Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Coincidence versus Fate

A few days ago, granddaughter Britni posed a question on Facebook: are there coincidences or is it all just fate? In other words, are we all acting out a pre-arranged play, or is it all, in the words of Homer Simpson, “just a bunch of stuff that happened.” I think it’s a little of each.

Humans have an innate tendency to impose patterns on everything they see or hear or experience. Consider the constellations, for instance. Somebody, or several somebodies, played connect-the-dots with the stars, overlaid pictures of familiar objects, and made up stories to go with them. In a world without GPS, this helped people to remember star patterns for navigation purposes. It also helped to figure out seasons, so you knew when to plant the corn. The process got carried to extremes as the “science” of astrology, which was the forerunner of astronomy. Because many isolated groups of people were engaged in this ordering process, it’s not surprising that we have different constellations, and different stories, from different cultures. We see the same phenomenon at work when we choose to see specific shapes in the clouds, in spots on walls, or even in potato chips.

Our pattern imposition, and a strong urge to create order out of chaos, is seen in many of our recreational pursuits, from crossword puzzles and Sudoku to jigsaw puzzles. We teach our children sorting games, helping them to categorize by numbers, color, or whatever form of order is being studied.

Whether or not we consider ourselves to be writers, we also are concerned with stories—our own or other people’s, “real” or imagined or a combination of both. This, too, is part of our need to create order. When we recount an event for an audience, we pick and choose our words, emphasize some details while dismissing others, and generally impose a pattern on what may have been random events. We appreciate the abilities of a “good story-teller” and avoid the ones who insist on dragging in every boring, irrelevant detail. Even if we never relate the “story” to another person, we tend to go over it in our minds, analyzing and polishing, until it “makes sense” to us.

Does this mean that all events are random, only seeming to be related because of our need to see connections? I don’t think so.

As a Christian, I believe strongly in the power of prayer. I believe that God answers my prayers, even those I don’t voice but that come from the yearnings of my heart. I believe He works through people, and that I may have the privilege and responsibility of being part of the answer to another's prayer. Don’t ask me how the system works—I don’t know and I leave those speculations to those whose order-imposing drive focuses on such questions. I can drive a car without being a mechanical engineer, and I can flip on a light switch without having a detailed knowledge of the electrical system. But I have heard about, or witnessed myself, too many cases of people being in the right place at the right time—sometimes as a result of a string of seemingly unrelated events—to dismiss the idea of “divine appointments” or whatever you choose to call them. I have sometimes seemed to suddenly know things I didn’t know before, heard myself say things I wasn’t expecting to say, found myself focusing on certain words or ideas from seemingly unrelated sources, that prodded me to take certain actions. I find these things happen a lot more when I have consciously opened my eyes, my mind, and my heart in a willingness to be responsive to the needs of others. When I pray that I might be a blessing to others, the opportunities appear.

To those who would see all religious belief as just another instance of man’s trying to impose order on a chaotic, uncaring universe, I make no argument with you. I’m a live-and-let-live Christian. “Everyone to their own ridiculous opinions” as my daddy used to say. You are welcome to believe as you like, if that’s what works for you. I think you’re wrong, but I also know that my world view, like everyone else’s, probably contains some flaws. It’s like the poem about the blind men and the elephant, each trying to describe the elephant from the portion he was touching, and all arguing about it.

And so these men of Indostan
Disputed loud and long,
Each in his own opinion
Exceeding stiff and strong,
Though each was partly in the right,
And all were in the wrong!

John Godfrey Saxe (1816-1887)

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