"The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,
But in ourselves...
Shakespeare (Julius Caesar, act 1, scene 2)

I was involved recently in an academic discussion on the place of fate in human life. I was surprised that there were so many people there who defended the passive interpretation, claiming that a blind, or destiny controls their lives. In this way, of course, they relinquish that spark of human freedom. Ultimately, they give up free will, and the possibility of influencing their choices; their decisions are not seen as their own, and they act as if they're not responsible for whatever behaviour is happening.

Existential philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre called this type of flight from freedom and responsibility Bad Faith (le mauvais foi). Bad Faith implies that someone is avoiding taking personal responsibility for their actions and instead likes to blame chance factors, conditions, fate, or a favourite among psychologists apparently, other people -- for his or her behaviour. For example, blaming one's parents for whatever happens is a usual habit among certain schools of psychotherapy for people to find suitable scapegoats for their own failures. How convenient! For the layman, the abstract concept of Fate more often takes on this powerful role.

In reality, fate is not something that suddenly hits us from outer space; on the contrary, without being aware of it, we share a great deal of responsibility for what "fate" offers us. One of my old friends used to remind me that "Character is fate" a quote he claimed came from Nietzsche, but I suspect goes back to one of the ancient Greek philosophers, perhaps Heraclitus.

In any event, there is no denying that we influence our own fate; a gambler, for example, is clearly himself responsible for his casino losses and debts, he is certainly not just a victim of "fate" – even though he may feel that Lady Luck has cheated him once more.

For a psychotherapist, the point here is that people can change their "characters", to use that overworked word, by a certain amount of hard work and discipline, but only, of course, if they make a conscious choice not to rely on blind Fate. In which case, life is not completely hopeless.

Of course, there are times when something happens due to sheer luck, or if you prefer to call it that, Fate. But it seems more likely that such events are caused by pure chance than by any mystical conspiracy of happenings. Only a fool or a fanatic New Age "true believer" has complete confidence that we are responsible for everything that happens in our lives. This is a blatant exaggeration since there is always a certain amount of "givenness" in life, what Sartre called "facticity" (facticité). In Heidegger's terminology: throwness. For instance, I was not born into the Swedish royal family, so it is beyond my facticity to expect I will become king of Sweden. One is born with certain limitations, certain facts. And of course the wise man is one who knows the difference between what is a choice and what cannot be. I have met those who claim they can influence Fate, and for example, can "will" a parking spot to come up just when they need to park the car.

Often there are events in our life which we call "fate" which, by further investigation, can be seen to be another person's plan, which we were simply not aware of.

Here is a rather pleasant example of just this phenomenon. A few years ago I was at a dinner party in New York where I met a very happy married couple – let's call them Mr and Mrs Johnson. Some time during the evening, another woman asked Mrs Johnson how she had met her wonderful husband. And the glowing wife said, "It was Fate," which led to a round of pleased smiles all round. Sometime later, while having coffee. I happened to sit right next to Mr Johnson, who somewhat inebriated, happy and truthful, told me the real story of how he had met the charming woman who later became his wife. About one year ago he happened to see this striking woman who was working at a financial institution in an area of New York known as Greenwich Village. Being a somewhat brave and stubborn man, as well as a complete optimist, he decided to arrange to have lunch at a restaurant near her workplace.

After two months eating lunch in this restaurant two or three times per week, the target of his affections actually appeared at a nearby table one sunny, beautiful day, engaged in a spinach salad. At this point, the redoubtable Mr Johnson took "fate" into his own hands. Gathering up all the courage he could muster, he embarked on a conversational gambit with her which soon led to further lunches and eventually deeper contact. He revealed to me that he had never confessed to his wife the plan with which he had located, wooed and won the fair lady, since he though it was much more romantic for her to continue to believe that it was fate which had brought the two of them together.

The main objection to believing in fate is that it generally makes people more passive, and leads to the fact that they tend to avoid making decisions to change their lives in a positive way. The chronic alcoholic, for example, can blame his destiny (or his mother, or his DNA) for his problem, and thus continue to drink excessively. A woman who is continually battered by her husband can blame her misfortune on blind fate instead of taking active steps to leave him (to his fate).


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About Sheldon Litt, Ph.D.

Dr Sheldon Litt is an American psychologist who trains professionals in modern methods of psychotherapy. He has taught at many universities in northern Europe. He was trained by Fritz Perls at the New York Institute for Gestalt Therapy.S. Litt, Inedalsgatan 25, S-11233 Stockholm, Sweden. Tel: +468 651 2489 Email: sheldonlitt@hotmail.com.

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