One of the key ideas of my PhD was fateful moments, points in our life which constitute turning points and shape the person we become. I argued the epistemology of such moments is more complex than it might initially appear to be, as turning points have a narrative as well as a biographical existence. The stories we tell about our lives rarely map cleanly on to the causes which shape them, being the means through which we come to terms with what has happened rather than the way in we diagnose why it happened in the way that it did. Turning points give shape to narratives and are often easy to identify but fateful moments are more elusive.
There are points which might have proved fateful, opportunities to act differently which might not be clear to us in the moment. We can recognise this in hindsight, identifying the point at which we could have backed away or fully committed, open moments in which we had freedom to act before the tides of habit and commitment generated a momentum of their own. There’s a wonderful example of this on pg 223 of Donna Tartt’s The Secret History. After a disturbing revelation, Richard briefly questions his relationship with his new friends, fleetingly contemplating exit at the point where his entanglement with them seems likely to pass the point of no return:
Pausing unsteadily on the stairs, I looked back at Francis’s door, indistinguishable from the others in the long faceless row.
I suppose if I had a moment of doubt at all it was then, as I stood in that cold, eerie stairwell looking back at the apartment from which I had come. Who were these people? How well did I know them? Could I trust any of them, really, when it came right down to it? Why, of all people, had they chosen to tell me?
It’s funny, but thinking back on it now, I realise that this particular point in time, as I stood there blinking in the deserted hall, was the one point at which I might have chosen to do something very different from what I actually did. But of course I didn’t see this crucial moment then for what it was; I suppose we never do. Instead, I only yawned, and shook myself from the momentary daze that had come upon me, and went on my way down the stairs.
Fateful moments that might have been pose their own epistemological challenges, as the narrator alludes to in the extract above. But unlike fateful movements in the positive sense, identified by a person as they make sense of how they came to be where they are and who they are, fateful moments which escaped us are engaged with in a diagnostic moment. We identify these when we look back on our lives, reflecting on how things could have been otherwise. They have a different mode of existence to us as we make sense of our own lives, tied to a sense of our lives as taking on definitive shape as our decisions accumulate. In this sense, I think recognising fateful moments which might have been has immense existential significance. We cannot accept the mess of life without doing so.