Oriana Fallaci was an Italian journalist known for her politically charged interviews throughout her career. But in 1979, she moved away from that genre to write a novel – a thinly veiled story of her real-life relationship with a man who tried to assassinate a Greek dictator.
I read it back in 1982 through a recommendation from my friend in Italy. The characters and details have completely faded after 39 years, with one exception. On page 361, there lies a passage. It is actually an ancient legend that one of Fallaci’s characters shares to another:
“Once upon a time there was a man who didn’t want to die. He was a man of Isfahan (a city in Iran.) And one evening the man saw Death waiting for him at the door of his house. “What do you want from me?” the man shouted. And Death said “I came to…” The man wouldn’t allow Death to finish his sentence, he leapt onto a fast horse and fled full tilt toward Samarkand. He galloped for two days and three nights, never stopping, and at dawn of the third day he reached Samarkand. Here, convinced he had put Death off his track, he dismounted and went to seek an inn. But when he entered his room, he saw Death waiting for him, sitting on the bed. Death stood up, came to him, and said “I’m happy you have come, and so punctually. I was afraid we would miss each other, that you would go somewhere else or arrive late. In Isfahan, you wouldn’t allow me to speak. I had come to Isfahan to make an appointment with you, at dawn of this third day, in this room, in this inn, here in Samarkand.”
I was only 22 when I read this tale. In my young mind, it described fate perfectly. I marked the paragraph with a pen to easily find it. That same book sits in my bookcase today.
The word “Fate” comes from the Latin word Fatum meaning “that which has been spoken.” The concept of Fate goes back to Greek mythology which states that there were three Fates. They were personified as three very old women who spin the threads of human destiny. Their names were Clotho (who was the Spinner), Lachesis (the Allotter), and Atropos (the Inflexible). Clotho spun the “thread” of human fate, Lachesis dispensed it, and Atropos cut the thread (thus determining the individual’s moment of death).
The whole concept of fate got sewn into religious beliefs too, none greater than in the 16th century with the Protestant Reformation which broke up catholic Europe. In northern and central Europe, reformers like Martin Luther and John Calvin challenged papal authority and questioned the Catholic Church’s ability to define Christian practice. They felt the focus should be on the Bible and less on Catholic traditions including the doctrine of papal supremacy.
The protestant religions of Lutheranism and Calvinism were born at this time. Lutheranism put their sole belief in the Scriptures, while Calvinism focused on God and his all-encompassing power. They insisted that God determines all events in a person’s life. These Reformers were accused of promoting “fate” but insisted it was not.
“Do you believe in fate?” is such a loaded question. Believers of free will think it is a rather silly theory. Free will thinkers say that we are always in the drivers’ seat of our life’s direction by the choices we make. People on the other side of the debate say that everyone has experienced something they didn’t “choose”, whether it was a disruptive illness, a job loss, divorce etc. Was this “event” simple randomness or did it appear in our path in order to get back on course towards our true fate?
This touches on the differences between fate and destiny. Fate is considered an immovable course that cannot be altered despite your actions; there is a natural order in the universe which is unshakable. Destiny touches on the pre-ordained too, that there are things that you will do in the future. The difference though is that there is an element of choice in destiny. For example, if you get a good education, then that can give you power towards shaping your destiny. Destiny can be viewed as having a strong awareness or conviction regarding your future and proactively pursuing it. There is a much more positive aura surrounding destiny vs. fate. Common phrases such as “a fate worse than death” perpetuate the negativity while “she was destined for greatness” is inspirational.
The concept of fate is literally thousands of years old; that there is a line of pre-ordained events woven through every life and completed with death. As already mentioned, myths and legends love to specifically link fate and particularly, death together. The modern era is no exception. For instance, there is a very common word people use all the time directly tying “fate” to death. The word is fatal. Merriam-Webster defines fatal as “causing death.” It is also derived from that same Latin word “Fatum” or sometimes, “Fatalis.”
We also continue to examine that relationship between fate and death. There was a successful teen movie franchise titled “The Final Destination” which explored the idea of whether you could escape your death as pre-determined by fate. The characters initially escape death because they are forewarned by a friend with a premonition only to then die in astonishingly freak accidents anyway. The concept was “when it’s your time, it’s your time” and death will only find a new way to take you.
Clearly, this possibility piqued the interest of enough young (and older) movie-goers that Hollywood made five Final Destination movies. Some critics panned the original which was released in 2000. Roger Ebert enjoyed the film and gave it 3 out of 4 stars explaining “the film in its own way is biblical in its dilemma, although the students use the code word “fate” when what they are really talking about is God. In their own terms, in their own way, using teenage vernacular, the students have existential discussions.” It really is just a new twist of that familiar legend. On a side note, the original script was developed to be an episode of the X-Files.
I think that we are all aware of those types of stories in the news where someone escapes death in a highly miraculous way. These stories make most people stop and shake their heads thinking “what an amazing series of events that spared this person’s life.” Someone happened to be in the right place at the right time and grabbed them from a burning car or they had a doctor’s appointment and left the house right before a gas explosion. It’s human nature to think this way. It’s the fragility of life. We consider the “what if’s” and conclude that “it just wasn’t their time.”
The flip side is when a person sadly dies in a highly unusual manner and we stop and think “what an unusual series of events that took this person’s life” and almost always conclude that “it must have been their time.” It’s the only way to accept the weird set of circumstances.
On May 10th 2017, I had these thoughts. On that day, an 89-year-old man was driving on a quiet, local suburban road less than a mile from my house. All of a sudden, his car veered hard to the right, hitting a fire hydrant and knocking it over. The damage to his car was minor and he was fine. It was not a medical incident. It was only when he stepped out of the car to inspect the damage, that the water from the hydrant caused the ground to give way, spewing water and creating a 5-foot hole which he stepped into; he couldn’t fight the rush of the water and began to sink. One witness tried to help but explained that the water was not only pulling the man down, but it was pushing the good Samaritan away. It was an utterly tragic ending. It also fell on the man’s birthday.
The idea of fate intrigues me. Maybe Fallaci is the cause. But I think her re-telling of a legend resonated so deeply with me because I already believed it. When I was two, my life was in danger after drinking some turpentine I found on the floor. Both my mother and a housekeeper saw it and rushed towards me. My stomach was pumped in the ambulance and I survived. (Years later, when I had an endoscopy for a health issue, the doctor asked me why I had such bad and unusual scarring down my esophagus.)
Naturally, at two, I was not going to ponder life and death, but as an adult I can. I feel like I got close to something but was spared. Perhaps it was only an excellent paramedic team, but perhaps my fate or God’s Plan intervened. It’s just a comforting thought.
I had a very interesting conversation with my husband over dinner just a few days ago. He is quite left-brain and logical so his answer surprised me. When I asked him if he believed in fate he replied “Yes. This is what I think. I made a lot of bad choices in college. My choices should have taken me somewhere else, but despite my own actions, I had a successful career (in banking and finance.) It’s like my fate just ignored those choices and forged ahead. I have always said that I consider myself very lucky; maybe fate and luck are connected or interchangeable.” Except luck is defined as something good happening by chance.
There are no definitive answers. Believing in fate is mired in personal or religious beliefs and a person’s life experiences. But with the principles of fate still actively appearing in our popular culture, our language, our churches and our schools, we continue to be exposed to the possibility.
Wikipedia The 3 Fates