I occasionally use the word “destiny” when I’m talking about narratives (including both personal and shared narratives, factual and fictional). The use of the word “destiny” has stirred up some controversy so I’m going to clarify its use.

Destiny, the way I use the word, should be taken to mean something like “birthright.” It’s something that belongs to you, but requires you to claim it. In the context of founding myth, destiny can be claimed when you follow the values of your founding heroes.

Some people use the word “destiny” interchangeably with “fate:” it’s something that’s going to happen, no matter what you do. If I’m referring to this concept, however, I will always use the word “fate” or “fated.” Destiny is something we have to take, whether “we” are white settlers of the Bear Flag Republic or black Freedom Riders in Alabama.

Destiny occupies a special place in the human imagination. It stirs teleological and eschatological beliefs about the world, including fundamentalist Christian beliefs about rapture and the more commonly atheist belief that humans will eventually discover everything there is to know about the material universe through science. It moves imperial forces from Napoleon Bonaparte to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. It’s a powerful force when a group of people rallies to claim its destiny–powerful, and potentially evil. A destiny-belief has to be tempered with wisdom and empathy or it can quickly turn wrong.