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Destiny, Education, and Next Steps to Address Mental Health Challenges

Updated: May 26, 2021

By Dr. Christine Mason, CEI Executive Director

The great existential and humanistic psychologist Rollo May, in the foreword to his book Freedom and Destiny (1999), writes, “Freedom is how we relate to our destiny, and destiny is significant only because we have freedom. In the struggle of our freedom against and with destiny, our creativity and our civilizations themselves are born.” (p. xi.) The struggle “against and with destiny” is an interesting paradox—Does destiny allow for only insurmountable hardships or greatness?

Does our destiny, the inescapable course of events, prevent or support our greatness? Is our lot cast at birth? Why might it be important to consider destiny right now as we envision the next steps to stem the almost universal tide of violence and trauma, to help children and schools, and, to take this from the realm of philosophy to practical, to advance specific protocol and procedures to support children and youth experiencing significant behavioral and emotional crises?

So, what are we as educators to do with our encounter with destiny? Why did we choose a career in education? Were we destined to be cogs in a wheel during a time of an increase in teenage anxiety, despair, and suicide? Do we have a role to play in shaping destiny, or is our fate sealed? In some ways, our collective sense of disenfranchisement might be compared to sleep walking or becoming a nation of automatons. How much say do we have during a time when expectations have been clearly defined with an interlocking system of matrices for standards and evaluation?

Destiny, Visioning, Schools, and Youth At-Risk

In a book I co-authored with Paul Liabenow and Melissa Patschke, Visioning Onward: A Guide for All Schools (available February 2020), we discuss the historical relevance of visioning and the role visioning has for schools. In that book we compare our vision to “the lens through which we see our world” (p.3), suggesting that it is only when we “truly believe in the possibility of making a difference that we will actually have the tools to make change and empower movement. Vision is the tool by which we show our world what we believe” (p.3).

I believe that visioning and destiny are intertwined, and, that when we examine the state of the world at large, that schools have a significant role to play—one that could change the destiny not only for each of us as educators, but for millions. The vision of the Center for Educational Improvement is one of establishing compassion as the foundation for action, meaning that policies, procedures, and protocol in schools should be advanced from a place of compassion and caring. In New England, through our role with the New England Mental Health Technology Transfer Center and the Childhood-Trauma Learning Collaborative, we are working with a network of 24 Fellows (principals, educators, school psychologists, and social workers) to advance compassionate practices as the foundational step to serving youth facing serious emotional and behavioral challenges.

What is our Destiny? Does it Matter?

Could it be that we are destined to be part of an effort to change the destiny of many? That seems to be an audacious claim, yet why are we educators if we do not believe in the power of education to change hearts and minds? How involved have you been in shaping educational practices in your schools, state, and country? We know that many educators feel that their autonomy has been taken away; to even ponder the possibility of becoming empowered to control our own destiny as educators might seem to be a flight into fantasy.

In education, we have gone through a period of time, some 20 years, where the focus has been on high academic standards, a worthy focus. Unfortunately, it is one that also resulted in harm as schools succumbed to a complex system of review and evaluation based on standards built as a one-size-fits-all solution that ignores the unique challenges and strengths of individual schools and students—and leaders’ ability to navigate them. While this push for more rigorous standards was well-intentioned, it resulted in establishing what we might now call some “less than best” practices (see Diane Ravitch’s Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice are Undermining Education, 2016). As we are recovering from No Child Left Behind, what is next on our plate? Certainly, addressing the well-being of children and the stress of school staff are vital.

Pondering Lessons in Destiny

As we ponder destiny, could it be that we might learn from others who have wrestled with defining, accepting, or deciding to change destiny? Consider the following:

  1. In the context of health and well-being: “Lack of ‘control over destiny’ engenders hopelessness/no hope for the future” (Whitehead et al., 2016. p.53).

  2. “Psychoanalysis—and any good therapy—is a method of increasing one’s awareness of destiny in order to increase one’s experience of freedom” (May, 1999, p.23).

  3. In the context of ecology: “It is time to embrace a new way of living and a new way of thinking. Universities, individually and collectively, can be the catalyst by assembling their various environmental efforts into a comprehensive ecological mission aimed at achieving sustainability in all facets of university life” (Uhl & Anderson, 2001, p.42).

  4. In the context of suffering: “A destined identity poses a potential which is always waiting, at any point in time and space, to be actualized by our efforts, our trials and errors, and our creative improvisations in personal situations. Such a viewpoint offers a challenge even in the face of despair. In its suffering, the soul can discover meaning” (Whitmont, 2007, p.35).

  5. In the context of community control/empowerment, considerations of destiny can result in: “a social action process by which individuals, communities, and organizations gain mastery over their lives in the context of changing their social and political environment to improve equity and quality of life” (Wallerstein, 2002: p73).

Destiny. Consider the destiny of nations (democracy); of civilizations (the fall of Rome); of place and time of birth (equality, poverty, race); and the trajectories that either advance the welfare and success of individuals and societies or perhaps predict their doom. Destiny—are we destined to succeed or fail? Can we shape our own destiny? How important is community in influencing our fate?

Sometimes answers appear in the stories of others. Consider Nobel prize winning Soviet theoretical physicist Lev Landau (Pokrovky in Shifman, 2013, p.465): “The fate of Landau’s scientific legacy has been amazingly fortunate. It has been 46 years since he stopped doing science, but the number of citations per year of his papers is only increasing... It is amazing how much one person was able to accomplish in the slightly more than thirty years given to him by his destiny for scientific work!” MIT professor David Kaiser (2002) explains how time and place were relevant to Soviet accomplishments: “several Soviet theoretical physicists, including...Lev Landau, drew explicitly on their own life experiences under Stalin’s rule—experiences that often included extended prison terms—when describing solid-state physics, referring, for example, to the ‘freedom’ of electrons in a metal and particles’ other ‘collectivist’ behavior.”

When we review Landau’s greatness in the context of the Soviet era, is there something to learn that might help us decide how to approach mental health challenges in school? Given the forces impinging on mental health and well-being for children and adults in the context of today’s society, what might be the best course of action? How important are the concepts of collective efficacy and individual freedom? What risks we are willing to take to benefit those most needing our support?

Destiny: The Relevance of Our Views

While our destinies may indeed be influenced by the culture into which we are born, we see many examples of individuals who soared despite their circumstances. We also know that sometimes our situations are a catalyst for our greatness. Today, educators such as John Hattie (2016) speak of collective efficacy and power that arises from the support of colleagues, peers, and communities.

When we contemplate our role in helping youth with mental challenges, are we destined to wait for others to solve the puzzle for how to proceed? Are we destined to fall in line, spend hours negotiating our way through a maze of steps to implement a process of diagnosis, and then calculate how to attract the right combination of services so that youth may have the opportunity to receive therapeutic supports? Or is there perhaps another destiny we might fulfill that involves bringing the community together to heal? And what of youth, themselves, what is their destiny? How might we harness our collective efficacy to create the changes needed to rebuild our culture and shift our destiny? This article on destiny is the first of a two-part series. Part II will address some of the most viable options for answering the questions we have posed related to destiny and schools. References Hattie, J. (2016). Third Visible Learning Annual Conference: Mindframes and Maximizers, Washington, DC, July 11, 2016. (Programme) Kaiser, D. (2002). Nuclear democracy: Political engagement, pedagogical reform, and particle physics in postwar America. Isis, 93(2), 229-268. May, R. (1999). Freedom and Destiny. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company.

Mason, C., Liabenow, P., & Patschke, M. (2020). Visioning Onward. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

Ravitch, D. (2016). The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice are Undermining Education. Basic Books.

Povrosky, V. (2013). Landau and Modern Physics. In M. Shifman, (Ed). Under the Spell of Landau: When Theoretical Physics was Shaping Destinies. World Scientific. (p.465- 487)

Shifman, M. (2013). Under the Spell of Landau: When Theoretical Physics was Shaping Destinies. World Scientific.

Uhl, C., & Anderson, A. (2001). Green destiny: Universities leading the way to a sustainable future. BioScience, 51(1), 36-42.

Wallerstein, N. (2002). Empowerment to reduce health disparities Scand. J. Public Health, 30 (S59), pp. 72-77

Whitehead, M., Pennington, A., Orton, L., Nayak, S., Petticrew, M., Sowden, A., & White, M. (2016). How could differences in ‘control over destiny’ lead to socio-economic inequalities in health? A synthesis of theories and pathways in the living environment. Health & Place, 39, 51-61.

Whitmont, E. C. (2007). The destiny concept in psychotherapy. Journal of Jungian Theory and Practice, 9(1), 25-37.

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