A skinny, awkward, sixteen-year-old steps fearfully onto the stage. It’s Amateur Night at the Harlem Opera House. The announcer says, “The next contestant is a young lady named Ella Fitzgerald. . . .Miss Fitzgerald is gonna dance for us. . . . Hold it, hold it. Now, what’s your problem, honey? . . . Correction, folks. Miss Fitzgerald has changed her mind. She’s not gonna dance, she’s gonna sing.”
Psychologist James Hillman continues with this story, saying that Miss Fitzgerald gave three encores and won first prize. But “she had meant to dance” (1).
Fatalism versus Fate
Dr. Hillman posits that fate, an inner driving spirit (2), had a hand in Ms. Fitzgerald’s sudden change in performance. Fate nudged her toward her destiny. But what is fate?
First of all, it’s not the same as fatalism. Fatalism is a belief system, an ideology. It says there’s a divine plan (however one defines divinity); whatever happens, happens. It says nothing I do matters or changes anything, so why bother voting or fighting for voting rights. Or joining the Sierra Club to lobby for environmental justice. Life is all predetermined.
Fatalism, says Dr. Hillman, is a state of feeling, abandoning thoughtfulness and careful reasoning. We give up taking responsibility for our lives and risk a growing bitter anger toward fate, our lot in life. Fatalism takes away our humanity, leaving us as puppets with an almighty . . . something . . . controlling the strings.
Fate Causes Unusual or Odd Events and Allows for Choices
On the other hand, the Greek idea of fate, says Dr. Hillman, would be that events happen to people. They can’t understand why it happened, but since it has happened, it evidently had to be.
Fate causes only events that are unusual, events that don’t fit in.
A woman I know, I’ll call her Sue, applied for admittance to various graduate schools. She had moved away from home, and one school was in her hometown. “Should I move back there to help out with my aging parents?” she wondered.
A roomful of people interviewed her by phone. The interview ended, but the chief interviewer forgot to disconnect the phone, and Sue overheard his erroneous reasons as to why the university should and would reject her application. Because she knew their decision and why, she sent them no future applications. She had applied to other schools in another state that did accept her.
Fate Does Not Give an Overriding Purpose or Action
An unusual event happened to Sue, an anomaly, an oddity. It didn’t fit the standard interviewing procedure. She didn’t understand why it happened, but since it did, it evidently had to be.
Fate may excite, call, or demand, but it does not give an overriding purpose or action. It didn’t mean Sue should never see her family again or abandon her goal of graduate school. While the event was significant, there was no long-term direction in it—another characteristic of fate.
Fate’s events require thinking, reflection—and most importantly, allow for choices on our part.
Fate’s a Portion of Our Story—We are not Victims
Our story, our biography, isn’t limited to what our parents did or did not do or to what’s in our chromosomes, our DNA. The Greek word for fate, moira, means a share or a portion. While fate does influence one’s life, it’s not the whole story. It’s a portion of our story.
In other words, we are not prisoners or victims of either nurture or nature.
Dr. Hillman says moira derives from the root smer or mer, meaning to think, meditate, consider. That is what fate requires of us; it does not relieve us of our rational responsibilities. It’s Ms. Fitzgerald changing her mind at the last minute. Fate didn’t dictate to her the outcome but would give her pause and something to ponder regarding her future, just like it did with Sue.
As a child, you may have experienced an inner declaration, a knowing: This is what I must do with my life. Or something more subtle happened as you drifted along. Gentle nudges led you to a particular spot on the river’s edge, and looking back, you could see that fate had a hand in your destination, as Dr. Hillman describes it.
We read biographies to find expressions of destiny, and Dr. Hillman lists many well-known personalities where fate showed its hand at early ages in these individuals: philosopher C.G. Collingwood; brilliant Spanish bullfighter Manolete; the pioneering geneticist Barbara McClintock; the Israeli leader Golda Meir, to list only a few.
According to Dr. Hillman, these extraordinary people are not in a different category from ordinary mortals—it’s only that the workings of fate in them are more transparent. Or perhaps we ordinary mortals have been too distracted or too busy and ignored them. Looking backward, we oftentimes can see where fate showed its hand in our lives and where it has led us.
Pay Attention, Reflect
So pay attention to life’s oddities. Dr. Hillman says fate allows us choices, has our backs, cares for us, and accompanies us on our life’s journey. Our responsibility is to pay attention and to sit mindfully with fate’s unexpected visitations (2).
Notes & Sources:
- Hillman, James. The Soul’s Code. In Search of Character and Calling. Grand Central Publishers. 1997.
- Dr. Hillman uses other words for fate, including character, calling, soul, destiny, genius. He frequently substitutes daemon—not to be confused with demon. The idea of daemon came from the ancient Greeks; daemons are good or helpful spirits, a guardian angel or an inner driving force, which is how Dr. Hillman uses the word. A demon is an evil spirit.
- Jon Kabat-Zinn, the founder of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, says, mindfulness is “paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally, to the unfolding of experience moment to moment.”
About the Author: Rev. Mary Coday Edwards is a Spiritual Growth Facilitator and People House Minister. A life-long student of spirituality, Mary spent almost 20 years living, working, and sojourning abroad in Asia, Southeast Asia, East Africa, and Latin America before finding her spiritual connection at People House and completing its Ministerial Program. Past studies include postgraduate studies from the University of South Africa in Theological Ethics/Ecological Justice, where she focused on the spiritual and physical interconnectedness of all things. With her MA in Environmental Studies from Boston University, abroad she worked and wrote on environmental sustainability issues at both global and local levels. In addition to working in refugee repatriation, she was a copy editor for international, English print, daily newspapers in Indonesia and Mexico.