During a recent conversation with medical students, I noticed they were using the terms "fate" and "destiny" interchangeably. Even though there is a blurring of the two words in common parlance, the terms are conceptually distinct.
In his book, "Listen - My Beloved Knocks," Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik emphasizes that when dealing with fate we are passive and influenced; whereas, with destiny we are active and influential. He offers a simple diagnostic test to distinguish between the two forces. We know it is fate that is gripping us when we feel a loss of control. In contrast, we recognize destiny when we assert that - no matter the circumstances – we have free will which enables us to act with initiative and thereby restore control. According to Soloveitchik, man''s mission is to turn fate into destiny.
That sounds nice, but is this an attainable goal? The Jungian psychologist, Dr Erel Shalit (author of "The Cycle of Life: Themes and Tales on the Journey") suggests that fate and destiny are frequently intertwined by shame. Shalit''s theory was not intuitive for me, but after thinking about it, I believe that shame is often the gate we must pass through in order to cross the bridge between fate and destiny.
On several occasions, I have written about the significant loss I sustained at the age of eleven when my father died of metastatic prostate cancer. There is tremendous stigma and shame associated with cancer. If you don''t believe me, consider the last time you heard that an acquaintance that you don''t know very well was diagnosed with lung cancer. What was your first reaction? Well, there are data on this subject and it turns out that the first thing 90% of us would ask is "did he smoke?" Cancer patients are aware of this and many have told me that they feel embarrassed because people around them are secretly concluding, "they deserved it." So in addition to malignant disease, many cancer patients are also contending with embarrassment and a perceived need to cover up their illness.
As a sixth grader, I too felt profound shame. The shame stemmed from the sensation that I was lacking what others had. Specifically, I no longer had a father with whom to do the daddy things that other kids were experiencing. In retrospect I realize that I gravitated to the children in my class with divorced parents – assuming they, like me, had something to hide.
A decade elapsed before I realized that my thinking and behavior were absurd and irrational. I was tired of feeling sorry for myself and pondering "why me?" Instead, I resolved to ask "what now?" I sensed that I had a calling. I began to decipher purpose in what was happening. Slowly, I devoted my life to helping others deal with the impact of illness and death so that they too could unlock the shackles of spurious shame, and -- upon liberation -- find meaning.
We do not want to find ourselves in a place of hardship, pain, or suffering. But, sometimes, we are thrust there by fate. We forget that the one thing that cannot be taken away from us in those instances is our autonomy. We always retain free will. Volition. Rather than ask about the reason for our distress we might consider how to rectify the component of our ordeal that can be remedied. Such a process can be uplifting, and, a valuable source of hope.
I believe that an understanding of fate and destiny is relevant for all individuals. Examining these issues can transform us as well as the communities where we reside. I will urge my dear medical students to strive to be the children of destiny, rather than the offspring of fate.
Until next Monday, Shalom.