A very young Bob Dylan was performing in the lobby of the National Guard Armory, housed in the Veterans Memorial Building of his hometown, Hibbing, Minnesota. He was trying not to sulk about how his bands kept disintegrating each time a band member got a better-paying job somewhere else. In Dylan's mind, he was a victim of the laws of the jungle -- a social dominance hierarchy rewarding musicians who had relatives or friends on the town council, merchant's association, or chamber of commerce. They, in turn, had connections with event organizers who actually paid musicians for performing. Again and again, Dylan was left out in the cold when band members jumped ship.
How could anyone without connections hope to reach the world? His confidence frayed, Dylan remained determined not to allow his vision of greater possibility be shrouded by the mundane realities of his current circumstances.
As he pondered his quandary, the doors of the Veterans Memorial Building swung open, and into the lobby rushed a cavalcade of carnival performers. In marched Goliath, the Vampire, Holy Terror, Strangler, Bone Crusher, and foremost among them, their leader, Gorgeous George the Wrestler.
Surrounding George were valets and women carrying roses. He wore a fur-lined gold cape, and his dyed platinum-blond curls flowed over his shoulders. "He roared in like the storm," Dylan recalled in his memoir, "and he seemed like 40 men." Without breaking stride, George glanced toward the sounds of music emanating from the makeshift stage where Dylan played. Their eyes met, an electric connection. Gorgeous George winked, and Dylan swore he saw George's lips move. He heard, or thought he heard, George say, "You're making it come alive."
What may or may not have happened had the emotional impact of a lightning bolt hitting a transformer. "It was all the recognition and encouragement I would need for years to come," Dylan recollected. To borrow one of Dylan's most famous lyrics, was this a simple twist of fate?
Fate, derived from the Latin words fata and fari, literally means "things spoken by the gods." Though fate is often confused with destiny and has come to mean accepting one's lot in life, there is nothing about our life that we have to accept. Rather, there are things that accompany us from birth, mature over time, and later beckon us to follow. It is our great fortune if we can.
The mythologist Michael Meade reminds us that a slight reframing of fate's literal meaning provides a clue. Our soul is "spoken of by the divine," and some intangible essence is placed within us to be discovered later in life. We are born with an impulse that connects us to something greater than ourselves. We can never be too small or inconsequential because our soul has already been spoken of by the divine. Now, we must find that intangible essence and express it as best we can.
Some refer to this as a calling. No one truly heeds their calling, however, without first transcending the limitations of their circumstances. Fate can be understood as those initial and ongoing challenges of life. For some, it may be a physical limitation, for others emotional. For some, it may stem from childhood trauma or the conditions at birth, poverty but also great wealth with equally great meaninglessness. And for some, it may just be about feeling odd and disconnected, with dreams that others don't understand.
There is within each of us a knowing, a style of expressing ourselves, a uniqueness of temperament that guides us out into the world. From ancient times, this inner spirit was understood to be part of our very fabric and the thread linking our fate with destiny. And the ancient name for this spirit? Genius.
Genius is not a great abstract intellect or a talent that far surpasses everyone else's, as we might think of it today. As Michael Meade describes it, genius is the spirit that is already there, the resident spirit of the soul. It has to do with noticing what is ours to follow in life and allowing fate, our initial circumstances and limitations, to bend toward a calling or destiny. And sometimes we need a push, an affirmation, a nod letting us know that someone sees us for what we are really about. "Sometimes that's all it takes," Dylan remembered, "the kind of recognition that comes when you're doing the thing for the thing's sake and you're onto something -- it's just that nobody recognizes it yet. Gorgeous George. A mighty spirit."
And sometimes we have to recognize fate's elusive nature. It can mean fixed elements that cannot be changed, such as one's place of birth or birth parents, but it can also appear as a result of our own fixed ways of thinking and behaving. To bend fate's trajectory, we must step out on our own, letting go of thoughts and attitudes that render us impotent.
"I would soon lose the band that was playing with me in the lobby of the Veterans building," Dylan recounted. Someone else who could pay picked them up. But something in Dylan had shifted. Maybe it was a spark ignited by seeing the Holy Terror or that magical moment of affirmation with George. "It was beginning to dawn on me that I would have to learn how to play and sing by myself and not depend on a band until the time I could afford to pay and keep one. Connections and credentials would have to become an irrelevancy."
So perchance you dream tonight of a passing mist, or someone in the street brushes by you with a kind smile. Imagine, even for an instant, that the circumstances confounding you have a purpose. Imagine that no caring or creative act is too small. Look out for an affirmation mirroring your soul's yearnings. It may come in disguise, but nonetheless a mighty spirit is at work. The message is a reminder to notice a longing already within you. You're making it come alive. And go do that.