Is the idea of destiny just a useful fiction, a dramatic device to move a story along or is it something more than that? Consider the classic movie When Harry Met Sally, where the man and woman cross paths over the course of years, destined to be together, but always miss the mark. Why are we so captivated by the story? Because we sense that our lives are headed somewhere. We feel as if our lives have a beginning, middle and end. Not metaphorically, but for real.
I would like to tell you a few things I’ve learned about human growth and development, and about destiny, with the help of my favorite philosophical guide, St. Edith Stein.
Edith Stein was a profound philosopher, a mystic and a Catholic saint who was killed in the Auschwitz concentration camp. She was a Jew turned atheist turned Catholic, who was targeted for death by the Nazis. During World War II, the Catholic Bishops in Europe had issued a written condemnation of the Nazis, to be read aloud in all the Catholic churches of Holland. Since Hitler was a small and petty man, he targeted specific Catholic intellectuals in retaliation. Thugs showed up at the door of Edith’s Carmelite convent with orders to take her and her sister away by force.
But we are here to celebrate her inspiring intellectual work, so let’s do that. While a modernist at heart, Edith was well versed in classical thought. She was an expert commentator on the work of St. Thomas Aquinas and was a very good expositor of his work. Perhaps one of the best because she makes his doctrine at home in the modern world better than most do. She follows his framework carefully, but she is confident enough to employ her own technical German terminology to describe it. In what follows, I will draw on her work, Finite and Eternal Being, in which she explains that destiny is essential to human life because our human soul has a personal identity imprinted on it.
We are Human Souls with Personal Imprints
The soul is that something which gives us animation, the principle that gives us life. From a common sense perspective our soul can be thought of as the principle that explains what we are. We have cognition, sensation, and the ability to use language because we have a human soul. “Why does a man cross the street at the stoplights rather than darting into traffic?” Because his nature is to be rational. The genus of the human being affirms we are rational animals.
Following closely in the tradition of St. Thomas, Edith amends this biology lesson. The soul, the form of the body, does more than explain what the human being is; this soul itself has within it an imprint, “a form of a form”, that gives a particular person an objective stamp of identity. This form of our soul is the interior principle that explains who we are in all our particularity. “Why does Robin like the color red, or eat a Dairy Queen Blizzard every Sunday?” The answer is, because she is this particular person, Robin.
Psychologist Alfred Adler had a profound and enduring insight when he said that the personality takes definition as a compensation for one’s primordial biological makeup. Anomalies in human physiology, big and small, situate us in the world in infinitely different ways. Some might inherit a blood disorder; others poor working memory capacity; another has a skeletal disorder and must learn to compensate for the pain and awkwardness. Not just in walking, but in all aspects of life. The disability shapes who we are.
A person’s physiological raw material, which biologists call the phenotype, is the stuff the person has to work with. Just as one can track the physical growth trajectory of a human being, (how tall they are at different ages, and so on) likewise one can trace the trajectory of a person as he develops toward maturity by developing his God given nature. We reflect on what we are, and who we have become. We sense that our lives have a determinate direction and significance, and are headed toward a determinate “something.”
This idea of reaching a determinate endpoint in becoming who you are was so important to Edith that she used a technical word to describe it. She called this end-point of your personal self the Zeitgestalt, which I translate as the “final form” of you as an individual. Father Robert Barron likes to say that God wants you to become the best version of yourself. This is the idea Edith is expressing. Who we are and who we will become constitute a permanent imprint, for eternity. This means that what we do in life has consequences.
So is Destiny Fixed, as in Predestination?
Catholics do not believe in predestination in the protestant sense of predestined salvation. The formation of the self, and the unfolding of one’s personal destiny, is an artistic process like a ballet; it is an interaction between you, people in your social world, chance events, your unique talents and opportunities, your thoughts and feelings, and many other things. It is simultaneously “already there” and yet created in an ongoing fashion over the course of life. It is something you discover, yet it is something you create.
Your destiny begins with your primordial, physiological raw material, and thus destiny, your person-hood, is inscribed at the moment of conception. But the “final form,” or the best version of you, is not fixed. Biologists use an evocative term in describing biological development of the unborn child: equifinality. It describes how homogeneous biological matter, the nascent cells and rudimentary structures become differentiated and organize themselves toward a final form like a lung or a kidney. The organ can start from the most diverse initial conditions, but its endpoint is always for the good of the organism. And yet within these confines, the growth trajectory has many degrees of freedom. Indeed, many biologists designate equifinality as one of the defining features of life. It is an indicator that life emerges within a system of connected components, becoming increasingly differentiated by interaction and reciprocal influence. If one channel is blocked off, the living organism improvises a new path, from the moment of conception.
Edith taught that one of the powers of the human soul is indeed what she called Seinsmacht, the power literally to “make ourselves” and – get this gorgeous turn of phrase – to “come into possession of who we are” within the confines of our human nature.
Suffer me one last metaphor. Think of destiny as like cooking. The intended meal has a destiny in the mind of its creator. The final form is well defined, but how you get there has many degrees of freedom. You can experiment with various levels of spice, cooking with or without wine, and so on. The final form unfolds interactively by attending closely to personal experience.