My Father’s “System of Fate”, brent mitchell

The Six Invariable Conditions of Fate—The Heroic System of Fate
My father, a professor of English literature, extrapolated these conditions from his forty years of studying fiction, myth, and psychology. He identified these six existential interrelated and inter-referential conditions or elements of life as the core obstacles around which or through which we must navigate in our life’s voyage. If we are skillful we may eventually arrive, “home” like Odysseus, more whole and wiser than before our journey through life as autonomous beings. If we are unmindful or unskillful, if we see that our ship is on a collision course with fear, but deny responsibility for steering our ship around them — or if we deny that the dangers ahead are real —we may crash and sink into neurotic compulsion, depression, despair, or we may come to blame others for our suffering and for our choices.
Skillful navigation can lead to a cultivated conscience, to selfless love, and to joyful grace. Unskillful navigation can lead to a dismantling and betrayal of conscience, which is betrayal of self—a progressive diminishment of one’s being. I borrow the terms skillful and unskillful from the Buddhism of the Upakilesa Suttra where these terms are used as Westerners would use the words sin and virtue or perhaps obedience (to God’s law). The Christian terms carry implicit judgment with them which may be helpful in some circumstances, but is, I believe, generally a distraction. Sin is a tremendously useful concept in terms of understanding the harm we do to others—the suffering that others endure as a consequence of our choices. But the suffering that we endure as a result of our choices is better understood in morally neutral terms: a wise, honest, selfless choice may cause us to suffer, but it will enhance our integrity—our inner certainty and strength. It will magnify or “being”—our isness in the sense that Paul Tillich expresses in The Courage to Be. To frame moral judgment and action in terms of skill, as I intend for the navigation analogy above to reflect, implies that the rewards and consequences of our choices are built into life and choice rather than imposed upon each of us by God. We can delight in doing evil, but only at the cost of feeling our being—our self/psyche/soul or what have you, diminish progressively into nothingness. This is the abyss of non-being that we dread rightly, as opposed to death.
My father’s claim was that the six invariable conditions of fate or—his System of Fate– could be applied to (analyzing) literature—to understanding characters and their motives, their successes and failures. But he also believed that, as with all great fiction, the lessons apply to “real” life. Freud used Sophocles’ Oedipus as a way to illustrate what he believed was man’s core fear—sexual fears related to infantile incest fantasies. Freud has long since been corrected about this. The vast consensus in the fields of psychiatry and psychology now identifies death fear as the core fear and source of existential anxiety. But the fact that Freud was right to use fiction and myth (Oedipus comes to us as both) as a way to reveal real psychological issues has not been disputed (at least not to any significant degree) and in fact has become common place in psychology, particularly where it is applied to myth and religion, and to cultural anthropology.
Following Freud’s lead and embracing the correction of Freud by Jung, Becker, Rank, Tillich, Rollo May, and many others, my father used Sophocles’ Oedipus at Colonus and Oedipus Rex to illustrate how his System of Fate works. Upon reading his unpublished ideas, it became apparent to me that this interrelated circular system of existential conditions is what drives Aristotle’s (from his Poetics) linear progression of the life and fate of the tragic hero, and that Aristotle’s progression along with my father’s system can also be applied to the Biblical narrative progression from the fruit of knowledge to the fruit of eternal life. Then I realized that Jung’s development towards wholeness that he calls individuation fits the Aristotelian scheme —especially with the insertion of my father’s system of fate. Furthermore, all of these linear progressions parallel human psychological progressions that generally are connected to stages of biological maturity as described by a number of psychologists.
Following is an explication of my father’s six invariable conditions of fate. I begin with his own summary of them:
“To summarize briefly, the human moral sense derives from choice, choice from chance, chance from time, time from death, and death from nature. Therefore, without the existence of death there would be no moral freedom. Death is not a penalty or a curse, but rather, in a sense, a gift.”
That last sentence underscores the condition or element that makes his system important: choice. All of the conditions revolve in a sense around choice. They drive choice. They drive our moral (or immoral) sense. The choices that we make in the face of the other conditions of fate are what the whole voyage of life is about. Who and what we are or become lies not in our circumstances so much as in how we choose to respond to them.

1.NATURE:
Nature is foremost the material origin and force of life and source of death. It is the destination of the body after death as the constituent elements of the body return to their sources. We return to nature (from which we never actually are separate) in putrification and rot that feeds the soil from which we have fed. Thus nature can be viewed symbolically—in dreams and in phobic anxiety—as a gaping mouth waiting to devour us. Or it can be viewed as a constant exchange of life for life in which our life and death both have purpose as engines or as fuel of the life-force which we as humans are uniquely (or so it seems) capable of seeing into– as beauty. Also we can see that in this cycle there is no hierarchy of life forms: all forms of life play the same part in the living-dying cycle of matter that is Life itself. Our only hierarchical advantage is our self-conscious sentience, (which may collectively be nature’s self-awareness). Death and the violence, the stink and putrification, the danger, and the horror that accompany it, is the part of nature that we most fear.
Death—as the ultimate object of our fears of nature and the core fear of all our fears — is also the source of beauty because death is what instills living matter, with pathos, urgency, and with the endlessly creative force that defies death or postpones it.
Death is the source of delight for the subversive and sometimes austere beauty with which life, for a while at least, defies death.
Fecundity is the propagation, the often explosive expansion of life in all of its forms, and death is the source of fecundity in all things because fecundity is the chief way that life defies death.
And Nature is the source of death; therefore nature is –through death– the source of horror, abjection, sickness, disgust, decay, old age, hunger— as well as lust, and of pleasure, and of joy.
The conditions DEATH, SUFFERING, AND TIME all derive from NATURE. We are not IN Nature. We are entirely constituted by its elements and subject to its laws. We ARE nature. We are fragments of the natural world. Our self-awareness does not place us beyond it. If anything, we may be—as de Chardin has suggested, its very soul– nature’s collective sentience—the vehicle through which it perceives and interprets itself.
To deny that that we are nature, or to deny the reality of any of the existential conditions that stem from nature, is to deny responsibility for our choices because it is a denial of who and what we are –and we can hardly assume or accept responsibility for choices made by someone we deny being! Wholeness and even heroism are contingent upon our individual acceptance of responsibility for our choices. This truth is reflected throughout world mythology, and is especially poignantly expressed in Greek tragedy. We are not responsible for being born mortal, natural, etc, but we are responsible for the choices we make within these consciously accepted limitations.
This is very close to what Victor Frankle meant in his book Man’s Search for Meaning when he said that Choice is the freedom that no one can take from us. We could be, as he was, put into a Nazi concentration camp where we would suffer in ways we never imagined were possible, but even then, we would be free to choose how to react to that suffering. We can allow our suffering to reduce us to opportunistic beasts. We can allow ourselves to succumb to existential despair— to believe that there is no meaning. Or we can choose –not to deny the facts around us– but to defy them with faith that our lives have some kind of meaning, and we choose to guide our ships by our moral compass.
2. DEATH/CHANGE:
As written above,
Death—as the ultimate object of our fears of nature and the core fear of all our fears — is also the source of beauty because death is what instills living matter, with pathos, urgency, and with the endlessly creative force that defies death or postpones it.
Death is the source of delight for the subversive and sometimes austere beauty with which life, for a while at least, defies death.
Death is the source of fecundity in all things because fecundity is the chief way that life defies death. And fecundity is the propagation, the often explosive expansion of life in all of its forms.
Being and non-being are opposites, but DEATH (CHANGE) is not the opposite of life; rather it is a constituent process of the greater process that we call LIFE. To be alive is to breath, to have a pulse, etc. Every breath dies to be replaced by a new breath. Every pulse disappears –never to return—to be replaced by a new pulse. Being alive is constituted of these processes which, like time itself, are a repetitive chain of arriving into being and passing away. The breath of life fills one, then is expelled –as it is in death. The air within us returns to the surrounding air from which we drew it. Something must die for another thing to live. Time itself is a constant movement of the future folding into the present which has already turned into the past by the time we have noted it. We wake to a day of living, and in sleep our bodies mirror death, and this cycle along with the cycles of breath and of pulse and many other cycles of dying out and living anew repeat throughout all of our years. Life is an unceasing oscillation of being and non-being that finally ends, at least materially, in non-being. DEATH-CHANGE-TIME, a concept for which we have no single word, is possibly what Dylan Thomas simply called “time” in his poem Fern Hill in which time is a subtly personified character. In the poem, Thomas remembers his idyllic childhood, the beauty of which was given him by time and ends with him in the present of the poem’s writing in which time has taken it all from him, though the poet is profoundly grateful for the fleeting gifts that time does not so much give and take away as filters through our fingers like beautiful water that fills us just in tasting, even though our hands cannot contain it.
In the last verse Thomas reconciles loss with joy:
“Nothing I cared, in the lamb white days, that time would
take me
Up to the swallow thronged loft by rthe shadow of my hand,
In the moon that is always rising,
Nor that riding to sleep
I should hear him fly with the high fields
And wake to the farm forever fled from the childless land.
Oh as I was young and easy in the mercy of his means,
Time held me green and dying
Though I sang in my chains like the sea.”

3. TIME:
Eternity is not the source of time. DEATH, or rather CHANGE creates TIME. Time is what happens when anything happens. Happening and occurrence are words that are in this sense synonymous with the word time. A similar way to look at this idea is to say that Time is the measure of events (except when entering the event horizon of a black hole where the laws of physics don’t seem to apply). Time is the phenomenon of happening, which is to say that where there is no time, nothing happens. Therefore where there is no time there is stasis—there is no life. Also, because of time, whatever is done cannot be undone because the moment of that doing is swallowed by time.
As has been noted in relation to Death-Change, Time is the oscillation of being and non-being that we call Life Processes: breathing, waking and sleeping, the pulse, etc. To be alive is to breath, to have a pulse, etc. Every breath dies to be replaced by a new breath. Every pulse disappears –never to return—to be replaced by a new pulse. Being alive is constituted of these processes which, like time itself, are a repetitive chain of arriving into being and passing away. The breath of life fills one, then is expelled –as it is in death. The air within us returns to the surrounding air from which we drew it. Something must die for another thing to live. Time itself is a constant movement of the future folding into the present which has already turned into the past by the time we have noted it. We wake to a day of living, and in sleep our bodies mirror death, and this cycle along with the cycles of breath and of pulse and many other cycles of dying out and living anew repeat throughout all of our years. Life is an unceasing oscillation of being and non-being and Time is its measure.
Most of us view Time as the existential abyss that we call boredom or tedium which we are desperate to fill with entertainment. When time is not a burden we become desperate to have more—we can’t fit everything we think we need to accomplish into the time we have. So we are generally at odds with time until the day we run out of it entirely. Time runs out much too quickly to grasp. But it moves across eons; it is measured by the life spans of mountains and trees, so to realize its gifts, one must learn to be very patient and attentive to the slow events that are both redolent with the numinous presence of its inexorable flow and drift. Time is what makes CHOICE critical.
4.Suffering:
All living beings are subject to chance, and chance brings suffering at least as easily and as often as it brings good fortune. Suffering is a guide to choice. Suffering enables us to test and improve our choices. We learn many things “the hard way”.
Suffering is also an absolute condition of moral freedom because if a wrong choice could not result in suffering or loss, all choices would be of equal value. Or of no value. Suffering is the price of freedom because if CHANCE were removed from the world in order to prevent suffering, CHOICE would not exist, and the world would be utterly deterministic. Our suffering presents us with a choice to be responsible for what we do with our suffering or to deny responsibility for it and place it on someone else.
Suffering teaches us compassion. We cannot be empathetic or compassionate about another’s needs or suffering if we have not also suffered.
Nature produces death/change; Death/Change produces Time: Time produces Chance; Chance presents Suffering; Suffering presents the possibility of empathy and compassion, and suffering also presents choice, and in so far as one chooses well, suffering is the source of wisdom.
5.Chance:
Chance exists because Time exists (which exists because Change-Death exists). Actually one could as easily say that Chance exists because Change-Death exists. Either way, life is charged with uncertainty because of chance. For example, Chance compounds the dread of death with uncertainty because no one knows when chance will bring death.
Chance precludes the determinism that would otherwise result in people being moral and emotional robots. Freedom (choice) is rooted in chance. If chance did not exist, no choice could be right or wrong. Without the existence of chance, the human moral sense would not exist.
6.Choice:
Chance allows choice to exist. We cannot control chance, but we can choose to be responsible for how we react to it. We can choose how to live with chance, and to accept responsibility for those choices. Choosing our attitude towards chance—and especially to the suffering chance can bring, is our ultimate freedom. To the extent that who and what we are is not predetermined by genetics, by chance, by brain chemistry, by culture, by religion, by upbringing, etc, choice is the vehicle by which we determine who and what we are and will be.

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