From The Mouths of Babes

Okay, so a 15 year old isn't exactly what was meant in the phrase from the mouths of babes. But when I read my daughter's paper on fate, I thought that she grasps some ideas that people years older seem to miss.

In Greek mythology Sisyphus was punished by rolling a boulder up a hill, only to see it roll back down, repeating this cycle throughout eternity. When I think of the paths we take in life, I think of a stone rolling down a hill. Perhaps the stone is large and onerous, like the boulder of Sisyphus. At other times, the stone may be a pebble, skittering along, bouncing downwards. Then there’s the snowball, increasing in size with each rotation, until the mass becomes so large, that the snow beneath it slips and builds. An avalanche is created. With fate, the idea of things predetermined and ordered in advance, there is no room for imagining Sisyphus’ boulder as a pebble or a snowball. With fate, as in the myth of Sisyphus, there is only the boulder and the course of events that led to his punishment by the gods.

I don’t belief in fate any more than I believe in unicorns or fairies. But like most people, I enjoy fate and its role in literature. From the mark left on a young wizard’s forehead to that fateful day when the now grown wizard defeats the evil that left the mark, I rejoice in the ordered path of Harry Potter’s destiny. The ancient Greeks used the stories of the gods toying with humanity as morality tales and origin myths. Their deities were human in all their weaknesses; they drank and loved to excess. They pulled the strings of their human toys as if in a puppet theater. In today’s cinema, fate plays a role in the tale of two beautiful actors on screen finding eternal love in a city of 10 million. In modern mysteries, fate explains how a small act of school yard bullying leads an Inspector to discover the sequence of events ending in murder. But for me the role of fate should be left to the pages of fiction, offering entertainment and the occasional morality tale.

But the idea of fate isn’t relegated to books, tales, and theater. You have only to watch the news to hear witnesses bemoan their fate. If a hurricane wipes out a town, then it is the will of God. And if anyone survives, it’s a miracle. The idea of fate, that something outside the natural world is directing our lives, is widespread in our society. It’s easier for a man down on his luck to blame fate. It’s easier to blame fate than him self and all the choices that led him to that point. On the other hand, a rich man always takes his wealth to mean that he has worked hard for it. Occasionally, if he’s an overpaid sports figure, he’ll thank God, but even he usually thanks his mama too. She was the one who drove him to little league games, after all.

For me, fate isn’t an option. I was taught that when someone asks, “What is the meaning of life?” that there is only the meaning I choose. Life is what you make it. You only go around once, so you had better enjoy it while you’re here. I was also taught that you are responsible for your actions and the things which flow from them. Yes, there are actions and reactions, a call and response. But there is no hidden meaning. There is no chain of events that control things so that Karma can come back and bite you from behind. It’s just the natural laws which govern things. Look at that stone on the hill. The law of gravity sends it downhill when dislodged. The physical characteristics, the slant of the hill, the erosion, the weather, those are the things which determine what happens to that stone. The snowball that creates an avalanche which collides with a car acts with no malice or forethought. There are no gods sitting on Mount Olympus betting on whether people escape their fate.

I wish I could say that now we have scientific discoveries to explain the actions of the natural world that we could free humanity from the ideas of fate and its cousins, but I fear we are not a reasoned animal after all. Over centuries we have developed these ideas to help us explain our origins and the world we live in. Some of these concepts were created to help us cope. Some stories provided us with a sympathetic hero, one who understood our pain. Other tales provided an all powerful, unquestioning force, from whom we were dealt our lot in life. Ideas such as free will say that we choose our own course. In other words, it’s all your fault. And that is a really good reason why the idea of an uncontrollable fate exists. Sometimes dealing with reality is quite difficult, even impossible. We can’t construct an answer for hundreds of thousands dead in tsunamis and earthquakes. But as in the Japanese earthquake and tsunami last year, Americans were confronted with a culture that didn’t declare a day of prayer, proclaim miracles for lives spared, and God’s will for those lost. They didn’t even loot like survivors of Hurricane Katrina did. So what’s the difference? Cultural differences and religious history probably.

In religious history the idea of free will versus fate has been at the heart of a lot of debates and schisms in the church’s development. I personally don’t see how a person who is controlled by fate can truly express free will in how their lives play out. As for free will, we can make choices and there are consequences. But amid all of it are the laws of nature. Make all the good choices you can, but if there’s an earthquake and you are injured, don’t rack it up to fate. The laws of nature are at play. While we can flip a coin to make our decisions, the role of chance and coincidence is also governed by the laws of nature in the environments we live in. Even those who are viewed as just doomed or just lucky are a product of the environment we live in, and as important, the choices we make. Even people others view as “just doomed” may not see themselves as unlucky. Perhaps they are optimists and have a great outlook on lives, despite all their seeming bad luck. Sometimes it’s just perception.

Unfortunately, fate and other ideas about our destiny continue to tarnish our world despite all the wonderful scientific discoveries and insight into the human psyche. As for me, I wouldn’t want to live in a world ruled by fate. I like that I can control my own future. The grades I make now will determine my chances for college later. The friends and the peer pressure I come across now will shape me by the choices I make. Shakespeare said, “All the world’s a stage and all the men and women merely players.” I don’t want to be an actor in a puppet theater. I would rather direct my own life.