In Tim Burton’s movie “Big Fish”, the father, as a young man who recently left home to strike out on his own, is in a dangerous situation. He’s walking through a haunted wood with trees that are trying to kill him, somewhat like the trees in “The Wizard of Oz”. Just as the trees ensnare him and lift him from the ground he remembers that, as a child, he had once looked into the eye of a witch and seen the manner of his death. He realizes that this place, the haunted forest, is not where he is going to die. This knowledge frees him; he is no longer afraid of the trees and he is suddenly dropped to the ground. Throughout the rest of his adventures he can act with courage knowing that he will survive any of the situations he gets into. Already blessed with an overabundance of self-confidence, this knowledge makes him invincible.
In “Back to the Future”, despite Doc Brown’s injunction to Marty against knowing too much about one’s future, the Doc decides to bend his own rules just a bit, avoiding death and allowing their adventures to continue.
If we could know the time and manner of our deaths, would this affect the way we live? Would we use the knowledge to better our lives? How would it change our relationships with those we love? Would we be more loving to our families, friends, and neighbours, and be more honest and caring? Or would we live it up, go on drunken binges, engage in illegal or anti-social behavior because we know that we won’t die from it, or that we’ll die before being punished? (Certainly this knowledge would make retirement planning a bit easier; why sacrifice to put money away for retirement if you’re going to die young?)
The next question is if we could prevent or prolong our fated appointment with death by changing behaviour. If I knew I was fated to die in an automobile or airplane accident on a certain date then I should just stay home that day, shouldn’t I? The flip side is that knowing one’s fate could also lead to a great deal of extra recklessness: if I’m not going to die today then — what the hell — I’m going to go skydiving without a parachute.
The people in Greek tragedies and ancient histories tried to escape the Fates, but it never worked. Oedipus’ parents tried to prevent his fulfilling the prophecy of killing his father and marrying his mother by giving the baby to a herdsman to kill. But the herdsman kept and raised the child himself, and once grown Oedipus famously went on to fulfill the prophecy. Similar things happened in a number of other stories in myth, including Snow White with the witch, mirror, and huntsman. You can’t get around the Fates. Nobody beats them; even the gods are subject to them.
As for me, personally, I have absolutely no belief in fate or destiny. I haven’t heard prophecies about the time or manner of my death, and wouldn’t believe them even if I had. So I’m not going to worry about it. My family history tells me that based on the long lives of my grandparents I can be reasonably confident of not dying of health problems from heritable diseases before my 80s, but in the meantime modern medicine tells me that I need to do my part in trying to stay healthy.
As to the manner of one’s death, my favourite is in Monty Python’s film “The Meaning of Life”, where a convicted criminal chooses execution by being chased and run off a cliff by a squad of beautiful, topless, and quite well-endowed women. The slow-motion sequence is a monument to cinematography. The irony of the scene, though, was that Graham Chapman, the Python playing the criminal, was gay.