Perhaps Destiny, Fate, Character and Choice are not mysteries, but invitations instead – to think about whether our characters intertwine with who we want to be. Are our minds attuned to hear this inner voice for us to seize the day?
“Seize the day!” wrote the Roman poet Horace in the 1st century BC. Of course, he wrote in Latin; “carpe diem” was colloquialised more recently by Robin Williams’s portrayal of the English teacher, John Keating, in the 1989 film Dead Poets Society.
The exhortation is often misunderstood. It’s not about doing fun things, right now. That could be carelessness, or border on hedonism /– the opposite of Horace’s meaning. Rather, it’s about matching the situation to what we can control or influence, then acting accordingly
Today is valuable
Carpe diem requires being alive to the situation, seeing the moment’s opportunities to be capitalised upon and its advantages to be accepted. Focusing on doing the necessary things today, and not dissipating that focus by fixating on what may or may not happen tomorrow.
In today’s world this is almost counterintuitive. We plan our career paths despite the strong likelihood that we will need to change jobs multiple times. We are reminded to plan our finances far ahead, causing many of us to fixate on money despite knowing, as the saying goes, that money doesn’t buy happiness. We worry about worrying too much, perpetuating the stress-anxiety-negativity cycle.
There’s a price for these attitudes, apparently pre-programmed into our 21st century mindset: suboptimal performance and compromised contentment. (We see this discontent daily in newsfeeds from around the world. Anti-globalisation, some call it. The essayist Pankaj Mishra describes our times as The Age of Anger.)
Fate is out of our hands, but Destiny is ours to shape
Fate, according to dictionaries, is ‘the development of events outside a person’s control, regarded as predetermined by a supernatural power’. Or multiple powers, such as the three Fate goddesses in Greek mythology, Clotho, Lachesis and Atropos, who measured and spun the threads in the lives of all people
The root expression, the Latin destinare, implied a subtlety: a person’s future is intended and firmly established – but is not (yet) fixed. It’s up to us to actually determine it. The choices we make, the way we forge our character, can redesign and reshape our destiny.
Destiny, then, is a path with a fork. We are able to choose the fork, even if we don’t know what awaits. Robert Frost captured this mystery eloquently in his poem The Road Not Taken: Two roads diverged in a wood, and I — / I took the one less travelled by, / And that has made all the difference. The mystery in the poem is that Frost doesn’t say what difference has accrued, nor whether it’s been for the better. Elegantly, the poet warns us that
Are there obstacles ahead?
we may meet our destiny on the road we specifically took to avoid it.
Clarity of mind
If there’s an underhand yet innate tension between Fate and Destiny, how hard do we have to work to ensure Fate doesn’t bend us to her will, and that we can fulfil our destinies? If we make certain choices, and adopt the right character, can we redirect the arc of our journey, even without knowing the direction of the forks in the road?
Preparedness – even for unconscious choices
To gain self-knowledge and mental fortitude, Israeli historian and futurist Yuval Noah Harari dedicates three weeks every year to meditation. “We had better understand our minds before the algorithms make up our minds for us,” he believes.
In 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, Harari offers an interesting perspective on what’s already happening in the field of artificial intelligence and machine learning. Under the radar, our choices are being shaped by algorithms.
This is an area of enormous controversy, with consequences in recent elections in many countries. But algorithms are at play too in the advertising we’re served on social media, the items punted to us during online shopping, the YouTube or Netflix content suggested to us.
Free will, and the power of choice
We’re hardwired to dislike chaos. And it’s human nature to turn to stories to make sense of the world, to probe for information to understand what makes our fellow humans tick. But we are also able to take comfort in the reality that we ourselves are not stories. Our bodies and minds are our own; we are not trapped in a cosmic drama or a religious or national narrative. We have agency and autonomy, and can choose beyond the expected narratives.
The essence of character: nature or nurture
But it isn’t easy to mould our personalities, and master our actions, according to how we wish. Apart from forces we may be oblivious to, other hindrances relate to our environment, and to our natures. In the film The International a doomed double-agent laments: “I was once destined to become a man like yourself. True-hearted, determined, full of purpose. But character is easier kept than recovered.”
How would we do this? Can we develop our characters? The answer isn’t obvious, because at the heart of the issue is the nature-versus-nurture question, the subject of many psychological analyses where the argument goes back and forth.
One 1960s study of twins and triplets, designed by psychoanalyst Peter Neubauer, was the subject of a brilliant but shocking documentary, Three Identical Strangers Neubauer’s methods and ethics aside, it seems there are genetic, encoded personality factors, the essence of an individual’s nature, which can be modified only with extreme difficulty, if at all.
However, in Neubauer’s term about the battle between genes and environment…
Let’s briefly assess what holds us back in pursuing our ambitions or dreams – effectively, in fulfilling our destinies. The excuse of limited time is probably the most commonly used. Yet, using the principles and techniques of deliberate practice, once we have set up the right enabling environment, as little as 20 minutes a day of carefully orchestrated and directed practice can allow us to master almost anything we wish to pursue. Have you ever heard of a lazy genius? Nor have they themselves: ‘If you knew how much work went into it, you wouldn’t call it genius’ (Michelangelo); ‘I should get discouraged if I could not go on working as hard or even harder’ (Vincent Van Gogh); ‘No one ever changed the world with a forty-hour work week (Elon Musk).’
Authenticity, happiness and the link to achievement
American poet laureate Lucille Clifton, who wrote prolifically on issues of feminism and African-American heritage, famously said this about her own confidence: “What they call you is one thing. What you answer to is something else.” Our character may beintertwined with our degree of self-esteem and confidence.
In other words, being authentic is vital if we want to have a shot at happiness or indeed at high performance.
Authenticity underpins the commitment we give. Actually, the French word for commitment, ‘engagement’, better conveys the degree of involvement which authentic purpose brings to our work.
Examining our lives helps us live a more examined life
Humanity may never arrive at a formula to understand the conflict between fate and free will, conscious choice and predetermination or randomness. Nor to measure the extent to which – or even whether – forces of destiny control our lives. Maybe the closest we can, as yet, get to a satisfactory equilibrium is in the famous line from Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, written in 1602: “Be not afraid of greatness. Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and others have greatness thrust upon them.”
But we should indeed ask these sorts of questions. Finding meaning and purpose is often difficult, not least because the modern world disconnects minds from hearts.
Destiny, Fate, Character and Choice: each on its own sparks fascinating and important contemplations. And their interrelationship and interconnections are complex, the subject of deep philosophical questioning which has exercised the minds of great thinkers throughout the ages.
Perhaps these are not mysteries as much as they are invitations. For us to think about whether our characters marry with who we want to be. For us to engage more deeply with the world, and live our best lives. For us to seize the day.