Following One’s Bliss

Why does the concept of destiny seem out of fashion?  Probably because a pre-ordained role doesn’t seem compatible with doing whatever we want, having it all and creating our own reality.  Perhaps our concept of destiny seems muddled up with that of slavery; the idea of an arranged marriage is abhorrent to those of us in the West, but surprisingly, they often work out rather well. 

The resentment about destiny might also stem from the idea we should only attempt things we will succeed in.  After a school rowing evening in which an Olympic gold medallist had been the guest speaker to encourage the children taking part in that sport, one mother said she felt it was a pointless propaganda exercise. “Right now all these children really think they might one day win the Olympics.  But out of thousands of competitors probably only one will actually get gold.  They shoud be given a sense of realism, not all this hoopla.

Maybe we should also tell every sperm not to bother even starting their journey, since only one can win?

I don’t know where the inspiration for this fantastic craftsmanship came from, but it sure wasn’t secondary education

The cultural objection to destiny jumps also from the implication that a superior will ordains such a thing – and perhaps one with whom we might not agree.  Hardly anything could be more distasteful to the modern self-determining individual than being told what to do.  And yet, we often have the surprising feeling that something “was meant to be”, when things seem to fit unexpectedly in a way which we could never have planned, and this is by and large a pleasant experience.  Why should destiny be any different?

Our indiscretion sometimes serves us well
When our deep plots do pall, and that should teach us
There’s a divinity that shapes our ends,
Rough-hew them how we will

The bigger picture gives us the idea that each of us has a life plan unalterable in any significant respect.  The source of this, if pre-ordained sounds too high faluting, begins with solid biology, in our genetics.  As people, we begin as female but are born male or female, into a certain society and to certain parents – all conditions beyond our conscious control.

Again, not whim but biology: as the brain and the body are formed at different times in the womb, the hormonal environment for each can vary wildly.  It is therefore possible to have a brain of a different gender than the body.  The individual will usually have a profound sense of displacement, and be prepared to go to any lengths to put the situation right, even to surgery.  So what seems like a whimsical notion and proof of a wide personal freedom encouraged by society, becoming subject to the gossip and disapproval of that same society, resolves again, when seen in a wider context, to a simpler matter of biology.

“Your perception of it.. is as much a fact as the sun.”

.. Ralph Waldo Emerson

We attain a certain height, given the variables in our environment, and achieve a certain set of goals depending on some inbuilt capability of our brain, which arrives in a nascent state but fully formed, at birth.  Our receptivity to sound, light, taste, sensation and ideas are surprisingly fixed, and from their first few moments in the light, newborn babies exhibit an original personality retained, more or less, throughout their life.  The inclinations of a personality should be heeded, because these are the guidelines to finding their way in life.

Shown here as a man of destiny, he actually crossed the Alps by the much less glamorous mule

As humans we are required to breathe in and out a certain number of times per minute.  We are required to blink.  We are required to eat and drink, and generally speaking, to procreate. If sex was painful, nobody would attempt it.  So we can see built-in motivations which render something unavoidable simply because of the overwhelming desire to follow through on our desires.  Religion survives for the same reason, and has a remarkable effect on the human mind.  One recent convert declared  the Muslim Ramadan festival changed his view of the world.   This is the real reason why religion doesn’t go away, much to militant atheism’s dismay.  But even atheists are having to adopt religious ideals to maintain any kind of a grip on the human mind, as Sean Faircloth is finding out over in America.

These urges and impulses are not required by human society but by our bodies, delivered at birth, which shows that biology is far more powerful than the strictest human laws: its edicts seem virtually unalterable.  And yet a kind of cult has grown up in which we are encouraged to believe we should do or be anything we want, as if there are no restrictions on our thought or deed.  In our Universe the atoms follow laws, as do the planets.  We, in the middle, composed of atoms and living no a planet, cannot be free from those laws of some kind, and they must include mental laws too.  The only way out is to declare ourselves outside the scope of the universe – something the constant demands of our own bodies should assure us is not the case.

It’s expensive not following your destiny: stress is a major cause of degeneration later in life.  But there again, this guy got great grades in his exams and a gold watch from his boss at the call centre

Our brains bind us to a destiny which unfurls over the years and is full of surprises.  What else are we, if not a product of our unique brain?  Einstein’s had a unique configuration in Wernicke’s area in which a particular fissure was missing, making two normally divided sections into one.  He reported that he was able to formulate and absorb entire equations in one step, rather than incrementally as would normally be the case.  Genius usually has a surprisingly instantaneous grasp of problems, jumping to solutions in one puzzling leap.  Mozart claimed to have receied whole compopsitions at one time.  Even in day to day crises, the brains of certain individuals seem rapid beyond belief, signifying a natural intelligence which has to hinge on the design of the brain.

When Napoleon was faced with a Russian infantry charge across a frozen river, he was hopelessly outnumbered.  The natural instinct would have been to flee; but within an instant he ordered the cannon to be fired straight up.  The mystified gunners at first resisted, suspecting madness, but on his insistence the cannon balls were indeed fired almost vertically, whereupon they returned to strike the ice with such force, that the surface disintegrated, washing away the Cossacks, their horses, gun carriages and infantry to a freezing death.

Naturally designed brains are remarkably capable, but then, all brains are naturally designed, whether we like it or not!  Bees are able to calculate the quickest route between a set of flowers without going through every possibility, and without resorting to the obvious step of going to the nearest one first.  They react much faster and more efficiently than computers – and they’re a lot smaller: after an uninterrupted success of 200 million years, only Monsanto’s toxic corn has been able to destroy their navigation systems.  Separated from the colony, bees die very quickly, being sociable creatures – another part of their genetic destiny.  As regards destiny, bees arrived at the same time as flowering plants – meaning that a larger co-ordination must have been in place, an idea which evolutionists have long been trying to explain away using elaborate coincidences and random happenings.

A well known study of identical twins separated by circumstances at birth and raised separately often show an uncanny similarity of life patterns.

In the most widely publicized study of this type, launched in 1979, University of Minnesota psychologist Thomas Bouchard and his colleagues have chronicled the fates of about 60 pairs of identical twins raised separately. Some of the pairs had scarcely met before Bouchard contacted them, and yet the behaviors and personalities and social attitudes they displayed in lengthy batteries of tests were often remarkably alike.

The first pair Bouchard met, James Arthur Springer and James Edward Lewis, had just been reunited at age 39 after being given up by their mother and separately adopted as 1-month-olds. Springer and Lewis, both Ohioans, found they had each married and divorced a woman named Linda and remarried a Betty. They shared interests in mechanical drawing and carpentry; their favorite school subject had been math, their least favorite, spelling. They smoked and drank the same amount and got headaches at the same time of day.

The objection to any other factor determining our fate seems childish when we know the massive influence of our genetics, akin to the teenager determined to rebel; of course, the teenage rebellion does not show hostility to parents but the brain’s need to test out its own decision making capabilities.  Without this process, the teenager would remain dependent forever.  In fact there is probably a limited window of opportunity for the brain to make these changes in wiring from a dependent child to an independent adult, and the teenager’s sudden change in personality reflects the urgency with which this process is carried out, completely overriding the conscious personality of one who only a short time before, was a carefree child, tusting in the decisions of its elders.  The child is a helpless passenger throughout all of these developments: he may spend the day how he wishes, but the brain and body will not be distracted from their course. The question is, to what degree are we all helpless passengers?

Destiny can also be very patient: a friend of my daughter spent time in China where she was training to be an Olympic gymnast.  The constant training was so severe and so stressful that she actually stopped growing for two years, an alarming situation for a ten year old. However, when she moved to the UK and gave the sport up, in only a few months she recovered all her normal height for someone her age.

The changes in society which we see being enacted around the globe, in which large scale rebellions are taking place, could only come from a growth somewhere in the brain; it can be thwarted, delayed, but it cannot be stopped.  The technology to accelerate this process is a part of the movement, just as the teenager’s adult-like physical body and rapidly growing sense of freedom enable him to push limits to one side and experiment more freely than ever before.  This is his destiny as a human: to leave behind the fmaily which had nurtured him for so long; in some ways never to return.  Parents are ill-prepared for this development and often act to rein the child in, not only for their own safety, but because of a sense of bereavement.

The lack of preparedness for this is again part of biological destiny: should a woman keep the pain of childbirth to the fore instead of the attraction to her partner she would probably never get pregnant.  This is commonly heard through the gritted teeth of mothers giving birth, clutching in agony at their husband’s arm – “don’t.. ever! come.. near! me… again!”  We live as if life will last forever; we know it will not.  Though to consider the entire play instead of losing ourselves in the present, we might despair.  Life is after all, an optimistic venture, and our tendency to live in the moment must also be a product of biology:

an inborn armour binds the inherent trends of human minds..

perhaps a potent hormone tends to blunt the mind to gloomy prospects just in front

(Gopi Krishna)

There are examples of destiny throughout popular culture.  Michelangelo never wanted to accept thje contract to fresco the vault of the Sistine chapel.  He even suspected his enemies had suggested the idea to the warlike Julius II with the aim of tying him up for years on an exhausting task which could ruin his reputation in public failure, or at least leave the more lucrative sculpting field open for someone else.

Libyan Sibyl, one of the last characters painted, with exquisite brushwork and colours, and precisely cut giornata, though the shading at the very top was a correction to enlarge the head

Beginning resentfully with the panel detailing Noah and the Flood, he saw the poor work of his assistants, a bad mixture of the intonaco, and felt a sense of failure.  He had hoped to get his assistants to do the painting, freeing him for sculptures but his dissatisfaction meant hacking away large sections and re-doing them himself.  His early painting, the Doni Tondo, was reported by restorers to contain every pigment available at the time.  Michelangelo never took chances with bad materials; his later claim that he only used seven pigments is a little fib – the nine year restoration of the ceiling revealed 13 in the first two panels alone.

In The Flood, most of the figures on the right are assumed to be by another hand because of their over-heavy outlines, confused shading and constant adjustments.  The work on the left is unmistakeably his, so it seems likely he removed his assistants’ first work at left, and re-did it himself.  Perhaps he realised he needed to master this technique if the job was to carry his name, but the figures in the scene are too small to be resolved from the floor anyway – either another oversight, or a cunning way of getting used to fresco without too much damage to the reputation.  This was the reason why he chose to start on a panel just above the door, something which nobody would notice when they first walked in.

But to top it off the plaster later started to effloresce, ruining what had been done.  He implored the Pope to release him but Julius simply called in Sangallo to find the problem, which he traced to a certain kind of pozzolan additive mixed into the plaster that dried too quickly, trapping water inside the lime where it later leaked out and caused trouble.

The lady carrying an upturned table is one of the only times Michelangelo painted still life

More than four years later, destiny was satisfied and the child was to be set free, in spite of its father.  At this stage Michelango was so in love with the work that he spent days labouring over details, infuriating Julius, who wished to unveil it to all of Rome.  In 1512 a row broke out on the scaffolding when the warlord Pope demanded to know when it would be finished.  “When it satisfies my artistic sense,” was the surly reply.  The Pope struck him with his cane, and shouted, “And we demand that it be finished and that we be satisified!”  In a pique, Michelangeo did the last panel in a single day, threw in some mischievous hand gestures among the putti – still cherubic looking from a distance – abandoned finishing the decorative shields altogether (the last ones remain as practically empty circles), ignored a lopsided set of lines framing God separating the Earth from the water and had the scaffolding dismantled.  Much later Julius asked him to add some gold touches to make it even more glorious.  But the sculptor shrugged, having lost interest: “in those days, father, they were holy men, and had no desire for gold.”

Rehearsals at Monterey – note copyright label

In recent times, we have the example of the musician Jimi Hendrix, a natural personality if ever there was one; in mid sixties New York he was practically starving, but of his flophouse hotel experience he later said “I didn’t give up because I kept seeing the number 1966 floating in front of me.  I thought I would just wait for that year and see what happened.”  As it turned out, that was the year when a chance encounter with a British musician launched his career in the UK, after which he became a worldwide sensation, astonishing the musical elite of his day.  At his first major US concert at Monterey, still suspecting it to be a flash in the pan, he met the photographer Jim Marshall at the rehearsal, who related that James Marshall Hendrix was amazed to find they shared the same name, having already found amplifiers made by another Jim Marshall in London.  “He told me, wow, man, maybe this is really meant to be, after all.”

A wonderful contact in California explained to me this morning that some things don’t seem like work because they’re called following one’s bliss.  This struck me as a remarkable insight: we are led to our destiny not with chains and locks – the familiar methods of capitalist slave owners – but by feelings of bliss and perhaps surrender.  Who would object to such an outcome?  Who wants to be something other than what they were meant to be?

Ask anyone who found their life’s work, and they will very likely report it came with a sense of euphoria.  After all, the very word enthusiasm comes from the Greek: to be inspired by a God.

About iain carstairs

I have a great interest in both scientific advances and the beauty of religion, and created about 15 years ago with the aim of finding common ground between the scientist and the believer, and to encourage debate between the two sides.
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5 Responses to Following One’s Bliss

  1. Don Salmon says:

    Hey Iain – finally, something we disagree about. But maybe I didn’t understand your post correctly. The Indian concept of “swadharma” is quite different from the Greek notion of destiny or fate. It is, as you say, something that we open to, something that we give ourselves out of devotion and love for a reality greater than ourselves, and to that extent, I agree with your post. But my basic disagreement is more in the scientific realm; and again, perhaps I misunderstood you.

    The old idea of genetic determinism has been slowly dying over the last 20 years, and the rise of epigenetics (surely you know about this which makes me think i must be misunderstanding you) shows that it can be experience as much as genetics which brings about our mental, emotional and to some extent, physical characteristics. Even the identical twin studies have been reviewed, and researchers have discovered much more variety in the very same studies, things they had missed due to old assumptions. And neurogenesis – the arising of new cells – can occur to the very end of life.

    I again think I must be confused about what you’re saying because epigenesis seems to me to be the key to showing how intelligence works in evolution. Even arch skeptic Jerry Coyne admits the charateristics acquired in an individual life time can, through the process of epigenesis, be passed on. Only he adds that it fades out (how, he doesn’t seem to say) after 3 or 4 generations, so we don’t have to worry (!!) about experience (conscious, intelligent experience) affects evolution

    Tell me I’m wrong!

    • Well, even if so, no harm in disagreeing – when I see remarkable people it always seems to me they were born for a certain task. Even maniacs like Hitler seem to channel some racial disruption and force it to the surface. The laws governing this must take in global factors as well as individual ones, and must be as complex, or probably many times more complex, than the laws of physics. After all we have the added element of willpower and personality, something which varies far more between people and societies than between different examples of the same matter.

      I mean, if you take fifty different pieces of carbon and subject them to the same forces, you’ll get identical results. Once you scale up from molecules to people, you have a vastly more convoluted system. Even identical twins can turn out different, as you say, because of epigenetic factors and the environment. There was a case recently where a girl in Ukraine was abandoned by her alcoholic parents at the age of no more than 2 years or so, and she was raised by wild dogs. She learned to make the same noises, to drink from a tap and so on.

      Now here is a person who in a normal environment might have grown up more or less indistinguishable from her neighbours in most ways. Her genetics might have been a disadvantage as both parents were alcoholics, but it would not have turned her into a form of wild animal. Efforts were made to rehabilitate her into human society – although since this is the same society which abandoned her you can understand her resistance – but she found it too difficult to sleep in a bed, to stay indoors, to use utensils, away from her animal family, and so on. She remained more or less wild, I believe.

      Children influenced by war grow up with damage which ordinary environments don’t create; Palestinian children victimised by Israeli terrorism show terrible damage. Some have never known what it is like to have a family that is not regularly beaten up or humiliated by IDF terrorists. So destiny isn’t everything because of genetics, but because of other factors; the human race is going through a massive crisis at the moment and every country is affected. This is part of evolution, and evolution is part of man’s destiny. So the destinay aspect exists on every scale, and every level influences the others in some ways. Suppose ap lane crashes: everyone is killed – did they all have the same karma It’s not possible. But what happens in thebigger picture generally isn’t factored in, because we either don’t believe in a bigger picture, or we are convinced the world is a lawless place where evil occurs more or less because of bad luck.

      I remember getting a Charlie Christian album when I was 17, and reading about how he died very young, in his 20’s, from tuberculosis, I think. I bought another album around the same time, Breezin’, by George Benson and noticed the similarity in the way the albums were laid out, and in their style of playing, and even in some facial features around the eyes. I later found that Benson was born only a year or two after Christian’s death, and that he had been a natural guitarist, who once played with Benny Goodman: during the set, Goodman apparently closed his eyes and said it was just like having Charlie Christian back.

      Fate is a strange thing: I think what is meant to be will be, but how it happens, we can’t know – the arena is so vast, and the complexities so huge, it could be thousands of years before we get to grips with it. Look how long it’s taking to untangle biology, and it just gets more complicated week by week!

      The idea of free will is largely an illusion according to brain researchers – the impulses begin in the brain a short time before we “decide” to do something. And according to Rita Carter in Consciousness, the brain plays a trick by backdating our experience by a fraction of a second, so that our perception is always a little behind the external world. Mywhims do not seem to be predestnied, they seem a matter of willpower, but “the sallies of his will are rounded out by the sphere of his being, as the inequalities of the Alps vanish in the roundness of the Earth.” I think that was Emerson from one of his essays.

      I don’t know if we still disagree, but even so, it’s healthy! And probably destiny as well.. or something!

    • Also, I think the belief that everyone can be anything must presume that people are interchangeable, and they’re not; the differences between one person and another can never be surmounted (if that’s the right word) by acts of will. Doing so would be seem a kind of suicide, anyway. Therefore, if everyone is different – as their fingertips, face, and DNA (and even their name) would suggest, it makes more sense for a person to find what they are really built for, and enthusiasm for any one direction must be as good a compass as any.. a reasonably good definition of destiny perhaps

      • Don Salmon says:

        Darn, it looks like we agree. And I was looking for a good argument (I assume you know the Monty Python routine about the guy who paid for an argument? It’s on youtube – a good one). And I like the general point – that resistance to this idea of destiny or swadharma is at root, an assertion of one’s separate, individual “right” to do what one pleases, regardless of the consequences.

        I don’t recall that you made this related point, but Krishna Prem, in his commentary on the Katha Upanishad, makes the point that at root, all skepticism of the “debunker” variety – all disbelief in the existence of anything beyond matter – ultimately has its root in the desire to have one’s way. It’s like a child throwing a tantrum against the “mean” parents who make him do all kinds of things he doesn’t want to do – like make his bed, attend to his studies, eat his vegetables, etc.

        Recently, while putting together ideas for the food pages on our website, I decided to see how far hatred of various foods goes. It seems you can find a food fanatic for just about any kind of food, who will swear that food is bad for you. It’s not that hard now to find people saying you shouldn’t eat any kind of fruit because it has sugar, or you shouldn’t eat any grains because our paleo ancestors didn’t eat them. But I thought “vegetables” – everyones for vegetables (though hardly anyone actually eats them any more) – well sure enough, there’s an “I hate vegetables” website.

        A child throwing a tantrum – Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Carl Sagan…..

      • Sorry, but this is being hit on the head lessons in here!

        Yes, something else I noticed about the big-shot atheists is that they all seem terribly disappointed, really let down, by the lack of a God. I mean, if there was no God, and they really believed there wasn’t, then all discussion would end. But because they seem so angry about it, all the comments about the world are criticisms, as if small problems are the end of the world.

        I was in discussion yesterday with a very pleasant chap and I talked about, I don’t know, spiritual stuff and neurotransitters. Anyway, before one second had elapsed, he said, “but that doesn’t prove intelligent design!” And I was really puzzled because I had no intention of saying it did. Another chap on youtube reacted to my comment on Shapiro’s research by saying, “that doesn’t prove a God.” What the-? No, it proves classical evolutionary theory is all wrong – do you want to make progress, or not?!

        So although it comes out as defensiveness, they conflate order with divinity, which shows perception, but they then resent it. Perhaps they really seek a disordered world, but are disappointed whenever they find a problem; why be disappointed, if there is nobody to blame it on? One actually said, “God needs a better quality control”. It’s a strange mentality.

        I asked the same chap, ok, what evidence is needed to prove the existence of God to you? What is the evidence you need, then perhaps I stand a chance of finding it. He said it isn’t up to him to define the proof – it is up to the theists to prove it. That’s what I’m talking about, I said, so WHAT proof do you want? How would the universe differ, if it WAS designed with intelligence? What, would we all be born with chocolate vending machines strapped to our heads and a supply of coins? WOuld any mistake be dealt with by a bolt of lightning? Would God take sides in wars and vaporise the enemy? It’s almost as if they think, yes, that’s what it would be like. No struggle, no problems. Everything done for us, everything on a plate. Since there are problems, therefore, no God, and it makes us angry! He’s supposed to be making life easy for us!

        Meantime people keep quoting these things like, “absence of evidence isn’t evidence of absence” which just confuses me. I mean, I know what it’s supposed to mean but it just doesn’t help at all. And another one is “what is asserted without proof can be dismissed without proof.” Well, that’s the end of that one then.

        They seem to deal with things using confusion. I asked RD once on a website forum of his, why did some species surprisingly stay the same for hundreds of millions of years? his answer was so weird. “Hold on,” he wrote. “Let’s not be surprised about the surprising fact we are expected to be surprised at.” What?!

        Let’s face it, if Darwin was right, then blood clotting would never have evolved. It woudl have been much quicker and much simpler if people just became very very very careful! In fact it would have been a perfect evolutionary step: the careful survive. But this sort of logic is alien to the hardcore. At an RD talk, a woman in the audience asked quite politely how blood clotting being so complicated could have formed with random increments, and he shouted back, “that’s a creationist lie!” The woman was quite taken aback. This isn’t a thinker dealing with logic at all.

        Incredible – and blood clotting is indeed horrendously complicated, on several levels.

        Or how about this one: “the enemies of intolerance cannot afford to be tolerant!” Logic is supposed to be their thing. But they don’t seem to know how to use it. How can intolerance be superior to intolerance? Because it’s based on science? Thatmakes scientists intolerant – it’s lunacy.

        I often look at the dailyhitchens site and it’s strange there are almost no comments made anymore. There used to be 20-40 on some posts, and one on WWI must have had 100 or so. But now there’s maybe 3, maybe none. I read Peter Hitchens the other day and he said there was one gig where he was debating his brother, but the sound system was so bad he couldn’t hear a word. “It didn’t matter,” he continued, “because I’d heard the speech a hundred times already; he always gave the same one.”

        He then pointed out that where the audience was sampled first as to their beliefs, loads of the atheists would write that they were catholic or something, so they could switch at the end, skewing the result and making their hero look good! How can you fight hypocrisy with dishonesty? None of it makes sense. Hitchens said it was incredible noody realised that this charade was going on, or that an audience attracted by his brother couldn’t very well be 70% catholic to start with.

        Really, what kind of state are their minds in.. I give up, I have no idea

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