Wednesday 30 September 2015

52 Ordinary Words: Destiny

How comforting to think that “There's a divinity that shapes our ends.  Rough-hew them how we will—.” (Hamlet, Act IV, Scene 2).  No need to be accountable to ourselves – or indeed to anyone else.  Divine providence has a grand plan laid out for us; all we have to do is to give in gracefully.  Fine, if we are destined for great things; but far less tantalising if a power greater than ourselves has decided that we are born to commit heinous crimes, or to live out a life that will come to nothing much at all, despite our best efforts.

David Whyte, writing in Consolations, says that the word, destiny, is hardly used like this, but I’m not so sure.  Just look at the wealth of books that would have us believe we born to achieve great things.  This sort of literature allures us with the promise that we’re meant for something much better than the cards we’ve been dealt.  Destiny understood in this sense is "a word of storybook or mythic dimension.”

But, I do the literature an injustice, because its overriding message is that, having identified a special something that only we can achieve, it’s down to us to follow the road less travelled, with discipline.  As Bruce Lee said, “Knowing is not enough, we must apply. Willing is not enough, we must do.”

For my money, Heraclitus had it about right, when he said that, “character is destiny.”  He was not a fatalist – far from it – he had a profound belief in our responsibility to shape our own ends.  “Good character is not formed in a week or a month ... Protracted and patient effort is needed to develop good character.”  He believed in free will. 

But this is where it gets complicated: in order for free will to exist, our thoughts and actions must be the result of our will and our will alone. Yet, all things in the universe appear to be subject to cause and effect.  So why would our thoughts and actions be any different?  It would seem that in order to have free will, we would be defying the laws of reality, which is all events are caused by previous events.  And if we are capable of defying the laws of reality, then that would suggest that we are god-like.

Whyte’s attempts to resolve this dichotomy are refreshing.  “When we choose between these two poles of mythic treatment or fated failure, we may miss … that our future is influenced by the very way we hold the conversation of life itself.”  This – broadly speaking - humanist stance hinges on how we perceive the world.  “We are shaped by our shaping of the world and are shaped again, in turn.  The way we face the world alters the face we see in the world.” 

This applies just as much to a bad deal as it does to possibilities.  We always have a choice. “The sense of satisfaction involved and the possibility of fulfilling its promise may depend on our brave participation, a willingness to hazard ourselves in a difficult world, a certain form of wild generosity with our gifts.”  

We can be equal to whatever we encounter.  This is not the same as saying it is easy, but is saying that we can give the fates (for want of a much better expression!) a good run for their money.  It’s down to us: to engage with the “everyday conversational essence of destiny;” to know ourselves, and to be brave.

I leave you with one of Whyte’s poems:


Above the mountains
the geese turn into
the light again

Painting their
black silhouettes
on an open sky.

Sometimes everything
has to be
inscribed across
the heavens

so you can find
the one line
already written
inside you.

Sometimes it takes
a great sky
to find that

first, bright
and indescribable
wedge of freedom
in your own heart.

Sometimes with
the bones of the black
sticks left when the fire
has gone out

someone has written
something new
in the ashes of your life.

You are not leaving.
Even as the light fades quickly now,
you are arriving. 

~ David Whyte


  1. Interesting thoughts on destiny, although I'm far too tired this morning to properly engage with the problem of free will! I really like the David Whyte poem - I guess we were right in thinking that his poetry works better than his prose.

    1. Thanks for making me smile! Bring on the poetry :)

    2. I totally agree on the poetry versus the prose!