. And that is best achieved through facing challenge. So when life hands you a challenge, say thank you, and learn to love it. Amor Fati.
The second concept I was thinking about this morning is legacy. Why do we care about legacy? I think it’s a function of youth and ego. Certainly when I was younger it mattered to me that I left something behind and that I was well remembered. It’s one of the reasons I was eager to publish books early on: I needed to the world to remember me when I was gone.
But the facts are that (a) there is no guarantee anyone will remember you; (b) civilization has a long memory, but that memory is not infinite, Ozymandias; (c) I will be dead when my legacy is realized, so why should I care? I won’t be there to enjoy it; (d) I can’t control how others will perceive me or my life when I am dead, so why bother expending any effort or energy trying to manage what I cannot control?
It’s (c) and (d) upon which have come to meditate in recent weeks. Again, the death of my father was the catalyst. His children will remember him every day for decades to come. But when we are gone, it is unlikely that anyone else will ever spare him a thought. Was his life pointless then? Of course not. But while he left a grandchild (who will tragically not remember him), he did not leave any intellectual products behind, no books or institutions. But who cares? His life was magnificent. He lived and loved in grand fashion. His was a life well lived.
Legacy is overrated. When we focus too much on how we should be remembered, we forget to make moments worth remembering. It would be nice if my son remembers me well when I’m gone. But it’s better that I spend 100% of my focus on being with him in the present before I’m gone. He will decide how to remember me. That’s not my job.
I cannot control how I will be remembered. I can only control how I live my life now, whom I choose to love, and the words I choose to speak. And those are already all-consuming activities.