I don’t own a supply of tinfoil hats or a treasured collection of saints’ fingernail clippings. (And yes, for me the two are equivalent, though I respect your right to draw the line elsewhere.) But I do believe in fate, or at least in a universe where our one-way perception of time is illusive.
Wait—don’t throw tomatoes just yet! I know “it was meant to be” is one of the more horrible phrases others sometimes say to those of us who’ve suffered loss. I get it; there’s no comfort there. But I have found comfort in related ideas, and I’d love to explain, if you’ll stay with me a moment.
My view is more about remaining open to phenomena we can’t explain, including the possibility that premonitions can be accurate—and all that implies. Because those implications reinforce our shared hopes and beliefs that love never dies.
Struck by an Insight
As a physics major in college, I’m aware of the scorn a “woo-woo” belief in fate often earns. My faith in a grander scheme persists anyway. Why? I’ve had more than one experience that I can only explain if key life events are not random. Most drastically, I was struck by an insight soon after meeting my partner that our time together would be short.
After a scuba vacation brought us together, we fell madly in love, flinging practicalities aside despite homes on opposite ends of the country. A late-night voice from Beyond suddenly spoke in my mind, interrupting a quiet, warm moment. It warned me: “You can have this, but you will lose him.” The message didn’t need to be more specific—I knew what it meant like it was already done.
He died out of the blue three years later. Though the loss nearly undid me, it left me convinced his untimely death was, in fact, preordained.
That early warning, an intuition clenched in my heart, helps me manage my grief because it implies a reality more expansive than our everyday material world. Belief in fate helps me find purpose and meaning. Telling stories and making meaning are quintessentially human, and my story and its meaning pivot on the concept of fate.
So I bristle at the disparaging term, “woo-woo.” Whether we’re talking about life after death or belief in a traditional Divinity, that label reflects the disdain shown not only by declared skeptics but much of polite society in today’s materialist culture.
That disdain is misguided. For starters, respected physicists are currently exploring scientific theories that past and future events coexist. (One example is what’s known as “block universe” theory, in which today and tomorrow sit side-by-side in time like a chicken and an egg in a coop.)
What the Brain Research Shows
Perhaps more importantly for our everyday lives, brain research has repeatedly found that being convinced of nearly anything prevents us from recognizing contrary evidence, even when it’s right in our faces. Many people dismiss any sense or experience that can’t be reproduced in a lab. But subjective experience, which science can’t handle, is exactly the stuff of our days. Curiosity and an open mind can make that experience of life more authentic.
Research shows I’m not alone in entertaining fate. A majority of surveyed Americans say they believe at least partially in fate. The millions who believe in a God with a plan naturally expect the occasional divine nudge. But even many Americans who aren’t religious, including atheists, say they’re inclined to some faith in fate. You can’t hesitate to “tempt fate” without a sense fate exists. More of us than not want to believe things happen to us for a reason in the painful classroom of the human experience. The Eastern concept of karma draws on this rationale.
We’re drawn to these ideas because “woo-woo” has something in common with “whew”— the delight of surprise and the need for relief. A willingness to admit we don’t know it all, plus comfort and order in the face of hardship. Both acknowledge a truth we don’t like to face: We have less control over life than we’d like. And we need more hope and justice than we sometimes find.
In fact, mounting evidence strongly suggests that some woo-woo ideas support mental health. See books by Shankar Vedantam, Shelley Taylor, and Matthew Hutson, for instance. These authors have tackled ideas they label “useful delusions,” “positive illusions,” or “magical thinking,” respectively. Chalk up the benefits to the well-documented placebo effect, perhaps. But belief in fate can’t be a delusion if there’s no way to prove it’s not true. We can’t prove consciousness exists, either, but it’s impossible to deny an experience so fundamental to our lives. I feel the same way about fate.
Let me be clear, though. My support for woo-woo ideas doesn’t include the recent trend toward “Choose Your Own Reality” adventures that have caused so much political turmoil.
Don’t Ignore Evidence
There’s a large difference between ignoring verifiable facts and believing in possibilities, from the afterlife to visiting aliens, that we simply do not have a means of disproving. Any conviction can cause real harm when I choose to ignore evidence that it’s false or, even worse, decide my truth needs to be imposed on somebody else. That’s the problem with religious conversion, debunked claims about elections, and COVID-19 misinformation that hurts public health.
But as long as the repercussions are confined to your own life, stop feeling ashamed of beliefs and interests that might be labeled “woo-woo.” Don’t have any? Kindly stop rolling your eyes. (And perhaps open your curiosity wider.) Matters of faith are generally good for us. They forge communities (religion), support economies (Roswell, NM), and give some of us reasons to smile. My friends might wonder at my faith in fate, but it’s helped me overcome loss and keeps me striving in life. Plus it doesn’t draw stares like a tinfoil hat, so it can’t deflect the friendship we’re meant to share.
About the author
Joni Sensel is an author and certified grief educator with arts therapy training. Her interests in intuition, creativity, and spirituality are explored at more length in her forthcoming memoir, Feeling Fate (April 2022). Learn more at https://jonisensel.com.
Banerjee, Konika and Paul Bloom. “Why Did This Happen to Me? Religious Believers’ and Non-Believers’ Teleological Reasoning About Life Events,” Cognition, 133:1 (2014), 277-303
Dallas, Kelsey. “When It Comes to Fate, Even Non-Believers Believe.” DeseretNews, Dec. 5, 2014.
Hutson, Matthew. The 7 Laws of Magical Thinking: How Irrational Beliefs Keep Us Happy, Healthy and Sane. New York: Hudson Street Press/Penguin, 2012
Taylor, Shelley E. Positive Illusions: Creative Self-Deception and the Healthy Mind. New York: Basic Books/Hatchette, 1991.
Vedantam, Shankar. Useful Delusions: The Power and Paradox of the Self-Deceiving Brain. New York: Norton, 2021