Choice, Failure, and Fate

by N. Gabriel Martin

Photo by Fatima Sumbal

It had become harder to ignore the spectre of a decision looming on the horizon. After four years of temporary and part-time lectureships I couldn’t ignore the fact that the day that I would have to decide when to stop chasing a career with few rewards and fewer prospects was coming. Still, I always found it possible to put that decision off just a little longer.

That was fine with me, because I didn’t have any notion of how to face it. I knew that the time to decide was coming, but I couldn’t exactly tell what the decision was.

You would assume that it was the decision of whether to leave academia. But that’s only half a decision. What was missing was the other half – the “or …”

In the end I never came to a decision. Instead, the pandemic hit and the job market—already dismal—declined by three quarters. I never had to decide to let go, because the frayed ties that I still maintained to that career dissolved in my hands.

Fate nullified the choice I thought I would have to face.

When I was younger, and more driven by the need to master my own destiny, that might have been unbearable. I looked to the achievement of my own ambition to measure my life’s meaning.

I don’t think I’m unusual in that. The individualism of our age teaches us to treasure the satisfaction of our will. We tend to see ourselves as William Ernest Henley’s Invictus:

“I am the master of my fate,

            I am the captain of my soul.”

Today, fate is a deprecated value. We seldom find it possible to believe that the notion of fate has any meaning at all, and when we do give any thought to fate it is as nothing more than a thing to master.

But Henley is wrong: fate is not something to master. The indomitability of fate is something nearly every age has understood better than our own.

Fate confronts us most clearly in failure. Failure confronts us with the limits of our will, and the extent to which we are not our own masters.

It was the failure of my career taught me to embrace fate. Nothing worthy of Henley’s heroic verse is found in the embrace of fate, but it’s important anyway.

I want to be precise about why it’s important. When I was younger, a setback would present itself as nothing but an obstacle to be overcome. Facing an obstacle meant finding a way around or over it. Failing to overcome it meant defeat, and there was no value in that.

There was nothing to be learned or gained from a problem, unless it prepared me to defeat or avoid the next one. Trouble could never indicate a chance to reflect on the path I had chosen, and to question if it was really still worthwhile.

From the perspective of Henley’s “unconquerable soul”, the resistance I met in the world could never be something to listen to—it was always something to triumph over.

The end of my career taught me that it’s not always worth overcoming obstacles, even those that can be overcome. I learned to pay attention to the evidence that trouble presents. When I stopped looking at life as something to conquer, I learned how to watch out for the cues experience provides about what is achievable and what is not, and what is achievable without bringing so much struggle that it loses all its sweetness.

I could already see that my career was becoming less worthwhile. Burnout had soured the work I knew I should love, even while I became better than I had ever been at it. If I could have understood fate then I would have been able to detect the way that the futility and lack of success was draining the satisfaction out of it. But to allow myself to notice those things seemed almost nihilistic. To accept defeat was too threatening, because all value and meaning was invested in the unconquerability of the soul. If I relented in the face of difficulty, I didn’t know what I was worth. And more practically, it’s impossible to know what obstacles to give in to and which to try to overcome until you allow yourself to get some practice giving up.

The greatest eulogist of fate, I think, is Friedrich Nietzsche, who preached the love of fate: “Amor fati [love of fate]: let that be my love henceforth!”

I have no love for the underfunded higher education sector that made it impossible to do what I believe was worthwhile work. The relationship with fate that I have now isn’t the uncompromising affirmation that Nietzsche extolled; it is an openness to the unexpected and unplanned value that fate brings. It is an openness to the way that fate itself can play the part that Nietzsche called on us to play—the revaluation of our highest values.

This is part of the surprise that life offers: fate not only brings benefits that you wouldn’t have anticipated, it allows you to welcome what you would not have wanted. It not only changes your life; it changes you.

One of the rewards that fate has brought me is love of fate. I never meant to learn to love fate – it was failure that taught love of fate to me. I can’t say I’m better off than I would have been if I didn’t have to learn that, but thanks to love of fate I can at least say that I don’t need to deny the value it has brought to my life.