Saturday, December 17, 2011
How are you, NIP?
Good, I hope. I don’t know how I’d describe my current state. I feel such a mix of emotions for many different reasons, and I’m still in the process of sorting all of it out. We all must wade through rough patches in our lives from time to time, but it’s how we face those challenges that makes all the difference. The last three months of my life in particular have been some of the most difficult I’ve faced in the last few years, but the progress I’ve made in my personal development has helped me mitigate the potential negative effects of these events. We all have this ability to deal with tough times in a positive way, it just takes the proper perspective, persistence and—of course—patience. And if there were a single secret to my success in becoming a more positive person over these past few years, it would be this—love your life.
To say that we must love our lives might border on the banal, but to truly love our lives specifically or to love “life” in general takes courage. Courage to face those trying times, accept our limitations, and still see how we can learn and grow from those events. The quote of the week I had up in class the final five days before winter break is one of my favorites from Epictetus’ Encheiridion: Do not seek to have events happen as you want them to, but instead want them to happen as they do happen, and your life will go well. A major part of learning to love life wholeheartedly is accepting both the bad along with the good. We cannot always have “good” things happen to us; it’s both impossible and impractical. How would we even know what “good” events are if we never experience the “bad”? We’ve wrestled with this idea a great deal in philosophy class over this past semester, and even these young adults recognize that some unsavory experiences cannot be avoided—and it is usually these that are the most necessary for our personal growth and development of wisdom. But how can we put these unfortunate events in proper perspective? How can we love life—and our individual life in particular—if these seemingly “bad” moments in our lives try to derail our development as better human beings? It’s easier than it seems, NIP, all it takes is embracing the whole rather than latching onto the pieces.
This final week in school before the holiday break, we were wrapping up the semester-length survey course in philosophy by concluding our studies with Nietzsche. I love Nietzsche for so many reasons, but I’m not going to enumerate them all. He often gets a bad rap for some of the more famous aphorisms he uttered, but that negative view of him typically lacks a thorough understanding of his full body of work and the historical context in which it arose. To be honest, while I don’t agree with everything he espoused, there is one idea that I cherish above all others when it comes to his genius: amor fati. Amor fati is a Latin phrase that Nietzsche coined for “the love of fate,” or more specifically, “the love of one’s own fate.” At his core, Nietzsche was the ultimate affirmer, encouraging humanity to fully embrace life and all that it entails. He often couched the idea of “amor fati” within the framework of the myth of eternal recurrence, which fundamentally asks of us this question: would you still say “Yes” to life if you had to live it all over again in the exact same manner? Not one single event, choice, or circumstance differs—would you still concur? Granted this is best answered by someone who has lived a full and rich life, but I think the thought experiment can be done at any age. My students had great answers when we discussed it in class, and they range from ages 16-18; some said yes, others said no. Whichever answer the student gave, however, both sides hinged upon the suffering aspect of life, the “bad” that happens to us, specifically the elements over which we have little or no control. When they turned the question on me, I immediately responded with “the sacred Yes” of which Nietzsche spoke. Though I am only 36 and hope to experience all of what life has to offer for many more years, I know in my heart that I could never turn away from the cup. There are many reasons why I feel this way, but the most basic of these is that life is incredible. I mean that in the most literal sense, too. Dictionary.com lists the definition as “so extraordinary as to seem impossible.” So when I reflect on the life I’ve led up to this point, the choices I’ve made, the circumstances that have forced certain events, the sum total of all “good” and “bad” things in my life, I can’t help be astounded by the odds of my personal fate that I’ve sculpted in that time. Perhaps others might not see my life or life in general as being incredible, but that precisely is the heart of the issue—we must “see” it for ourselves.
In addition to amor fati, Nietzsche was an advocate of perspective in that he tried to prove how everyone has his/her individual perspective on any given matter. This may seem a trite observation at first, but it should not be overlooked due to its impact. As you know by now, NIP, we make choices to sculpt our lives. One of the choices that is always available to us in any situation, though, is one we often neglect to overlook—the choice of our disposition. More often than not, we allow external events to greatly influence our sense of well-being. It’s only natural and some events will affect us more than others. It is precisely in these moments that we must recognize that we are the sole arbiters of our perspective and the easiest way to do this is to embrace the totality of life. Events aren’t good or bad and shouldn’t be seen as such. This isn’t to say that we don’t experience joy and sadness because we obviously do. But what they both have in common—just like any good or bad moment—is that they are ephemeral. The only way these events have any sway over us is when we make them permanent by labeling them one way or the other and then trying to revisit them in our minds. It’s never easy to let go. With patience and practice, though, we can cultivate a positive perspective on any given event, even the ones that bring us heartache…
This is the incomparable Brit. The above picture was taken about 2 months ago, shortly after her biopsy had been done. After some major complications with post-surgery side effects, Erin and I knew that regardless of the biopsy results surgery was never going to be an option again. The results came back positive for bone cancer, with the doctor estimating anywhere from 3-12 months. Brit was nearly 12 at this point (quite old for a Boxer, which typically average 8-10 years) and she had lived a wonderful life. This past weekend, the tumor in her mouth had nearly quadrupled in size and we made the decision to prevent further suffering and spent the entire weekend with her by her side. On Monday we said our goodbyes and finally let her go. To say that it has been emotionally difficult this past week would be the understatement of the year. But even in the midst of this particularly egregious hardship, I can’t help thinking about all of the “good” moments of our life with her. Though it may sound crazy to some readers, I’ve probably learned more from Brit in these last few years than just about any book I read, insight I had, or any yoga teacher I studied under. Why? Because she embodied what it means to be “good,” to be happy even in the most challenging of circumstances (see above picture for evidence), and to always greet others—even total strangers—with warmth, generosity, patience, and love. She was a constant reminder for me to come back to the present moment, that life is fleeting and I should enjoy each and every minute that I am surrounded by family, friends, and my students. She also taught me to have fun at any given moment, to look at the world with endless curiosity and amazement, to always be myself and never be ashamed of the love I have to offer others. And it is for her dharma, her teachings, that I will always remember and cherish her. She may have left us physically, but Brit will forever be part of our hearts and, in essence, live on through us.
I love my life, NIP. I love all of life. I think it’s amazing to even have been given this opportunity to breathe. But I wasn’t always this way. I can easily recall points only about a decade ago when I flat out hated my life in certain moments. It has taken me a long time to get to this point, but I really do believe the secret is opening ourselves up to all possibilities. We cannot only have good experiences, there will be challenging ones as well. In embracing life in its entirety, it’s allowed me to grow exponentially as a person. Moreover, the moments in which we must contend with hardship are most often the ones that bear the best fruit in the end. They have the ability to alter our perspective, to expand the growing edge of our understanding in this life. And the more that edge emanates outward, the easier it becomes to embrace life and be grateful for the simplest of things. I have an extremely rewarding marriage with a wonderful woman, a family who supports and encourages me in all that I do, friends who genuinely care about me by sharing in my triumphs and trials, and I am a teacher, which I means I get to be my nerdy self and pass on what knowledge and wisdom I’ve accrued to gifted young minds who will go on to do something positive in this world…and of course I have you, NIP, always there with a listening ear (or reader’s eye?). Like I said earlier, life is incredible.
Love your life, NIP, it’s the only one you’ve got.