Do You Love Your Fate?

“A man’s character is his fate.” — Heraclitus

“Amour fati” — Nietzsche

 

“A man has to be what he is, Joey. You can’t break the mold. I tried it and it didn’t work for me.” — Shane

shane.jpgThat which befalls us, the good things and the bad, is our fate. The fact that we are born at a certain time and place is our fate. That we happened to be in the same college class as our future spouse is also our fate. So is the fact that we’re driving to work when a drunken driver rams into our car. The key to fate, as Alfred North Whitehead points out, is not bad things happening. Rather, it is our lack of freedom. It is just that our inability to prevent bad things from happening highlights our lack of freedom. After all, if only good things happened, we would not notice how the world contradicts our desires and our will.

We usually think of fate as that which is external to us. There is, though, another aspect to fate, a deeper one. The ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus wrote that “A man’s character is his fate.” Thus fate is not just what happens to us, but who we are. We do not realize this when we are young, for we believe that we are the masters of our destiny. And we are, to a certain extent. But anyone who lives long enough realizes how very difficult it is to change anything about oneself. There is, indeed, a certain tragic dimension to human character.

Friedrich Nietzsche recommended “Amor fati!,” one should, in other words, love one’s fate. Some have compared Nietzsche’s advice to the biblical notion of everything that happens being for the best, and to the Stoical notion of calm acceptance of that which befalls us. As Emerson wrote: “Accept the place the divine providence has found for you, the society of your contemporaries, the connection of events. Great men have always done so, and confided themselves childlike to the genius of their age…” (Self-Reliance)

But, if Heraclitus is correct that our character is our fate, then to love our fate, as Nietzsche recommends, is to love our character. But, character is intrinsically limited. Can one really love a limit?

Often the flip side of a limit is a virtue. The Zen master D.T. Suzuki said that he had a Satori or, or awakening, when he realized that the elbow does not bend inward. I.E., the utility of the elbow is predicated on its mechanical limitations. Might not the same be said for character? Our strengths and our weaknesses are often flip sides of the same coin. Of course, appreciating the virtue of limits is not quite the same as loving limits.

Often, in life, we wander about for a time, in our salad years, finding out what we are most suited to do, both in terms of our natural abilities, sills, and temperament. We may find, for example, that we are far better suited to be an entrepreneur than working for a corporation or vice versa.

What, then, does it mean to know oneself? Does it mean to be familiar enough with our character such that we do not act in opposition to it? In the play, Death of a Salesman, Willie Loman’s son states that Willie never knew who he was. He thought that he was a salesman, but he would have been far more successful making things with his hands. Willie’s failure to come to terms with his character had tragic consequences. Thus it is that we cannot love our fate unless we first know ourselves and, to a certain degree, accept who we are.

When a person knows who he is, he can then choose to live his character at a higher level. Then, what had been his fate becomes transformed into his destiny. In the cowboy film Shane (1953), the protagonist explains that there is no escaping…

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