“And (remember) when your Lord proclaimed, ‘If you are grateful, I will surely increase you (in favor)”
“My formula for greatness in a human being is amor fati : that one wants nothing to be different, not forward, not backward, not in all eternity. Not merely bear what is necessary, still less conceal it…but love it.”
Fire engines from eight nearby towns rushed to the scene. Thomas Edison’s research and production laboratory was in flames. Fueled by strange chemicals in the buildings, they burned in green and yellow, destroying what life meant for Edison.
Hundreds of disheartened employees and onlookers were crowding outside. His son was gaping, appalled by the destruction. With excitement, Edison told his son, “Go get your mother and all her friends. They’ll never see a fire like this again.”
He also calmly told him, “It’s all right, we’ve just got rid of a lot of rubbish.”
You can guess that his losses were more than just “rubbish”. Years of important records, prototypes and research — all of that, completely burned and gone. But that tragedy didn’t break Edison. For him, it was a golden opportunity to start again with a clean slate, only this time, better. The next day, he told a reporter, “I’ve been through a lot of things like this. It prevents a man from being afflicted with ennui.”
If Edison reacted in a different way, say, if he wasted his time beating himself up or pointing fingers at other people who might have been responsible for the fire, what would he have accomplished? — You know it, nothing. Because whatever happened has already happened, right? What can you change?
But look at yourself, when you’re in a difficult situation, what do you do? — lock yourself up in your room, sleep in, party, all to pretend that your problem doesn’t exist, or to wait for them to “disappear”.
Whatever your problem is right now, it must be good for something. The German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche had a concept that he was obsessed with, one that he called his “formula for greatness”. It’s amor fati, which means “love of fate”. It means that you’re not fighting or complaining about what happens in your life — you calmly embrace it, benefit from it, and love it. You’re not wishing things were in a different way, or your way. Instead, you put your faith in nature, in God, and you let it all play out.
There’s a quote by Alan Watts where he said that “To have faith is to trust yourself to the water. If you try and grab hold of the water, you will sink and drown. Instead, you relax and you float.”
Think of everything that happens, everything that has happened, even your past mistakes — as being ordered. As if someone had very carefully measured them and cut them according to your best fit. That they are meant to happen, specially for you — You wouldn’t fight that, would you?
Because the thing is, we’re limited in seeing only one side of an event. We can’t see the whole picture, and the significance an event brings in the long run. One of Allah’s names mentioned in the Qur’an is Al-Latif — the Subtle One. In the utmost beautiful way, Allah has a plan, and His plan is always for your good. Even the people who have done you harm — they don’t know that they’re part of His plan. Even you don’t realize that His plan is unfolding now, right at this instant.
There is one thing that we can do now, which is to turn a difficult situation, even the simplest ones, into our advantage. Stuck waiting? — Great, it’s a good time to read a book or check out an article or two on your phone. Someone gives you a hard time? — Then he’s a good example of a person that you wouldn’t want yourself to be like. A computer glitch swallows up your work? — Okay, you can start not just a new draft, but a better one.
The Stoics embraced this mindset well. Marcus Aurelius reflected, “A blazing fire makes flame and brightness out of everything that is thrown into it.” The former slave Epictetus wrote, “Do not seek for things to happen the way you want them to; rather, wish that what happens happen the way it happens: then you will be happy.”
Whatever happens is fuel for you, to make good use out of it. You don’t control what happens, but you control your perception of it — whether it is good or bad, and yes, you control how you respond.
“There’s the event itself and the story we tell ourselves about what it means. That’s a thought that changes everything, doesn’t it?”
Theodore Roosevelt was on his way to give a speech, it was just another day of his independent campaign on serving a third term in the presidency. As Roosevelt stepped out of his automobile, an assassin’s bullet hit his right breast. He dropped without a sound, shaking. Roosevelt was bleeding slowly.
The bullet had perforated layers of his clothing, a speech manuscript and a spectacle case he had kept in his jacket. It was a danger that he had mentally rehearsed for. To everyone’s disbelief, Roosevelt ignored their pleas to rush him to the hospital. With a savage rasp to his voice, Roosevelt said, “You get me to that speech.”
In the auditorium, the assassination attempt was still only a rumor. Roosevelt stepped forward and gestured for silence. “It’s true,” he said. “But it takes more than that to kill a bull moose.”
Roosevelt didn’t notice his fifty-page manuscript had been shot through until he began to read. With amusement, he said, “You see, I was going to make quite a long speech.” The audience was in laughter, and Roosevelt felt the heat and searing pain from his wound. His heart was racing, and he was forced to breathe in short gaps. A friend approached the podium and begged him to stop. But Roosevelt proceeded to give his speech that lasted for ninety minutes.
At the end of the speech, his face was white. Turning from the tumultuous applause, he said to his doctor, “Now I am ready to go with you and do what you want.”
Stories of Roosevelt’s bravery and heroism sound like adventure novels to the ear. There’s another occasion in which Roosevelt had served as Colonel in the Navy. They were at war, in the midst of a surprise bombardment.
A shell landed right next to Roosevelt, besmirching his skin with powder, and killing several nearby soldiers. But he was unmoved. He continued to strut up and down, “sniffing the fragrant air of combat”.
These were literally life-or-death situations, in which Roosevelt demonstrated such boldness and strength. What about us? What is it that we’re facing that we just couldn’t bear?
“Do not believe that who seeks to comfort you lives untroubled among the simple and quiet words that sometimes do you good. His life has much difficulty and sadness and remains far behind yours. Were it otherwise he would never have been able to find those words.”
Rainer Maria Rilke
The stories, the people we discussed make them seem as though they are in some way uncanny, or somewhat superhuman, doesn’t it? Maybe they make you feel like, come on, I’m not like those people — I’ll never even be one bit like them.
Then here’s one last story.
Ask for a name that sounds more legend than human, and I’ll give you Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln — a name so synonymous with the virtues he displayed, his honesty, his penchant for jokes even in times of extreme difficulty. Because that’s what we remember him for.
Many times, we forget, that everyone, no matter how cheerful and joyous they seem, have their own share of really rough times. We don’t often hear about the other side of Lincoln who battled crippling depression his entire life, who at times, was very nearly driven to suicide.
Lincoln grew up in poverty, lost his mother when he was still a child, had no choice but to educate himself, teaching himself law, losing the woman he loved as a young man, practicing law in a small town, experiencing many setbacks as he made his way through politics, the death of his young son, and not to forget, the endless bouts of depression, which during his time were not understood or appreciated.
But he went through all of that with a smiling, tender endurance. He believed that his personal challenges were destined for him in some way — a unique experience to prepare him for greater things. He learned to endure his hardship and find benefit and meaning from it. Lincoln found purpose and relief in a cause bigger than himself and his personal struggles.
Meanwhile there had always been a dark cloud hanging over his country —slavery. Some thought it meant the permanent splitting of the country, others thought it was the end of their world. It was one of the nation’s most painful trials : the Civil War. Brother was killing brother, the sight of the limbless became common. The nation called for a leader of will and patience, and they had found one in Lincoln.
He was strong and decisive as a leader. When others lost their minds, Lincoln stayed calm and came to each circumstance with no preconceptions. His words went to the people’s hearts because they came from his — from a part of the human experience that many had walled themselves off from.
His personal pain was an advantage, a form of education in building the character so needed in leading others, in victory or in defeat — whichever occurred.
Just because I’m writing this to you, it doesn’t at all mean that my life is in any way better or easier than yours. I have my own storms to go through every day, I have my own difficulties to bear. I still have times when it’s just too easy for me to push the red button and give it all up. Just as you do.
The things we discuss here are easier said than done. They are simple. But no one ever said that they’re easy to follow. Sometimes you get so exhausted of staying strong. It’s a constant battle to muster your strength and to act on your knowledge.
These stories are not merely for our entertainment, but as models to remind us that it’s very possible for us to go through our own lives with the same resiliency that these great people have had.
It’s okay. It’s okay to be sad. Or to feel the pangs of regret. It would be a lie if you have none. You’re human after all. By all means, feel what you feel. But don’t let it consume you. Don’t ignore your emotions as if they don’t exist, either — but domesticate them. Turn them into something that can move you forward.
And one more thing, whatever you’re going through, never once think that you’re alone. The All-Seeing, The All-Hearing is never not there for you. Every tiny bit of your experience is ordered, out of His love and understanding — because He knows the great things that you’re capable of doing, and the beautiful things that you can give to others.