“Willingly give thyself up to Clotho, one of the Fates, allowing her to spin thy thread into whatever things she pleases.”
It’s about time we get to Amor Fati, isn’t it? Feels like we’re 100 meditation in to the meditations and Amor Fati hasn’t really cropped up too many times. Here’s the run down on Amor Fati, before we get started:
Amor Fati is Latin, it means “Love thy Fate” or “Love of Fate” depending on the context within which it is used. Also, the saying is not part of Greek Stoicism—though the idea of course is. When you say Amor Fati, it’s important to realize that you’re using Latin to talk about an originally Greek philosophical concept—it’s one of the reasons you don’t hear me use it a lot, though Kai Whiting and I do have a chapter dedicated to it in our upcoming book. It’s also not VERY Latin, and by that I mean Marcus Aurelius never used it… and not just because he wrote in Coyne Greek but because he never used it period. No one used it until, it seems, Friedrich Neitzche. So when you’re Amor-Fati-ing all over the place, just know that you’re using a pretty modern term to describe a pretty ancient concept. But, those misgivings out of the way, what IS that ancient concept?
You’ve probably heard the dog and card analogy. Let me try another one.
You’re in a canoe, floating down a river, an, you’ve got a paddle. The river is flowing, that’s time, that’s part of fate. You’re going to reach the end of the river and you can’t stop its flow. You can, however, use your paddle to direct yourself down stream. Maybe you see an island or a sandbar and you’d like to paddle over and have a picnic or meet up with a few friends. You’ve got that latitude. But your paddle doesn’t stop the rain, the wind, the river’s flow, or those you may or may not encounter on the river, or how they’ll treat you.
Amor Fati suggests first that we recognize this utterly overwhelming lack of control we have about our passage from birth to death. To recognize that and accept it. Then we want to look for gratitude in the situation, because if we’re just a bunch of cranky jerks we’re not going to enjoy our trip because we’re going to spend it complaining about the weather, or other people, or whatever. We should first say, “Oh, wait a minute, I do have a little control here. I can get out of the canoe and go for a swim a bit. I can go fishing from the canoe, catch some fish, paddle over to shore, cook fish, and hang out with my buddies who are on this river trip with me.” This is the other part of fate. When you arrive at the end of the river your fate is everything that happened, but while your paddling or drifting, your fate is being written partially by that which you cannot control and partially by that which you can.
This is why the Stoics said that fate happens through us just as much as it happens TO us.
It rains, okay, that’s fate. You decide to either dance in it, wallow in it, or go inside, those choices are yours and once you make them they become your fated actions. You’re co-author of your fate in your little canoe with your little paddle. Amor Fati is asking that we find the incredible-ness in this and really love and appreciate that paddle and our power of choice, because what is the alternative? We sit in our canoe bitching and moaning about how nothing ever goes our way? We sit there, never touching our paddle, just drifting and complaining about the current, or the weather, or the views, or the temperature?
If we love our fate, part of that is loving the creative control we have over it, loving our paddle, loving our freedom, loving the flexibility we have within a semi-rigid system. It’s no coincidence that so many philosophies tell you to practice gratitude, and that’s sort of what Amor Fati is instructing us to do, to be grateful for our paddle and our power of choice where and when those things can be leveraged to change things within their power to control.
So, grab your paddle, and paddle around a bit. Use it to do good things in the world, use it to have experiences that matter, use it to spend time with friends and to help those in need, just be sure to use it and love it. Amor Paddle.
Okay, now, how about Stanislaus’ question. Here it is:
Hey, Tanner, Stanislaus here. Love the podcast. Really appreciate all the work you’re doing. One thing I’ve been thinking about recently, in light of the fact that one of the principal tenets of stoicism is to live a life of service and to be useful to those around you and in your community. How do we reconcile that with the fact that there are people out there? I think we all can think of some examples who will take advantage of your desire to do service and your desire to be helpful. And do so to an extent that can, you know, in an extreme case, burn you out as an individual. If you feel as though you’re constantly doing things for a person or a group of people. And how do we think about that in relation to continuing to live a life of service, but also doing so in a way that’s mindful of the fact that there are cases where, you know, for lack of a better term, people sort of have to help themselves. I really appreciate your insight on the question and look forward to hearing from you.
I appreciate the questions Stanislaus and I’d like to remind everyone that if they’d like a question featured on the show, please go to PodInbox.com/stoicism and record your question there.
This questions cuts through whatever feel good, kumbaya element there might be to Stoicism and asks, point blank: how do we know when it’s time to stop helping because people have become dependent on our help, or, how do we know when someone it taking advantage of us, and what do we do about it.
I’d be willing to bet we’ve all been taken advantage of in this manner before. I once had a friend, his girlfriend had cheated on him, and the guy she cheated on him with was also my friend. The friend, the one who cheated with the other friends’ girlfriend, told me about it in a very gloating manner one day while we were out for beers. It put me in a really uncomfortable spot because, well, what was I supposed to do? I told the guy “Why did you tell me that? You know I have to tell him now, I can’t not tell him you did that.” And I left. A week or so later I got this friend to go kayaking with me because I wanted to get him somewhere where he wouldn’t flip out when I told him, and precariously balanced in a kayak in the intercostal waterway of Palm Beach is a place that would ensure he couldn’t flip out too much.
I told him, he was upset, he left the girl and had no where to go. I offered my home to him. At the time I was just in a 1/1 and living with my girlfriend Brittany (the same girlfriend I have today), this was maybe 11 years ago. He slept on the coach and I didn’t charge him anything but the electric bill, which was maybe $80 a month, so he didn’t feel like he was freeloading. I told him he could stay as long as he needed. He stayed for 8-months. For 8-months he got drunk every night, did nothing to better his situation, and was a genuinely disruptive presence in our lives—Brittany and I almost split up over it.
Then, one day something happened that couldn’t be excused, I don’t need to recount it here but it was definitely a straw that broke the camel’s back kind of moment.
I kicked him out and, within a couple of weeks, he had a new place—a pretty good place actually that, if I’m not mistaken, I even helped him move into. If you can’t tell it’s very hard to get me to stop being decent to you even after you spend 8-months getting drunk in my living room and doing nothing to better yourself.
Here I think we have a perfect example of what Stanislav was talking about. There are some people that will take your charity and use it up until you tell them you won’t give it to them anymore and then, magically, they’ll sort things out all on their own as if your help was never needed in the first place and they were just taking advantage of you.
That’s one way of looking at it. Another way of looking at it is that a person doesn’t realize they can stand on their own until they have to. I think, for most people, in most situations, it’s a little bit of column A and a little bit of column B in that most people need a little charity and most people also need to be cut of from that charity before it becomes more of an enabling hinderance than it does a helping hand.
And it is very, very easy to, as mere mortals to go to one of the two extreme ends of the spectrum in response to this sort of thing. Either you say “Charity is a thing that enables people in a bad way, it prevents them from ever standing on their own two feet. Charity is for the weak.” Or, the other direction, which is “I would rather be endlessly kind to other people and have them depend on that kindness, than leave them to suffer.”
So I think the first thing to do is recognize that everyone needs a little help from time to time, but that if help is given for too long it can prevent them from growing. It’s like a plant, if you’ve got a sick plant you can give it special care, but if you overwater it or over-care for it, you’re going to kill it. A Stoic, I think, should always be willing to help, but what their help should be working towards is irrelevancy… you want to put yourself out of business as a philanthropist, right? You don’t just want to feed a poor kid, you want to teach the poor kid a trade so they can get a job and feed themselves and, one day, help someone else who needs the same help they needed all those years ago.
Stanislaus’ question, though, is more about WHEN do you know it’s time to pull the plug and abandon the effort.
This is just my opinion, but here it is.
Enter into the help you provide with terms. Simple, fair, decent terms. I could have told my friend, “Look, I’ll give you 3-months to lick your wounds, be sad, get drunk and not look for a job, that’s fine, I get it, life sucks sometimes and we all need a reprieve from its ravages. But, after that I need you to be saving money, and looking for a job and I need to see that you’re doing it, and I’ll provide you with 3-more months of shelter and support so long as you’re doing that. At the end of 6-months, we’re going to sit down and talk about where you are and we’ll go from there.”
With hand to mouth charity, I’ll admit I’m not such a big proponent of it. When I see a homeless individual on the street I’m not going to give them cash because I won’t be part of increasing their suffering if they use even some of it, to purchase things that don’t help them… plus, no amount of money I could give in an exchange like that can give them the roughly $10K and 6-months they’d need to go from homeless to home-full and gainfully employed, I don’t have that ability as a regular person because I don’t have that much disposable income. I will almost always offer a meal, or donate mittens or coats, or at the very least buy them a coffee when the ask me for money and I’m near by a place that that sells food or drink. Outside of this, I don’t do hand-to-mouth charity because it’s not helpful or impactful in the long-term.
I’m a big fan of working with small charities, local ones, who have a great operating ethos, and there are plenty of them. They aren’t the big guys, they’re the little guys, the ones whose boots are on the ground in the communities we live in. Find those organizations, schedule a meeting with them, tell them you’ve got $50K you’d like to donate over the next year or two and you have some questions about how they do things—they’ll take that meeting and you can make more informed decisions from the information you gather from it.
For larger concepts of charity, like unemployment assistance and things the government offers, these programs can be highly controversial when you get into the weeds of examining their effectiveness. The truth his that government programs are really effective in city Q and really ineffective in city Z, and since you’re a regular tax payer it can be really frustrating when you live in city Z because you don’t really have a say. In these situations, these City Z type situations, I can only suggest two things:
Measure your frustration, because your ability to do anything about it is very limited. The dichotomy of control can be a very frustrating thing to abide by when you know the success rate of a government program in your city is less than 30%. I’ve lived in cities like that, and it can be absolutely maddening to see the incompetent execution of well-intentioned plans.
Then, decide whether or not you want to do anything about it. Do you want to accept it as being outside of your control, and focus on areas of charity and assistance where you feel you have more influence and can create better outcomes? Or do you want to run for office and get involved in changing these larger programs over many years? It’s one or the other, and you’ve got to make peace with whatever choice you make.
So, to wrap up, enter into your charitable actions with clear intentions and considerations. You’re going to provide X, and you expect Y within Z amount of time. If you don’t see Y within Z amount of time, you’re going to withdraw future support and redirect it somewhere else. There’s nothing wrong with expecting your charitable contributions to effect change, in fact I would say too many people stop at making the donation and couldn’t care less if it’s put to good use, they just feel good about the money they gave and they feel like they’re off the hook. Charitable work is hard work, both as an agent of change with boots on the ground and as the philanthropist wanting to foot the bill for real change. It’s not just cutting a check and being done with it, not if you actually care, not if you really want to see change.
And as far as the people who will take and take and take until you have nothing left to give, being clear with the conditions of your support should help to identify these people before they do too much damage or detract from other good things you could be doing.
Don’t let the work of being helpful wear you down, you can’t control how other people behave, all you can do is make virtuous decisions based on the information you have at the time you make them… if you find out your decisions were based on falsehoods later, you’re not any less virtuous, you couldn’t have know. Just be mindful, and act appropriately.
Hope this helps Stanlislaus.