A weird kind of fate

 
When something else goes wrong, more often than not, I'd look around for someone or something to blame. It's only natural. It can't be just some weird kind of fate: everything has its cause, we're told, so if something goes wrong for me, someone must be causing it, surely? So it's the government's fault, or the unions', or just 'the system'. Or my fault: everything's my fault - I'm just inadequate, incompetent, that's what they told me at school... When life collapses into chaos again, it's all too easy to spiral down into paranoia on the one hand, self-deprecation on the other, or more usually some subtle mixture of the two.

But wait a minute... Sure the unions are devious, but are they really responsible for my inability to shed my excess flab? Or is it really my fault that the man in the car in front of me throws his empty cigarette carton on the road? How? After a while it becomes clear that no one person could co-ordinate all these attacks on me, my values, my beliefs, my world. And it's at this point that I start to look a little wider...

In the hands of fate


As soon as we do look wider for some kind of understanding about what happens to us, we'll often be hit by a weird sense of powerlessness. All these things are happening - and it's all too obvious that they're not in our control. Tradition would tell us that our fate is the force behind these chaotic twists and turns - and we have no choice, it seems, but to suffer them.

But a great deal depends on our point of view: we're not quite as powerless as we seem. Rather trying to work out who's to blame for all those cruel-seeming tricks of fate, we can look instead at our own point of view about them, and how it affects what we experience. And even there, in the midst of what may seem to be a predetermined fate, we find that we do have choices - of a kind.

Imagine a path, winding through the leafy cathedral-like gloom of the forest glades. And across the path is a great swathe of nettles - a real obstacle for the traveller.

Along comes a monk, with a fierce, striding walk. At the edge of the wall of nettles, he stops. "The mark of the Devil, trying to prevent me doing God's work!", he cries. "Well, he shall not succeed!" And with his staff, he sets about destroying as many of the nettles he can reach, smashing his own wayward path through this aspect of unworthy nature that dares to defy the will of his God - cursing loudly as torn fragments of nettle still manage to sting him round the ears and hands.

Later, when the nettles have healed, along comes another monk. Deep in contemplation of the mysteries of another world, he finds that his path in this one is blocked by the wall of nettles. "Ah", says the monk, "a symbol of the pain and suffering of this world. Like my great Teacher, then, I shall purge my soul and that of other souls by taking on that suffering myself." And gritting his teeth, he carefully picks his way through the nettles, hoping to minimise the pain.

And later still, when the nettles have closed the path once more, yet another monk comes by. He's drifting along, smiling, looking around at the trees and the birds scuttering between them. Rounding a turn in the path, he finds himself facing the wall of nettles. "Nettles..." says the monk. "Ooh... another experience!" - and dives headlong into the densest part of the wall. Yet when he emerges on the other side, he's smiling even more broadly than before...

Which path would you choose through the forest? What would be your point of view about those nettles?

We can fight against the unfairness of our fate, and we'll find it has a sting in its tail every time. We can be resigned - 'fatalistic' - in the face of the twists and turns of fate, and 'turn the other cheek' - even though it doesn't actually ease the pain. Or we can work with its eccentricities, its weirdnesses - and surprise ourselves, perhaps, as we discover we come up smiling, having somehow bypassed the pain completely. It all depends on our point of view.

It sounds so easy: change your point of view, change your experience. It's not quite as simple as that, as we've all found out the hard way... But if this is our fate, so to speak, it would probably be a good idea to have a better understanding of what's going on. And to do that, it might be worthwhile to take the idea of 'fate' a little more seriously than usual...

Fate. Fortune. Luck. We'd usually think of them as words without much of a meaning - they describe something that's 'just coincidence', even though it might be a useful one. But in the past they meant something far more than 'mere coincidence': so much so that each was personified as a goddess. To wish someone 'luck', for example, was no trivial matter: it was a formal prayer, a wish that the gods should support their ventures. And in psychological terms, it's understood that the stories of the gods and goddesses each represent some central fact of human experience - which is not quite how we understand chance or luck or fate in the present day...

Maybe so; maybe not. Have you ever had the experience that 'Dame Fortune' or 'Lady Luck/' seemed to be smiling on you? That you had no choice, at some point, but to 'trust to the hands of fate'? Or that the gods themselves frowned upon some adventure of yours? Why? What made you think so? What happened? And what did it feel like, to have your life apparently taken out of your control?

In the old legends, Luck ('geluk') was originally a Germanic goddess; Fortuna was her Roman equivalent. And Fate was not one goddess, but three: the 'three sisters of Fate', the Moirae of Greek mythology. Between them - says the story - they control every aspect, every event of our lives; between them they weave a fabric of lives, the totality of Life in all its glory. One sister - her name is Clotho (from whom we get the English word 'cloth') - spins the threads of a person's life; Lachesis, 'blind chance', weaves that life into the greater fabric; and Atropos, dispassionately, cuts the thread when its part of the weft of life is done. No choice, it seems; no hope. You can't fight the Fates...

We dream of control; yet in the background always are those three sisters. One spins; one weaves; one cuts...

But there's something not quite right with this picture: a gap in the fatalistic gloom. It's clear from our own experience that we do have choices in our lives - choices of a sort, at least, even if they do so often turn out to be the wrong ones! Our lives are not entirely outside of our control, lost to the whims of a cruel fate; yet at the same time it's equally clear that our lives aren't in our control either - and also clear that the more we try to make them so, the more definitely some random chance breaks that control back down again.

Control is a myth; and fate - a life without choice - is no better. Somewhere between those two extremes is a way of life that works, one in which we do reclaim our choices: but it can take more than a hint of weirdness to reach it...

A subtle hint of weirdness


The theme of a 'thread of life' recurs in legends all around the world; the story of the 'three sisters of fate' exists in many versions throughout Europe and beyond. And the old Greek myth is more than a childish fairy-tale - it's almost usable as a point of view about reality once we strip away the surface layer of metaphor.

Think about that image of the Fates for a while - of 'blind chance' interweaving with the ordered thread of Life. Our lives as a fabric of choice and chance; control interweaving with chaos; our infinitely rich reality. How well does that describe your everyday experience?

It's a good metaphor: but it underplays the role of the choices that we so obviously have in our lives. Life's not merely fate, but a fiction: a story in which we're intimately involved. There's always a choice; we always have choice. But there's always a twist... that's the part that's weird.

Another version of the myth, an aspect of the Old Norse world-story, brings a different twist to the tale - one that is, quite literally, weird. And one that we can put to use in living with - not merely survive - this increasingly crazy world.

Why 'weird', though? We tend to use the word to describe something strange, disturbing, odd: but historically it's a synonym for 'fate' - in fact the old Scottish idiom 'to dree one's weird' means 'to suffer one's fate'. In the legends, 'weird' is not merely something strange, but an aspect of nature itself: like light, or electricity, or wind and wave, it simply is. And in Nordic myth it's personified by the 'three sisters of Urðr' - pronounced 'wyrd', or 'weird'; the Nornir, the 'three maidens from Giantland', Uršðr, Verðandi, Skuld. They're the 'three weird sisters' in Shakespeare's 'Macbeth', who have the power to foretell the future, or affect the course of events: like the Fates, one spins, one weaves, one cuts. And their names also mean 'past', 'present', 'future' - so they bring the remorseless flow of time into the world.

"Wyrd", says one scholar, "is the compelling power and final destiny which no man and no thing may escape". We can't escape time: it is. We can't escape our fate, our wyrd: it is...

But there's always a choice, there's always a twist...

And that's the difference between the story of the Fates, and the far stranger sense of Wyrd. In the Greek legend, the fabric of life is a simple sheet, a cloth-like grid: the threads of life run in parallel to each other across a framework of chance and opportunity, meted out in time. In that story, there's little room for choice: each chance will never come again.

But the fabric - the wyrd - that the Norns weave is very different: the cross-warp of the web can be very warped indeed! It's not a simple grid: it's full of loops and twists and tangles, yet with a subtle sense and symmetry behind it, like a Celtic knotwork in infinite dimensions. Not a fabric of lives, but a fabric of life: a fabric on which we weave the story of our lives, at one time following the predictable line of the weft, at another catching a passing chance - the cross-warp of wyrd - to jump from one line, one life-choice, to another. Lives weaving, interweaving; a fabric of choices that we weave among the threads of wyrd.

Each thread of this fabric is not, as with the Fates, an individual's life, but an archetype - 'tinker, tailor, soldier, sailor, rich-man, poor-man, beggar-man, thief'. The Home-Maker, the Factory-Hand, the Teacher - a simple structure for a standardised life with a predictable beginning, middle and end. We always follow along a thread: but across this fabric of loops and twists and turns are an infinite number of choice-points where we can change our own story - change to another thread, another archetype - in some weird way. Wherever there's a choice, there's always a twist; so although we can feel for a path through the fabric, nothing is ever quite predictable. Is this closer to your experience than that story of the Fates?

There's always a twist; and wherever there's always a twist, there's always a choice. It's just that some of the choices are so weird, they're hard to see... At any moment there may be a choice, a junction of the threads - a decision we have to make, each one with different results, leading to different journeys. And a decision to make no decision is still a decision... There's no evenness to it, no certainty: for long periods it seems like there's no choice at all, yet at other times the choices cluster so closely together - a choice-point that cannot be evaded - that there's even a warning, that weird sense of 'impending wyrd'.

Mobius
A Möbius loop - a twist of paper with only one side

A Möbius loop gives a good illustration of the weirdness that even a simple twist can create. Tear a strip about an inch wide from the long side of a piece of writing paper. Put the two ends together to form a loop: it still has two sides, as you'd expect - an inside and an outside. But now take it apart, give the ends a simple half-twist, then rejoin them into a loop, and you'll find that you now have a piece of paper with only one side: the inside becomes the outside, the outside merges with the inside. And there's no one point where they change: yet each time round the loop, you're on the opposite side. Weird...

To make this, we've bent a two-dimensional object - the piece of paper - into a third dimension, and then twisted it again. Imagine doing the same in an infinity of dimensions... if you can visualize that, you'll have some idea of the complexity of wyrd!

There's a further twist to this image: perhaps the most important of all. Imagine, if you can, that every thread passes through every point in this fabric of life. The threads are archetypes of a life - the logical outcome in time of a given point of view. At first sight, only one or two are visible at each point - the 'obvious' point of view, we'd call it - but every characteristic, every feeling, every attitude is right there at every point. Everywhere is similar: but nothing ever quite repeats.

This isn't easy to visualise. The nearest I've seen to an image is some computer-generated graphics of a mathematical structure in which every point, no matter how close we look, is a boundary between three different regions. This fabric of the wyrd, though, is more where every point is a boundary between an infinite number of regions: it's impossible to represent on paper.

But I have a much simpler way to imagine it, right in front of me now. Hanging from the window-frame is a Chinese streamer, a ring a few inches across, from which hang a large number of coloured threads, several feet long, drifting gently in the breeze. All the colours of the rainbow; all the colours of emotion, of belief, all the colours of the mind and heart. I can spin the ring to form the threads into a brightly coloured twist of rope. If I grasp this rope at any point, some colours will be on the surface of the bundle, while others will be below, concealed, invisible; yet all will still be there. And if I move my hand down the bundle, the same threads will tend to stay in the same relationships; but by changing my grip slightly, new colours will drift to the surface, and others will fade into the background. Whatever's at the surface, though, the whole is always there: "there's a whole in my bucket, dear Liza, dear Liza, there's a whole in my bucket, dear Liza, a whole..."

Where am I in all this? Which thread is me? The short answer is: all and none of them. The threads are archetypes, not people; characteristics, not characters. 'I' is not that which changes; 'I' is that which chooses. So 'I' am not the threads in this image: I'm the hand around the threads, the nexus-point that I use to mark 'here' on the bundle of colours. And the next person, and the next: each a clustering of threads, a nexus on the same bundle of threads. The same threads pass through all of us: I'm no different from them, they're no different from me - with a suitable combination of twists and turns in time and in the cross-warp of wyrd, we could see that even at the surface we'd be just the same. The separateness, as the Buddhist would say, is all an illusion. And if all is illusion, what then is actual change?

Weaving a different world


So what's the point of all this? Even if life is supposedly all illusion, it most certainly doesn't feel like it...

True - I know that only too well... What it feels like, so often, is that I have little or no choice, that everything that happens to me is the effect of my being blown this way and that by a chaos of external causes outside of my control. But imagine - imagine - that there is no such thing as 'external': that all our experiences come from where we are - where we've chosen (if only by default) to be - on that fabric of life, that fabric of wyrd. Our experience is simply the combination of colours, of threads, that we perceive at that point: the sense of its being external is illusory, an illusion of separateness manufactured by the senses.

If every thread passes through every point, every life, then we can reach out in two ways to change our experience of the world. We can follow the illusion of separateness, and try to fix things in the external world - only to find, as always, that 'there's a hole in my bucket', that everything has to be fixed before everything else. Or we can reach inside ourselves, to the threads that link us with everything else, and work on the same issues there. It's simpler that way: everything's right here within us. And it works: as we look within, and recognise our choices, the outside world changes too - not just in how we experience it, but also as others seem to experience it. The separateness is an illusion. Weird; definitely weird.

There's always a choice; there's always a twist. With all these twists and turns, we can easily find ourselves in what seem to be loops in time, yet loops that never quite repeat - whole sections of our lives returning to the same experience from different directions. The same kind of partner, the same hopes, the same illusions, the same mistakes... until, in Lewis Carroll's infamous pun, we eventually find a way to make the lessons lessen. In the meantime, though, it can hurt; so often it hurts... But that, it seems, is life. Or fate.

What kind of loops have happened in your life - 'the same kind of partner, the same hopes, the same illusions, the same mistakes...'? How did you recognise them as being the same - and in what ways were they different? What did you learn anew each time the not-quite-same event recurred? Did you find a way to 'make the lessons lessen'?

The twists seem to bring us back to the same place each time; but an understanding of the nature of these twists of wyrd can also bring us out of the loops - and into a place more of our own choosing. In the same way, as we watch out for the weavings of the wyrd in our lives, we'll find the same phrases, the same expressions, recurring - but always in slightly different contexts. Each time they come past, they'll have something new to show us - even though on the surface they're exactly the same.

And it affects more than just our own lives. All those big issues - war, the environment, the world economy - that seem too vast to change: it's easy to feel a sense of powerlessness, of fatalistic gloom as soon as we think of them. I can't do anything about it, it seems - it's the politicians, the unions, the foreigners, the... That'll always be so - and true - if I think of them only as external. But 'there's a whole in my bucket': as threads of the wyrd, these issues are also right here inside us, driven by our choices - or our avoidance of choices. "I am the wyrd-one", I might say; "issues spiral through me on the threads of wyrd - are unchanged by how much I am unchanged..." Find the right thread, and face it, and even a trivial-seeming change in what we choose can have ripples right round the world. The issues are unchanged by how much we are unchanged: between us all, we all create this world of ours.

If we're going to weave a better world, we have to start somewhere: so we may as well start here, with ourselves. We change our world by changing our choices: it's as simple as that, and it's worth doing. Sounds easy? To be honest, it isn't. But then neither is life; and the usual way of living, desperately 'fire-fighting' from one external disaster to another, is no way to live at all...

It's easy enough to talk about it: to put it into practice, though, is something else again. But it's only then that the changes happen; it's only then that the changes can happen. So work with the weirdness of the wyrd in your life... and let its aliveness unfold!