Love your life—and your death
As the year draws to a close, let’s learn some Latin. I want to dust off three two-letter phrases that are profound meditations on having a meaningful life. They express timeless philosophies, rooted in many ancient spiritual and contemplative traditions.
The first phrase is AMOR FATI. This means simply to love one’s fate. It is the lesson of not just accepting every aspect of one’s life, but embracing it. The essential idea is to be fine with every facet of the life we are given, including suffering, loss, and failure—not just the good parts.
Does this sound like fatalism? It is not. Amor Fati is a rallying call to stop fighting against what cannot be changed, and start flowing with the currents of life. Friedrich Nietzsche called it a formula for greatness in the human being: that we do not merely bear what is necessary in our lives, still less conceal it, but love it.
Those applying Amor Fati in their lives see every experience, whether joyous or challenging, as essential parts of the journey. Consider the question that we often ask: “Why is this happening to me?” The standard way to view that question is as a complaint, a plaintive whine where the focus is on the word “me”—what did I do to deserve this, why is life so unfair. The enlightened way to look at the question is to focus on the “why” at the beginning of the sentence. What lessons are hidden in this experience? How might this make me stronger or wiser? Resilience and adaptability flow from this change of focus.
Amor Fati expresses an acceptance of the starting conditions, please note—not the actions thereafter. It asks us to accept our birthplace, our parents, our heritage, our appearance, our advantages and disadvantages—and then get going. Many do not get past those starting conditions, and waste entire lifetimes trying to change that which cannot be erased, and forgetting to work on that which can.
Our lives can be rich and fulfilling regardless of where and how we started, and for that to happen we must consider a second Latin phrase: MEMENTO MORI. This means “remember you must die.” Stay with me, for this seemingly dark phrase hides a philosophy that is life affirming. Memento Mori is a reminder of the inevitability of death. But far from echoing a morbid pessimism, it is a powerful tool for focusing on what truly matters.
Memento Mori reminds us that our time is finite. This life will end, and none of us know when. A full stop is coming to this existence. So if all of your life is taken up accumulating wealth, fighting for status, or holding on to youthful beauty—please know that it all ends. Nothing can be carried with us beyond the full stop. The meaning of this life comes from living it well, in the brief time given to us.
Think about any initiative in your life. What do you do when you think there’s plenty of time left? You dawdle, you procrastinate, you put it off. And what do you do in the closing stages, when time is short? You give your project your complete focus, you polish it up and finesse it, you submit the best offering that you can.
Memento Mori tells that life itself is the project, and asks us to live it as though we are at the closing stages, no matter what age we are. The constant reminder that life is finite and short allows us to be our best, and to give of our best. It tells us to rise above the trivia—office gossip, petty spite, social drama—and to focus, focus, focus: on our best work, our best relationships, our bigger deals.
How to do this? That’s where the third Latin wisdom kicks in: CARPE DIEM. This is the most Instragrammable of the trio, and many people know what it means: “Seize the day.” It tells us that the present day, indeed the present moment, is all we truly have. The past is gone, the future uncertain. Today is here and now, and we must fill it with what matters to us. Don’t delay, don’t put off, get started right now. Seize the day, this day, because you don’t know how many more are gifted to you.
There they are: the three ancient phrases that could be our guiding lights in the hustle and hassle of life, when trials and tribulations beset us, when enjoyment is elusive. Amor Fati teaches us resilience; Memento Mori gives us much-needed perspective; and Carpe Diem injects an invigorating dose of enthusiasm for our best moments.
Are these not the ingredients of a good life, or even of a good strategy for our work? To know our strengths and weaknesses, and to ride with them? To be focused on what matters most to us, in the knowledge that time is short? And to make the most of every day given to us? I wish for you in 2024 much love for your “fati,” many “mementos” of the shortness of life, and many “diems” seized and squeezed.