Many people will use the terms ‘fate’ and ‘ interchangeably and it can often not only be difficult to differentiate between the two, but also to understand what is actually meant by them. Both terms essentially refer to predetermined events that lie outside of our control and thus imply some sort of ‘higher power’ rendering them essentially religious in meaning. But what is the real difference and are they useful words?
I believe that the word ‘destiny’ implies a degree of positivity as well as agency that one may have over their future; fate feels particularly hopeless to me in terms of the capacity for a person to have any sort of influence over the outcome. Hollywood would have us believe that we are destined for good things, and fated to bad, however this negates free will and assumes pre-determined destiny. As a clinician who believes in free choice as a basic tenet of the psychotherapeutic process, I have a resistance to both terms, instead preferring to consider how a person makes meaning in a world limited by circumstance – personal and existential.
Much of the work of psychotherapy is around coming to terms with reality – past and present. This means accepting what was in terms of our experience of childhood or past traumas and working through the complex emotions around them. It often means grieving both what we had and what we didn’t. Seeing something as fate or destiny can be protective in the short-term but can massively hinder how we approach life. I consider it to be a degree of ‘magical thinking’ whereby there is a belief in a force, entity or deity who overseas our lives – the magical thinking is in psychological terms the belief in an all-mighty parent.
Accepting reality in the present also means accepting uncomfortable limitations which we may now not be able to change. For example, it may mean coming to terms with the end of a relationship and accepting our role in its demise; or it may mean coming to terms with a biological loss – such as an inability to have a child – and accepting that this is not fate, but painfully, it is random and unfair. And life is unfair and random.
Protection in a higher meaning
There is an illusion of protection in imagining that ‘things happen for a reason’ when this is simply not how the world operates. This does not negate personal responsibility and scientific cause and effect, however, to make sense of the world through ascribing meaning to events that lie outside of our control is childlike and an avoidance of reality – the reality being that we are not in control.
Perhaps this is ultimately where we can draw a clinical distinction between fate and destiny: once we have come to terms with reality and accepted the experiences of the past and the limitations of the present, then where we take responsibility for our life, we are shaping our destiny. In this context I believe this word can be used whilst being firmly rooted in reality and it conveys an acceptance of our past and our limitations and that we are willing and able to shape our future to the best of our abilities.
In this sense destiny is self-prescribed based on authentic living and choosing a life of substance. It means identifying and then choosing to engage with that which brings our life meaning. It means making decisions whilst accepting the ramifications of those decisions and the losses that accompany them.
Decisions – all decisions – are expensive, in that once taken, alternatives are precluded. Bearing reality and accepting loss are therefore build into making any decision, even one as simple as choosing the pasta dish over the salad in a restaurant – the loss of choosing pasta is the salad, but also the idea of what the pasta would be like – we allow the fantasy of the pasta to become a reality and accept it, or at least bear it. It may exceed our expectations; it may disappoint, but whatever happens, it will be different to how we imagined.
Economists often talk of opportunity costs – the cost paid in making one choice and therefore forfeiting the other possible choices.
Opportunity cost applies just as much in the field of psychology. If we make certain choices in life, we will not be able to choose other life paths. Despite what Instagram and Facebook promise – none of us can have it all!
One can argue that the terms of fate and destiny are simply that – words to describe something. However, when our experience of the world is shaped and understood through words, they become exceptionally powerful and potentially limiting. Therefore, whilst not as esoteric and catchy, I prefer the terms ‘loss and responsibility’ as replacements for ‘fate and destiny’. At least we can come to terms with loss and then exercise a conscious sense of responsibility in shaping our lives going forward.
Mark Vahrmeyer is a UKCP registered integrative psychotherapist who draws strongly on existential thoughts and theory to help clients make sense on an increasingly senseless world. He sees clients in Hove and Lewes.
Further reading by Mark Vahrmeyer –