Jung on Fate, Destiny and Vocation

Sue Mehrtens is the author of this and all the other blog essays on this site. The opinions expressed in these essays are her own and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of other Jungian Center faculty or Board members. Honesty, as well as professional courtesy, require that you give proper attribution to the author if you post this essay elsewhere.



Jung on Fate, Destiny and Vocation



“Experience of the opposites has nothing whatever to do with intellectual insight or with empathy. It is more what we would call fate.”

Jung (1943)[1]


“… we so often find among our patients people who, because of their spiritual and social gifts, are quite specifically called to take an active part in the work of civilization–that is their biological destiny.”

Jung (1914)[2]


“This sorrowful, weary wheel corresponds to what was called heimarmene, the wheel of one’s own horoscope to which one is bound.”

Edinger (1996)[3]


“What is it, in the end, that induces a man to go his own way and to rise out of unconscious identity with the mass as out of a swathing mist?…It is what is commonly called vocation: an irrational factor that destines a man to emancipate himself from the herd and from its well-worn paths. True personality is always a vocation and puts its trust in it as in God, despite its being, as the ordinary man would say, only a personal feeling. But vocation acts like a law of God from which there is no escape.”

Jung (1932)[4]



The topic of this essay is not popular in American culture. Most Americans don’t like to think they are “fated” in some way, or have a “destiny,” much less a vocation (as Jung used the word in the above quote): For generations, we have cherished the idea that human beings begin as “blank slates,” with unlimited potential, resulting in the “self-made man,” or the person who pulls herself up from poverty and achieves success on her own merits–the old “Horatio Alger” story. But Jung would disagree. He recognized the reality of fate in life,[5] and, having himself a clear sense of his destiny from his youth,[6] he understood the concept of “vocation” and he lived his calling. Given that we are now living through a fated interval in our collective life as a nation, it is important that we understand the meaning of these terms, on both the personal and the collective levels.

I begin with some definitions, and then consider some of the features of fate, destiny and vocation. How these phenomena show up in life, and particularly in our collective life now will conclude the essay.




The dictionary has a long section on “fate,” identifying it as a noun, a verb, and a proper name. As a noun, “fate” means: “the power supposed to fix beforehand and control everything that happens (There is no armor against fate); what is caused by fate (Drowning was his sad fate.); a person’s lot or fortune (He deserved a better fate.); what becomes of a person or thing (The jury settled the fate of the accused). The verb means “to be selected or destined by fate (All men are fated to die).[7] The proper name, Fate and the Fates, refers to the Roman term for the three goddesses who were “supposed to control human life: Clotho, who spins the thread of life; Lachesis, who decides how long it shall be; and Atropos, who cuts it off”[8] at the time of one’s death. Jung spoke of “fate” as the “experience of the opposites,”[9] and “a will not necessarily coincident with my own (the ego will. When it is opposed to the ego, it is difficult not to feel a certain ‘power’ in it, whether divine or infernal. The man who submits to his fate calls it the will of God;…)”[10]

Our English word derives from the Latin verb fari, “to speak,” fatum being the passive participle: That which is spoken, i.e. by the gods, who, in the Roman mind, determined one’s destiny.[11]

“Destiny” is often used as a synonym for “fate,” with the implication of a fate “laid out beforehand,” e.g. “Washington’s destiny was to be President.”[12] “Destiny” is “what becomes of a person or thing in the end; one’s lot or fortune; what will happen in spite of all efforts to change or prevent it; the power or agency that determines the course of events; overruling necessity.”[13] The Greeks called this Ananke, the goddess of necessity,[14] who apportioned our Heimarmene (our lot in life), and other cultures had a similar idea, e.g. the Yiddish concept of bashert (“what is meant to be”), the Chinese ming,[15] and the Arabic qismet (giving us our English word “kismet”).[16] “Destiny” has the same Latin root as “destination:” destinare,” to make firm, bind, establish, determine, destine,”[17] and I usually explain the distinction between “fate” and “destiny” to my students with the analogy to a ship: the vessel is en route to a port, its destination, and the passengers are free to choose how to spend their time during the trip. In some cases, things befall them while en route that they would not choose, e.g. getting sea sick, tripping and falling etc.. The port the ship is bound for it is analogous to our destiny, while the events that transpire during the trip might be likened to the fated events we experience over the course of our lives.

Jung regarded “destiny” as “a highly important psychological fact;… the power which shapes the life of the psyche…”[18] and, as such, it is related to “vocation.”

“Vocation” has two meanings, as we use the word in our culture. In the mundane sense, it is “an occupation, business, profession, or trade,”[19] e.g. “He earned a good living in his vocation as a CPA.” That is not how Jung uses the term. Typical of Jung, with his lifelong fluency in Latin,[20] he understands the term as a “calling,” from voco-are, “to call.”[21] In this sense, “vocation” means “an inner or divine call to perform a specific function or fill a certain position, especially of a spiritual nature, as devoting one’s life to the ministry.”[22] Jung had no interest in serving any organized religion, which he labeled “creeds,”[23] but he did recognize that people could be “called” by an inner voice or sense of direction to undertake a particular task, role or profession. Especially is this so, Jung felt, with the profession of psychiatry:

“Presumably he had good reason for choosing the profession of psychiatrist and for being particularly interested in the treatment of the psychoneuroses; and he cannot very well do that without gaining some insight into his own unconscious processes. Nor can his concern with the unconscious be explained entirely by a free choice of interests, but rather by a fateful disposition which originally inclined him to the medical profession. The more one sees of human fate and the more one examines its secret springs of action, the more one is impressed by the strength or unconscious motives and by the limitations of free choice. The doctor knows–or at least he should know–that he did not choose this career by chance; and the psychotherapist in particular should clearly understand that psychic infections, however superfluous they seem to him, are in fact the predestined concomitants of his work, and thus fully in accord with the instinctive disposition of his own life. This realization also gives him the right attitude to his patient. The patient then means something to him personally, and this provides the most favorable basis for treatment.”[24]

As literally the “healer of the soul” (Greek psyche + iatros), the psychiatrist, in Jung’s way of thinking, is fated, “predestined,” to take up this profession.


Features of Fate, Destiny and Vocation


Psychiatrists are not unique in having a destiny: We all do, but in part because of our American vaunting of personal freedom and self-invention, and in part because our Extraverted culture does not encourage introspection or reflection,[25] most of us fail to recognize the workings of fate in our lives. How might we identify these workings? Let’s consider some of the features of fate and destiny.

First, Jung is clear that fate is paradoxical and two-faced: “a charisma and curse,”[26] with positive and negative qualities. On the negative side, fate can be “violent and destructive,”[27] vengeful,[28] “full of unknown dangers,”[29] and “giving rise to fear,”[30] “an intolerable burden,”[31] something “unavoidable,”[32] an “evil seductress,”[33] challenged by our passions[34]–all of these depending, in part, on our attitude. If we forget that the gods have assigned us our roles or circumstances,[35] if we rail against our lot in life, and throw up our ego will against Heimarmene, the “compulsion of the stars,”[36] then we are likely to regard fate truly as a “curse.”

If, however, we can summon the strength to submit, i.e., to relinquish our ego will to the higher will of the Self, we can avoid being “delivered over to fate,”[37] and relax in being “borne along on the stream of time,”[38] with a feeling of “deep-seated security.”[39] Fate then becomes a charism, a spiritual blessing, “something to be lived… in order that we may experience other aspects of ourselves and then be integrated;…”.[40]

Second, Jung claimed that we get the fate we deserve. For an example of this, he noted how Nietzsche went mad, a fate he deserved due to his inflation, in identifying “with a thing which is not himself.”[41] Fate is “the outcome of our psychological tendencies,”[42] and if we work to become more conscious of these tendencies, we can expand the range of our personal freedom:

“… it is quite certain that if one increases the reach of one’s consciousness, one will naturally have a much greater area in which to apply freedom of will, so to that extent one can also influence one’s condition. But compared with the whole, it is very little. Therefore, even if one reaches a considerable extension of consciousness, one has to accept the lack of freedom, accept the fact that things are going against the grain, against the ego. And one reaches that frontier, I might say, in the moment when one discovers the inferior function, or the contrasting type. For instance, when an introvert discovers the possibility of his extraversion, his consciousness is extended to such an extent that he oversteps the limit of his freedom; for when he touches upon his inferior function his freedom is gone…. But if the process of the development of consciousness continues, one understands more and more that it doesn’t help to avoid oneself; one is forced through oneself to accept even one’s contrast and the lack of freedom. Anybody with a decent extension of consciousness will be forced to admit that in a certain way one is also not free, that one has to accept many things in oneself as facts which cannot be altered – at least not at the moment…. Only when that area of unconsciousness can be covered by consciousness, when a part of formerly unconscious life is drawn into the sphere of consciousness, is it at all subject to your choice. If that is not the case, well, then it will be chosen for you: something will decide for you, and then you are of course not free.

“Things still happen to you; you have a certain fate which is not welcome, which disturbs you – or situations arise where you assume that somebody has worked against you. But now you’re more able to say, ‘In so many cases I have seen that I was my so-called enemy, that I was the wise fellow who prepared such a fix for myself, that probably in this case I have worked the same trick – I really don’t understand it yet.’ There really still seems to be something against you, but you are so impressed by your former experiences that you apply a new hypothesis. And so you slowly arrive at the idea that probably nothing in a human life is just against it; the whole thing has probably been a carefully worked out plan…”[43]

A plan that Jung felt was “worked out” by the Self,[44] our inner divine core, or the god within. The choice is always ours: to remain unconscious, and then ignorant of our destiny and much more subject to fate, or to work on ourselves, to wise up, and widen the range of personal freedom.

As was the case in almost all his writing, Jung drew on his own experience when he discussed fate and destiny. In his memoir, Memories, Dreams, Reflections, Jung notes how

“From the beginning I had a sense of destiny, as though my life was assigned to me by fate and had to be fulfilled. This gave me an inner security, and, though I could never prove it to myself, it proved itself to me. I did not have this certainty, it had me. Nobody could rob me of the conviction that it was enjoined upon me to do what God wanted and not what I wanted. That gave me the strength to go my own way. …”[45]

This sense did not stop Jung from feeling thwarted by fate at times,[46] or wanting things to go a certain way and they did not (e.g. his activities during World War II which led to his being labeled a Nazi sympathizer),[47] but such frustration did not lead him to reject his vocation. He knew he was called. How might we know if/when we are called?


How Fate Shows Up in Life


There are many ways we might experience fate. Because our human nature inclines us to spot unpleasant things more quickly than agreeable things, we are more likely to spot fate when we are fighting it: “attempting to avoid the demands of one’s own development and destiny,”[48] when we endure “tempests”[49] and “restraints,”[50] and it seems that nothing is going our way. Things aren’t working out. We seem to experience constant interference by “something which is not [our] own will.”[51] When we face a constant round of “banal demands”[52] and life seems to be a continual “struggle against the unseen powers,”[53] we might suspect that we are “kicking against the goads,”[54] as in St. Paul’s experience.

St. Paul was one historical figure who clearly had a vocation. He experienced “an irrational factor that destined [him] to emancipate himself from the herd and its well-worn paths….”.[55] On the road to Damascus[56] St. Paul heard a voice “from which there is no escape…. Anyone with a vocation hears the voice of the inner man: he is called.”[57]

The Self was trying to get Paul’s attention, just as it does in our own lives. At such times, we don’t all get such a dramatic event as Paul had (with its subsequent blindness). More likely we get nudges more gently, e.g. in our dreams and/or from our bodies and somatic conditions. Dreams can help clue us in to what’s going on. Sometimes, if we pay attention to our dreams over time, we’ll see compensatory dreams show up[58]–dreams that are reminding us that “this also is true.” Or we may get dreams with signs that indicate “that now a level is reached where something is going to happen.”[59] Jung does not specify just what these “signs” might be, but I hazard a guess that these could be dreams full of transition symbols: bridges, doorways, hallways, images of people crossing a river or confronting a frontier[60]–all of these suggestive of leaving an old way of being, and entering a new phase of life.

Jung also urged his students to watch for threes in dreams,[61] as the number 3 can indicate a trinity, and this can refer to the three Fates: Clotho, Lachesis and Atropos, mentioned above. It is possible that repeated dreams with threes can be an alert that we are living through a fateful time.

Such times are often when people show up at the door of the practicing astrologer. Many a time, I have been able to tell customers, who are enduring a fated moment, of the “baleful orbits of the stars,”[62] which I see in their transits and/or progressions. Edward Edinger calls heimarmene “the wheel of one’s own horoscope to which one is bound,”[63] referring to how our lot in life is symbolized in our natal chart. The transit, progressed and solar return charts can tell the astrologer when some of these fated times are due to show up, and how best to respond to them when they do.

But, as the old adage goes, “the stars only impel, they don’t compel.” That is, we always have free will, so while an astrologer can tell you what’s going on, he or she cannot force you to act wisely. Edinger reminds us that, if we remain deaf, i.e., if “the ego denies an unconscious imperative, the unconscious (God) becomes an avenging pursuer.”[64]

Having lived through both responses–the dig-in-the heels resistance (Hell no! I won’t do that!) and the submission to the Self, I know it is far better to wise up–wise up to “the thing [you are] perhaps most afraid of;”[65] wise up to the “realization that one’s life course is governed largely by transconscious factors;”[66] wise up to psychological tendencies like projection (our tendency to see others as our enemies, when in actually we have been our own “so-called enemy.”[67] In such times, life is asking us to take “leaps into the unknown,”[68] and to “relate responsibly to the experience without inflation.”[69] We are being touched (wrangled? driven? oppressed? hassled?) by the Self, but we must not identify with it.

If we can find within the courage to submit our ego will to the will of the Self, life opens up for us. Jung was explicit about this:

“The new thing came to them from obscure possibilities either outside or inside themselves; they accepted it and grew with its help. It seemed to me typical that some took the new thing from outside themselves, others from inside; or rather, that it grew into some persons from without, and into others from within. But the new thing never came exclusively either from within or from without. If it came from outside, it became a profound inner experience; if it came from inside, it became an outer happening. In no case was it conjured into existence intentionally or by conscious willing, but rather seem to be borne along on the stream of time.”[70]

We don’t have to make the “new thing” happen, nor can we “push the stream of time” to rush the growth. All life asks is that we relinquish the ego’s desire for control. Easy to say, not easy to do.


Our Collective Life and Its Fate


But important to do, especially now, when we are living in one of those kairos times when a major transition is underway.[71] Just as individuals have a fate and destiny, so do nations, and on both the personal and collective levels, we get the fate we deserve.

We noted Jung’s opinion about this above, when he spoke of Nietzsche’s sad fate (madness) which he deserved due to his inflation. What might this tell us about our American fate? Nietzsche identified himself with Superman, i.e. the Self. He proclaimed that “God is dead,”[72] and then took on the divinity himself–inflation indeed! Are we doing something similar in our longstanding national habit of proclaiming our “exceptionalism”[73]–how we are the “shining city set on a hill,”[74] meant from our founding to be a moral beacon for the world? Are we really that “shining”? that “moral,” given the current administration,[75] the corruption in our government,[76] the tawdry back-room deals our politicians make with lobbyists,[77] and our centuries of racism, sexism and destruction of indigenous peoples?[78]

The student of mundane astrology (that version that examines the charts of organizations and nations) notes that transiting Pluto is now moving closer and closer to an exact conjunction with Pluto in America’s natal chart. Pluto is one indicator of karma and fate, so it might be prudent now for those who are awake to consider that we might be experiencing a fateful period in our history. Just how this will play out remains to be seen.




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Brome, Vincent (1978), Jung. New York: Atheneum.

Edinger, Edward (1995), Melville’s Moby-Dick. Toronto: Inner City Press.

________ (1996), The Aion Lectures. Toronto: Inner City Press.

Jung, C.G. (1961), “Freud and Psychoanalysis,” Collected Works, 4. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

________ (1956) “Symbols of Transformation,” Collected Works, 5, 2nd ed. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

________ (1966), “Two Essays on Analytical Psychology,” CW 7. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

________ (1970), “Civilization in Transition,” CW 10. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

________ (1969), “Psychology and Religion: West and East,” CW 11. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

________ (1953), “Psychology and Alchemy,” CW 12. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

________ (1967), “Alchemical Studies,” CW 13. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

________ (1954), “The Development of Personality,” CW 17. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

________ (1976), ”The Symbolic Life,” CW 18. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

________ (1965), Memories, Dreams, Reflections. New York: Vintage Books.

________ (1984), Seminar on Dream Analysis. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

________ (1998), Jung’s Seminar on Nietzsche’s Zarathustra, ed. James Jarrett. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

________ (2008), Children’s Dreams: Notes from the Seminar Given in 1936-1940. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Lewis, Charlton & Charles Short (1969), A Latin Dictionary. Oxford: The Clarendon Press.

Monkerud, Don (2008), “Isn’t It Time for the U.S. to Rejoin the World?,” Counterpunch Weekend Edition (October 17/20, 2008); http://monstlywater.org/american_exceptionalism

Omar, Ilhan (2017), “Unity Will Take Generations,” Time (August 28, 2017), 44-45.

Todeschi, Kevin (1995), The Encyclopedia of Symbols. New York: Berkley Publishing.

Warren, Elizabeth (2017), This Fight Is Our Fight. New York: Henry Holt & Co.

Zinn, Howard (1993-2006), “The Power and the Glory: Myths of American Exceptionalism,” Boston Review; http://bostonreview.net/BR30.3/zinn.html


[1] Collected Works 12 ¶23. Hereafter Collected Works will be abbreviated CW.

[2] CW 4 ¶667.

[3] Edinger (1996), 110.

[4] CW 17 ¶s 299-300.

[5] CW 7 ¶22.

[6] Jung (1965), 48.

[7] World Book Encyclopedia Dictionary, I, 718.

[8] CW 5 ¶371.

[9] CW 12 ¶23.

[10] Ibid. ¶36, note 16.

[11] Jung (2008), 33.

[12] World Book Encyclopedia Dictionary, I, 718.

[13] Ibid., 540.

[14] CW 20 ¶49.

[15] CW 13 ¶60.

[16] World Book Encyclopedia Dictionary, I, 1080.

[17] Lewis & Short (1969), 560.

[18] CW 4 ¶727.

[19] World Book Encyclopedia Dictionary., II, 2186.

[20] Jung’s father taught him Latin at age 6; Brome (1978), 26.

[21] Lewis & Short (1960), 2003.

[22] World Book Encyclopedia Dictionary, II, 2186.

[23] CW 11 ¶10.

[24] CW 16 ¶365.

[25] 75% of Americans type as Extraverts; Keirsey & Bates (1984), 25.

[26] CW 17 ¶294.

[27] Ibid. ¶254.

[28] Edinger (1995), 43.

[29] CW 5 ¶165.

[30] Ibid.

[31] Edinger (1995), 39.

[32] Jung (2008), 115.

[33] Edinger (1996), 29.

[34] CW 5 ¶165.

[35] Jung (1998), 322.

[36] CW 5 ¶102, note 51.

[37] CW 7 ¶258.

[38] CW 13 ¶18.

[39] Edinger (1995), 39.

[40] Jung (1984), 109.

[41] Jung (1998), 159.

[42] CW 4 ¶309.

[43] Jung (1998), 203.

[44] Ibid.

[45] Jung (1965), 48.

[46] CW 7 ¶254.

[47] Bair (2003), 418, 461.

[48] Edinger (1995), 43.

[49] CW 13 ¶228, note 19.

[50] CW 5 ¶102, note 51.

[51] Jung (1998), 216-217.

[52] CW 7 ¶72.

[53] CW 4 ¶727.

[54] Acts 9:5.

[55] CW 17 ¶s 299-300.

[56] Recounted in Acts 9:1-9.

[57] CW 17 ¶300.

[58] CW 18 ¶1490.

[59] Jung (1984), 327.

[60] Todeschi (1995), 49, 90.

[61] Jung (2008), 33.

[62] CW 5 ¶102, note 51.

[63] Edinger (1996), 110.

[64] Edinger (1995), 43.

[65] Jung (1984), 617-618.

[66] Edinger (1995), 296.

[67] Jung (1998), 203.

[68] CW 7 ¶236.

[69] Edinger (1995), 29.

[70] CW 13 ¶18.

[71] CW 10 ¶585.

[72] Jung (1998), 33-35.

[73] Monkerud (2008).

[74] Zinn (1995-2006), 1.

[75] Warren (2017), 60, 253.

[76] Ibid., 160-166.

[77] Ibid., 163-174.

[78] Omar (2017), 44-45.