The Two Words That Can Help You Deal With Life's Unfair Moments
I tried it again and got the same result. The jump rope cracked down on my leg like a whip. It wasn’t the sudden pain that annoyed me, as I craned my head around and looked at the rest of the room. Mentally, the failure stung more.
I could see others in the room getting it. My martial arts instructor easily spun the rope around himself and it cooperated willingly. However, it chose to torment me, and snapped my leg again with a crack to prove it. I let it go and continued on.
Letting it go and continuing on was a good description for that period of my life. The back surgery I had as a kid changed many of my plans. Football was immediately cancelled for me. So, I went into a modified form of weightlifting and it didn’t agree with my body as I aged. Now, I tried martial arts to fill the open space.
I’d also have to figure out dealing with continual pain. Although this is more of a mental challenge — like the jump rope. No way around it, life can be unfair. In fact, it likely will be unfair and we’re left to figure things out in whatever way we can.
It may seem like we’re on this road alone, but we’re not. Unfairness is a common lot of humanity. Fortunately for us, our ancestors left us a way to better deal with the pains of fate gracefully. In fact, they summed the method into two simple words: amor fati.
A Stoic Interpretation For Dealing With Unfairness
“Don’t ask for things to happen as you would like them to but wish them to happen as they actually do, and you’ll be alright.”
— Epictetus (Enchiridion), translation by A.A. Long in How to be Free
About 2,000 years ago a slave won his freedom and became recognized as one of the wisest people in the Roman Empire. In addition, he was known as one of the greatest teachers in the realm. Whether emperors attended his lectures personally isn’t known for certain, but Marcus Aurelius mentions having read his words.
If anyone could understand the pains of unfairness, it had to be Epictetus. In fact, his real name is lost to history. Epiktētos translated to “acquired” and this became his moniker. As you can imagine, being at the bottom of Roman society likely wasn’t a picnic.
In addition, it appears the philosopher may have been abused. A lame leg which impeded his movement was reported to have been broken in a rage by his owner. Although some report it due to terrible arthritis. Either way, Epictetus had more than his share of unfairness dished out to him by fate.
But he taught his followers an interesting way to deal with this: don’t only accept your fate but embrace it.
Closer to our own time, Friedrich Nietzsche neatly put this idea into two Latin words — amor fati: a love of one’s fate. In his work Ecce Homo, he referred to the idea as a “formula for greatness”. He also advised it was not enough just to bear fate, but to love it.
It’s counterintuitive at first glance. However, Epictetus used his lame leg as a teaching tool with this thought in mind. He reminded his students; lameness can be a hinderance to the body but not the will.
Obviously, it would be only too human to be bitter about his constant pain. It’s unfair after all.
If Epictetus broke out bottles of Roman whiskey, got hammered, and cracked somebody over the head with his crutch, a modern reader might sympathize. Although it seems the amor fati approach was much more fruitful. What’s more, we can do the same when unfairness visits us in the modern world.
Amor Poultry And A Navy SEAL
Harland Sanders might have been the biggest failure of all time. Although you may not recognize the name. Like Epictetus, he became famous under a moniker as well — Colonel Sanders.
The chicken mogul’s early life was an endless parade of unfairness. As a child he grew up dirt poor, having to babysit his siblings at 6 while his mom went to work. By 7, he was cooking for his family. Life continued to be rocky as he grew up.
He had countless careers, from the army, to railroad worker, to tire salesman, and even a midwife. His failures were so epic, they could be part of a comedy skit.
- During a stint as a lawyer he lost his job after getting into a fist fight with a client in the court room
- He created a successful ferryboat business and lost it when the government built a bridge across the river.
- His successful diner failed when the turnpike commission moved the off ramp of the highway he was located next to.
By the time he reached retirement age, he was flat broke. Most might have been cowed by fate or been crippled by the unfairness. However, Harland embraced it. Since he had no savings and a social security check, he went on the road at 66 years old. He took the only thing of value he had with him — a recipe for chicken.
He traveled from restaurants to diners, licensing his recipe for 5 cents per piece. This final insane idea paid off, literally. It’s the reason why you know who Harland “Colonel” Sanders is.
Years later a former Navy SEAL named Jocko Willink explained how he deals with unfair situations:
“Whenever anything sucks — I like it. It’s going to make me tougher. It’s going to give me a good story to tell. It’s going to toughen my mind. It’s going to bring us together…”
Willink makes another similar statement in recounting dealings with a subordinate while he was in command of a SEAL unit. Every time this assistant came with a problem, Willink immediately responded “good”.
When the subordinate asked why problems were “good”, Jocko responded, “When things go bad, there will always be some good that comes from it”. He went on to explain problems give us an opportunity to discover solutions.
While neither are as eloquent as Epictetus or Nietzsche, both Sanders and Willink show a similar path to dealing with unfairness. It’s to love your fate.
Two Words Can Change Your World
Right after my surgery, I shut down. I couldn’t take my mind off the things I could never do. It wasn’t uncommon for me to lash out at others because the world seemed so unfair.
It didn’t help; no progress was made. As soon as I embraced my fate, the world began to slowly change. The sports I wanted to play were gone, but martial arts arrived, and a new world opened which was unknown to me.
Physical and career limitations also forced me to sit down and write. This opened another world as well. An ancient philosopher with a lame leg was correct; if you wish for things to happen as they actually do, you’ll be alright.
There’s only one guarantee in life: it’ll be unfair. Somebody will build a bridge in front of your ferryboat and — as Jocko reminds us — things will inevitably suck. But we can choose to respond to this unfairness with two words: amor fati.