I love returning to a book or a poem that is well written, as there is always something new that emerges, or something I have read before, but now I understand more deeply. There is a scene from Tolkein's The Lord of the Rings, when an arrow, against all odds, hits its mark. Tolkien says: It was guided by aim or fate. What an image! We have all had the experience of something coming to pass where there seemed to be a force outside the realm of cause and effect at work. How much of our work results from our aim, our will– and how much from something that we cannot quite pin down?
I remind myself that as important as aim is, even on a daily level, there are moments that we experience the strong but elusive hands of fate, fortune or luck stepping in. It is not something our brains or our computers can resolve– there is no mathematical component– but the hands of fate directing our course is a universal experience. This is a comfort to me when I aim hard at something, and don't find the response I am hoping for– and a reminder that acceptance (not agreement) is the strongest position to enter into whatever the world offers.
All of us have stories that include a sense of another force at work. Often, it's only in looking back that we can see the meaning or purpose . Here is an example from my life, with some context at the beginning:
I am one of those children who couldn't imagine choosing the family I was born into. My father is an atheist and engineer– for him, metaphysical questions are frivolous considerations that have nothing to do with reality. Growing up, my parents had no interest in art. When I was in eighth grade I discovered Edith Hamilton's Greek Mythology. This opened up the door for my love of mythology, and my inner life now had the food of universal stories that are timeless, that "never happened, but always are". I also recognized that in contrast to the belief system I was raised with, that these stories aren't just made up stuff. All these gods represent parts of us: Our love of home is Hera at the hearth, our ability to lead (or abuse power) is Zeus the ruler, our longing for love is Eros the lover, etc. This discovery was very exciting to me. I can see now that is because it touched a part of me that has nothing to do with circumstance, but with my calling, with who I really am. In high school a friend gave me Huston Smith's Religions of the World, which I hid under my pillow, and read by flashlight at night. It was at this time I decided, that when I went off to university, I would major in "the meaning of life". I had brilliant professors and studied eastern and western religion and psychology. I was especially moved by Ghandi's principle of satyagraha, which essentially says that violence needs emotion for fuel. That is, fear and anger feed violence. As we know, this is how Ghandhi got the British out of India.
Now for the story: When I was a junior at college, I took a semester leave of absence to live with my boyfriend in Boston. I accepted a job as a waitress. This was after I had been to school in Europe and hitchhiked alone across western Europe and north Africa– so I was naively fearless. Walking home late at night from work, I foolishly accepted a ride. The moment I got in the car I heard the click of all the doors being locked, and smelled the alcohol on his breath. I knew I was going to be raped and killed. Terrified, I tried to start a conversation. Silence. No eye contact. As we rode in silence, I said to myself: remember satyagraha, your only hope is not to be afraid. The man grabbed me by my hair and shoved my head on his lap, holding a gun to my head. At this point he turned down a side road and said his first words: Do what I say and you won't get hurt.
This is nothing I planned, or could devise, but somehow I was able to let go of my fear. The absence of fear opened up a space inside me, and I saw his life like a cinema rolling before my eyes. I wasn't any longer thinking, just seeing. A sense of compassion for him began to take over any other emotion. Head on his lap, gun to my head, I found myself saying to him: Don't be afraid, I am not going to hurt you.
He suddenly stopped the car, click, unlocked the doors, and said: "Get out."
How does the paradox of the importance of aim: (making choices, setting an intention each day, for the future) and fate: (the force or unknown power that eludes causality or reason)– how is it important to our work, our calling, the essence of who we are?
I think of fate as something that is not pre-determined, but as part of the seed, the direction, that each of us are born with. It is both a limitation and a door. Laurens van der Post called it personal destiny. Our work is to become, to discover, who we are. What is our gift, our offering, to this world? It is through creativity, through the quiet of listening inward, that each person awakens his or her unique seed, and it is never too late to do this.
From this perspective, when we come to the end of our lives, we don't look back with regret, wishing we had done more dishes, or bought more clothes or even behaved better, pleasing the crowd. The question, as Michael Meade has said, is:
Did you become yourself?
Here is a poem by William Stafford that speaks to each of us becoming ourselves:
The Way It Is
There’s a thread you follow. It goes among things that change. But it doesn’t change. People wonder about what you are pursuing. You have to explain about the thread. But it is hard for others to see. While you hold it you can’t get lost. Tragedies happen; people get hurt or die; and you suffer and get old. Nothing you do can stop time’s unfolding. You don’t ever let go of the thread.
What thread do you see when you look back?