20 May 2012
If I've learned anything in the last ten or so years of my life, it's to appreciate the fact that there's much in it I can't control...especially fate. Time and again I've set myself on a course of action and decided: "This is it. This is the way my life will go," only to look back later and realize how short-sighted I was. Regardless of the thoroughness of our plans, of the care and thought we put into them, they do not always come to pass...and this is not something to be bemoaned, either, because our plans for the future aren't necessarily the best that we might have pursued. In deviating from plans, either by accident or thoughtlessness, we may in fact put ourselves in a situation where we are better served.
For my own part, part of me sometimes thinks I might have been better off had I gone directly to university after high school, bypassing community college and the 'wasted' years between my graduation there and my entrance into a full university. But had I not gone to that community college, I would not have met particular people, people who changed my life. And the time I spent working a factory between college and university was most formative to the person I am today. It was there that I learned to be an adult, to stand on my own two feet - there that I learned the value of money and time, there that I started to question the way society worked. If I had gone directly to university following high school graduation, would I have gained anything by it? Would a Pentecostal boy have appreciated the intellectual stimulation of the university? Would I have flourished intellectually as an adult had the soil of my mind not already been tilled by those difficult years following graduation where I struggled to find myself?
I do not know, but I'm tempted to say, I doubt it. Maybe early separation from Pentecostalism would have freed my mind more quickly, but I for one think whatever mental strength I have came from the fact that I had to fight for my ideals, my thoughts, and my beliefs against oppressive dogma. There are other examples in this theme; for instance, when I moved to university I became friends with someone who betrayed me, and while part of me thinks if I had known that in advance I would have avoided him from the start, I am glad for the experience. The end of that friendship changed my life dramatically; it introduced me to the study of Stoicism, and made me aware of my own weaknesses. It gave me humility, which I never anticipated needing or profiting by. These little events could make quite a list. Time and again my plans for life have fallen apart, and for a time I thought myself lessened for it. I might groan at my mistakes, or regret hoped-for opportunities that never transpired. I might think my life had derailed...but every time my life has gone off the route I had planned for it, I've somehow found myself better off for it.
A more traditional person might say this is the Hand of God active in my life, moving me to where I am intended to be, working to ensure the best outcome. This is not the attitude I take, but when I reflect on my life I can't help but feel a sudden burst of gratitude. I didn't intend to live the life I'm living now, but I'm happy.
You may have heard the saying that fortune favors the prepared mind. This question of destiny is to me an interplay between fortune and virtue. Fortune, the happenstance of life, is fickle. It is a mistake to believe we can direct its course, either by praying to deities or relying on good luck tokens. For us, it is chaotic. One small action can set into action a course of events that leads in a different direction that we might have ever intended. We can't plan fortune; but we might manage it.
I mentioned an interplay between fortune and virtue, virtue being (in this case) preparing ourselves for the fickleness of fate. We do this in part by not becoming attached to any one series of events: we can't predict the ultimate outcome, so the attachment is foolish. An excellent choice one moment might set us up for great failure down the road, and a mistake might be a launching pad for greater success than we could ever imagine.
I'm reminded of a favorite fable or proverb I read a few years ago while doing readings in Buddhist philosophy.
There was a man in a distant village with a prized horse, and one day the horse ran away. The man's neighbors approached him in sympathy, saying, "How terrible this is! Your best horse, gone! You must be distraught." The man only shrugged, and said, "We'll see."
Shortly thereafter the horse reappeared, but he had attracted followers, his own herd. There were dozens of horses, and the man and his son corralled them all. They had enough animals to begin breeding them! Profits would be enormous! And the neighbors came by to celebrate, saying, "What a marvelous stroke of luck! You must be so pleased!". But to their surprise, the man only shrugged, and said -- "We'll see."
The next day one of the horses kicked out at the man's sons; both of his legs were broken. Again the neighbors came in sympathy, saying, "Your only son, crippled! How terrible!". And the man shrugged, and said, "We'll see."
A few months later, the nation went to war, and all the villages were called upon to send their young men into battle. The village's young men all went, with the exception of the crippled boy, who could not march. The nation's forces met in battle, and all of the village's sons were lost on the field. The grieving parents came to the man and said to him, "Of all of us, only your son has been spared. You must be pleased."
And again, the man shrugged, and again, he said: "We'll see".
The fable ends there because all must end somewhere, but the point is that this interchange between the man and the villagers could have gone on forever. Life is never finished: it is a perpetual chain of events. We can never see what awaits us. That in mind, another way to be prepared for fate is to anticipate the responses we might need if life goes awry. For instance, I am saving up to go to graduate school and get a degree in library science --but I am also trying to find a way to learn less specialized skills, because there's no way of knowing that librarianship will be a viable career. The jobs may not be there, or the few which are may not enough to support me. That in mind, I want more resiliency. I also think we need to be courageous enough not to shy away from unexpected roads. Not only must we let go of plans which have been rendered impossible, but we have to move forward...and that is difficult to change-adverse creatures like ourselves. For my own part, I take courage in the words of Marcus Aurelius, who advised himself not to fear the future....for we will meet it with the same reason we have with us today.
All that we can do, essentially, is the best that we can do. We must make the best choices we can, in any given circumstance. If these turn out to be the wrong choices, or choices inferior to others (in hindsight), there is nothing to be gained in berating ourselves for these mistakes. We are not omniscient; we cannot account for everything, We have to make these choices moment to moment, based on information which is limited at best. Life is not a gaming competition: there's no scoreboard, no judge, no points to stack against one another. We're alive, so we might as well enjoy it.