Two life-changing sentences from the stoic philosophers you must learn and remember
Welcome in the second week of 2020. Actually, I am posting this a bit late and in some hours it´s already the third week. Nevermind, I hope you already had your shares of ups and downs (hopefully way more ups!) and I hope that you are still energized for this fresh year!
Today I have a wonderful subject for you (in my humble opinion). I am not really religious. Religion always made me feel contained and restrained. However, in the last years, philosophy became a random but quite regular visitor in my life. Every now and then I randomly stumbled over some wisdom from those ancient philosophers. It´s amazing how those men brought principles in our world 300 BC that are still valuable today. And today I stumbled across a reminder for two of their most famous sentences. Those two sentences only consist of two words, each. However, they have such a deep meaning that lasted over hundreds of centuries and is as valuable today as it has been 2300 years ago.
First, a short introduction of stoicism in case you have never heard of them. The stoics are ancient philosophers and Zeno of Citium on the base of Hellenistic philosophy. So much about the boring details, sorry for bothering you. However, it is really around what stoicism evolves. Because it evolves around personal ethics formed by logic and the view on the natural world. Following its principles can the path to happiness only be found when you accept each moment as it is. You can only reach happiness when you don´t allow yourself to be controlled by pleasure, fear or pain. The Stoics believed that we can use our mind to understand the world and to work on our own part in nature´s plan. In order to achieve this, we have to work together and treat others fair and just.
Also, it´s interesting to know that stoics believed that “virtue is the only good” for humans and that external things, such as health, wealth, and pleasure, are neither good nor bad by themselves, but only have value because human beings can act upon those with their virtue.
So, to round the introduction off, although, Zeno of Citium founded Stoicism is he not the most famous Stoic. More famous are Seneca, Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius that lived between 300 to 500 years after Zeno of Citium. And yes, you read correctly Marcus Aurelius, the famous Roman emperor is up to today one of the most famous Stoics. His writings are still inspiring people all around the world.
“The whole future lies in uncertainty: live immediately.”Seneca
Enough introduction, now on to the first sentence I want to show you the sentence is “Amor fati” and means so much as “to love fate”.
“But Alexander, that doesn´t sound lifechanging at all.” You might think right now but hang on a second I´ll try to explain why I think that this is an extremely valuable sentence to remember. Remembering this sentence can prepare you to accept everything in life and more important use it to your advantage.
The stoics have a metaphor for this sentence: “Everything you throw into the fire becomes fuel for the fire.”
Hence, imagine a big burning fire, of course, if you throw in paper or dry wood it burns brighter and more. But now imagine you throw in a big piece of wet wood, what happens? The fire steams and cracks, it takes a bit more time but finally the wood starts to burn too, and it becomes fuel for the fire.
But what can you learn from this you might ask? You can learn from this that no matter how bad you think something is that it´s, in the end, your decision what you do with this. You can either let it wear yourself down or you can behave like a big fire, you can let it steam and crack inside until you made it useful for your fire. Then, you use it as fuel to carry on in your life, looking for the next thing that you can use to grow. No matter if the next thing is perfect or not. You try your best to not judge it and see the lessons you can learn from this obstacle.
This sentence is a reminder of the age-old concept from the stoics that it´s not about the circumstances but about your response. Nature is neither good nor is it bad, it just is. And the only thing that you can control anyway are your own emotions and how you respond to what nature gives you.
A real-life example from myself in which I constantly try to remind myself of this is my long-distance relationship with my wife. Our plan was to live together around November last year. We wanted to celebrate our first Christmas and new year officially living together in one country. But it didn´t work out. We are still waiting for the documents from the embassy to be ready and often it feels unfair. We did everything right and on time. We finished all the documents although it was difficult to get the information and although it took way longer than we expected it to work. Actually, the worst part is the uncertainty, all this hoping that the documents will be soon ready. Every time it was: “Probably next week they are ready.” After thinking this sometimes, next it was: “Okay before Christmas they are ready” then “Likely in the first week of 2020…” then the second week started and here we are still separated and waiting for the documents.
But during the whole time we tried to remind ourselves and each other, often with changing words but the meaning always the same, of “Amor fati”. We thought that there are reasons that we have to wait longer and we decided that the only thing we can anyway do is to make the best out of it. Even if there are no reasons than we anyway cannot change it. So we did our best to see it as an opportunity to celebrate the new year and Christmas time one last time alone with our families, to connect with friends and we reminded ourselves to use this time to grow. So, often you could hear one of us telling the other one things like: “I try to use this negative energy and all this disappointment for something good.” Or “My dear, try to do something good with this energy, maybe improve a skill, or enjoy time together with a family member or a friend or just relax a bit.”
That doesn´t mean that we were perfect with it but each time we managed to use this “fate” to our advantage was a good time.
“It does not matter what you bear, but how you bear it.”Seneca
So, let´s move on to the second sentence. The main reason I put them together in a post was that I couldn´t decide which one was more important. Hence, they are together now, and the second sentence is “memento mori” and it means so much as “Remember you must die”.
Probably you now think: “But Alexander you just told me to love my fate and make the best out of every situation. Now, you tell me to remember that I will die?”
Relax, wait for a second and let me try to explain. I understand it sounds strange and morbid at first but actually this sentence has a deep positive meaning (in my opinion, tell me if you see it differently after reading this post).
So, after we calmed down a little bit let me explain. Remember you must die shall remind us of the fact that our time here is limited and we must make the best out of it. The stoics told that fully accepting that we will die one day is actually an extremely liberating thing because then we can focus completely on the only thing that we can control. Our actions each day. Then, we can focus on doing each day the best we can to make this life a good one for ourselves and the people around us. Because only in the present we can change anything. So, they believed that we can best live in the present when we fully accept that we will die one day, and we don´t know when. It´s possible that we die soon (I hope with my whole heart not) or we can become extremely old. No matter what happens, as long as we live each day to our fullest, we can go to this final step fully content.
I don´t want to say that I am completely content with that though. Not at all, however, I try to remind myself of this fact so that I can focus more on the here and now. I want to become better at living in the present, doing my best to improve the future but most importantly enjoy what I have. I think it´s impossible to describe it better than Marcus Aurelius himself wrote:
“Objective judgment, now, at this very moment. Unselfish action, now, at this very moment. Willing acceptance – now, at this very moment – of all external events. That’s all you need.”Marcus Aurelius
And “Memento mori” is somehow for me the essence of this. Stay in the present because that is all you have and, in each moment, try your best to judge objectively, act unselfish, and back to “Amor fati” accept willingly.
My goal is to find a way to remind myself of those two important sentences regular. Up until now my journaling helps a bit and I will continue that but maybe later I will try to implement another way more.
I had the random idea that I could one day craft a coin with those sentences on it to put it somewhere I´ll look at it every day. Then, I found that there are already some to be sold 😛
Now, I wish you all the best, amor fati, and memento mori, my fellow earth explorers,
“Think of the life you have lived until now as over and, as a dead man, see what’s left as a bonus and live it according to Nature. Love the hand that fate deals you and play it as your own, for what could be more fitting?”Marcus Aurelius