After dancing around the periphery of amor fati for several sections, Nietzsche gets to the core issue in Gay Science 290 in one of his most profound statements. He starts by describing precisely what it means to look retrospectively upon your life and to embrace it willingly:
To “give style” to one’s character— a great and rare art! It is practiced by those who survey all the strengths and weaknesses of their nature and then fit them into an artistic plan until every one of them appears as art and reason and even weaknesses delight the eye.
This is extraordinarily difficult for me. I saw a glimpse of myself from a couple weeks ago in my kids’ pictures today and thought that I looked terrible and needed to lose weight, even though I’m in the middle of half marathon training and know that I’m making rapid progress. My confidence took an immediate drop and when I looked in the mirror next, I did so with a far more critical eye than I have of late.
The same is true when I receive critical responses to something I’ve written or have an opinion shot down. My old boss Doug Wilder was fond of saying “I never succumb to flattery, because criticism might crush me.” Good advice, perhaps, but I do succumb to flattery, from others and myself, and can easily be crushed by criticism.
So it is a great and rare art to be able to view ones weaknesses honestly and to delight in them. I don’t think that I have the strength for that. The best I can do is see these weaknesses and passing faults that I can address. I can become healthier, I can write better, I can think more clearly. But while Nietzsche would agree that we’re all in a constant state of becoming, I don’t think amor fati has room for the kind of self criticism that is second nature to me.
Later on, Nietzsche explains why it’s necessary to become completely satisfied with yourself — even your worst moments and greatest weaknesses:
For one thing is needful: that a human being should attain satisfaction with himself, whether it be by means of this or that poetry and art; only then is a human being at all tolerable to behold. Whoever is dissatisfied with himself is continually ready for revenge, and we others will be his victims, if only by having to endure his ugly sight. For the sight of what is ugly makes one bad and gloomy.
I can’t argue with anything Nietzsche has to say here, it describes me well. When I focus on my faults and on my weaknesses, rather than my opportunities for growth, I become gloomy. My revenge is usually turned back on myself in the form of depression and anxiety (which I think bears some interesting resemblances to Nietzsche’s descriptions of the ascetic ideal), but I’m prone to lashing out and taking revenge like anyone else as well.
Being depressed and ill spirited infects those around you, creating a cycle of negativity. The only way to pull yourself out of it is to create a cycle of positive growth, good moods leading to good behavior, creating improvement in the traits and behaviors that contribute to the depression, making you a more pleasant person to be around and someone with less drive to lash out at others.
Creating this cycle of growth takes many forms — today, antidepressants are frequently prescribed. Different forms of therapy can have positive results. For some, merely starting new habits, such as an exercise regimen or a new diet can begin a positive cycle. Perhaps most useful of all is to take on a new personal project that focuses your energies in a positive way.
Because Nietzsche’s philosophy is first and foremost biography, I believe that what he’s describing with amor fati is his own method for avoiding depression, and it’s by far the most complete method that I’ve encountered. Nietzsche advocates an all-of-the-above approach, stuffing in as many positive behaviors as possible while at the same time coming to complete peace with yourself, past and present.
He’s considered a philosopher, but I think Nietzsche is better described as a wisdom psychologist. Embracing amor fati is part of my own therapy. It’s difficult, but it’s working for now.
UPDATE: I feel the need to add on a bit, because I didn’t address the deeper, more difficult aspect of amor fati above. It’s one thing to offer a way to break a depressive cycle, quite another to offer a lifelong strategy for avoiding future depression and to keeping a cheerful outlook on life.
A great failing of the contemporary mental health profession, in my opinion, is this assumption that there’s a steady state out there than can be attained once the fog of depression lifts. Sure, patients may get “maintenance level” doses of anti-depressants and semi-regular therapy, but these are just safety nets, they are not a prescription for avoiding a depressive syndrome.
Nietzsche takes a far more radical approach, built on his concept of will to power. In this context, will to power means that there is a constant internal struggle in life between various drives. To pretend that there’s a steady state is to not intervene in this struggle, to let the dominant drives take control. So if your propensity is to gain weight, without intervention, you’ll gain weight. If your propensity is to spend time at work at the expense of your family, you’ll do that.
This is obviously a vast oversimplification of Nietzsche, there’s far more to it and, as Richard Rorty wrote, success in this venture requires an individual to become a poet and invent a new language:
The process of coming to know oneself, confronting one’s contingency, tracking one’s causes home, is identical with the process of inventing a new language – that is, of thinking up some new metaphors. For any literal description of one’s individuality, which is to say any use of an inherited language-game for this purpose, will necessarily fail … To fail as a poet – and thus, for Nietzsche, to fail as a human being – is to accept somebody else’s description of oneself, to execute a previously prepared program, to write, at most, elegant variations on previously written poems. So the only way to trace home the causes of one’s being as one is would be to tell a story about one’s causes in a new language.
Again, this is an extraordinarily difficult task. No matter how simple amor fati may appear on the surface, Nietzsche didn’t speak of an overman lightly … to succeed in his mission is nearly impossible and as I’ll write in future essays, what he’s really asking of his readers is to emulate Samuel Beckett and learn to fail better.