The Metaphysical Why

For as long as I’ve been around, I’ve heard people say that things happen for a reason, that there’s always a purpose behind what happens to us and those around us, and it’s just a matter of sorting out why something has happened and what we’re supposed to learn as a result. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve become convinced this is not correct. We do not serve a specific purpose in this life, besides that which we determine for ourselves, or which is determined for us by circumstances beyond our control. By circumstances beyond our control, I mean that not everyone is given the opportunity to live up to his or her fullest potential. A person may have the raw talent to become a marble sculptor, but spend his or her entire life living in a remote fishing village with no access to the marble he or she would need to discover and exploit this talent.

Still, the natural tendency of humans to form connections in their brains between otherwise unrelated events can often lead to the sense that somehow “fate” is leading us on a given path for a specific reason. This often leads to someone asking the question “why” when unexplained events occur, believing that forces outside our control are actively working to guide our lives in directions we’re not allowed to know ahead of time. One can argue that if one looks back on the course of someone’s life, the “reason” for a given circumstance or set of events can become obvious, but in my own life, I’ve noted that it was not some overwhelming event, but my reaction to it which had a bigger impact. In general, whenever I’ve truly wanted to do something, I’ve found a way to do it, even when circumstances conspire against me. Still, the presumed inevitability of fate can be a powerful motivating factor when unexplained events occur.

A plane crashes and everyone on board, except one little girl, is killed. A gun is fired in an apartment complex, and the bullet enters a building half a block away and strikes one man in a packed crowd of people, killing him. Two people, identical in every way, contract the same terminal illness, receive the same treatment, and are given the same level of concern and encouragement. One dies and the other makes a miraculous recovery. We may be able to ferret out the root cause, note the trajectory of the bullet which killed the individual, examine the underlying physical well-being of the person who recovered versus the one who died, explain every aspect of the plane crash, and still be unable to answer the question of why. Why did this particular person survive when others didn’t. I refer to this tendency as searching for the metaphysical why. What has caused destiny to rule in favor of or against this particular individual. For some, the answer is frequently that we can’t know the reason. It’s God’s will, part of a plan that we’ll never be allowed to understand. Others may simply mark it up to chance. He was at the wrong place at the wrong time, or the right place at the right time, and so on.

The presumed inevitability of fate can extend to even our very existence. Because I’m here, one could argue I was destined to be here, that all circumstances came together to produce me, and that if a single event had been different, I wouldn’t be here. While it may be true that I am a consequence of the decisions made by all the generations which preceded me, that doesn’t mean their decisions were part of a metaphysical plan to bring me into existence. Consider all the people that had to come together in all the places at just the right time to produce the generations between me and my twelve-greats grandfather, Ambrose Lupo. Countless generations had to first insure that all the circumstances fell into place for him to originate in Italy, become a musician, be brought to England by the Tudors, where his sons later joined him. His sons had to produce offspring, several of whom went to the colonies and one of whom produced the son who remained in Virginia, founding my line of the family.

If one presupposes that I was destined to exist, then one could argue that the the reason England founded Jamestown, and colonized the “new world” was to facilitate my being here. One would have to imagine that the combined energy of countless individuals throughout history was expended just to bring about a single person in the latter half of the twentieth century, and this belief makes absolutely no sense at all, though the evidence could be interpreted to show just that. Every known generation of my family either migrated to the colonies, or immigrated to the United States much later, just in time to produce the children who would become my ancestors. I do not believe any sort of divine hand was guiding them for this purpose, however. They made their decisions for their own reasons, usually determined by what they felt was best for them, and I, for one, am happy they made the choices they did, even if it wasn’t specifically for my benefit. The results are the same.

Too often, we confuse what is with what should be. It makes sense that we’d feel this way, however, given the vast number of coincidences which occurred over many generations to produce the people we have become. We are, however, the end result of those coincidences, not necessarily the goal. My mother was engaged to someone long before she met my father. Had she married this other individual, I most likely would not be here today, but perhaps there would be someone else who would be assured of the inevitability of his or her existence. The mere fact that I exist presupposes that there’s a reason for me to be here, and that I’m here to accomplish something no one else can accomplish, yet there have been billions of people born on this earth, who made no significant contribution to the advancement of the human race, other than, perhaps, contributing the next generation of individuals, and quite a few didn’t even do that, either dying without children, or before the age when they could have children. In fact, people have been born and died throughout time and the world has taken little or no note of their existence. If each person is meant to fulfill some secret purpose on earth, in most cases, it’s a very well-kept secret.

To believe in the inevitability of one’s course in life, one must assume the future is, to some extent, already written, and that we’re merely walking through the steps to lead us to that conclusion. I reject this notion. No one can predict, from morning to morning, how that day’s commute to work will turn out, what issues will be encountered during the day, what people will appear, which events will occur, or how the drive home will turn out. The typical daily routine may suggest a template, but anyone who has followed the same routine day in and day out can attest to the many variables in even the simplest daily task. Cars crash, trees fall, roads become flooded, and familiar, alternate routes can yield just as many surprises. Experience can help a bit, but no amount of experience can predict which driver will veer without warning into another lane at the precise time another driver is talking on a cell phone and not paying attention. Surprises cause wrecks, wrecks cause delays, and while correcting someone’s behavior may lessen the chance that he or she will do something surprising, nothing can fully insure that the trip will be one hundred percent safe and uneventful.

Life is being written as it is being lived. The decisions we make from minute to minute determine the course of our lives and while fate may play a role in it, fate is not the guiding force many would have us believe. I look at fate in this manner: If life is considered a journey, then fate is the road on which we travel. The unexpected can and does occur, but it’s how we react to the unexpected that determines our course through life, and not the random twists and turns of each moment during which we live. My father attended law school, and during the week he was to take the bar exam, his mother died. Afterward, for some reason, perhaps because he either had just discovered, or was soon to discover he was about to become a parent himself, he chose not to pursue his goal of becoming a lawyer. I do not believe this was a snap decision on his part. In all probability, he labored over the decision, and may have forever second guessed making it. At some point, he may have decided that it was fate interceding and the outcome was beyond his control. We never talked about it, so I’ll never know for sure what caused him to make this decision at that point in his life. Since I was already on the way at the time, it did not have an effect on whether or not I existed, but his decisions during this time have had an influence on the course my life has taken.

Determining one’s response to the unexpected is never easy, but the decisions we make under such circumstances help to determine where we’ll end up on life’s journey. When I applied for graduate school right out of college, my first application was lost in the mail and I didn’t learn of that until long after the submission deadline. My second application made it through, and I was accepted, but my first trip to the city and school to enroll was not well planned, and I left after deferring my admission. I could have decided, from all the difficulties I encountered, that attending school there simply wasn’t the course fate had determined for me, and, in fact, that very thought did cross my mind more than once. It was an expensive private university, well beyond my family’s means, and I had no idea how I was going to pay for it, especially when factored into the uncertainty of moving to a new town far from my family and friends. Still, I pressed on, and for me, the third time was the charm. While I can’t say everything went smoothly for me in school, at least I made it there, found a way to pay for it, and graduated with relatively good grades. One could argue that I was merely fulfilling my destiny, though I have, many times, questioned the value of the degree I earned. I choose instead to see it as a victory for persistence, rather than fate trying to tell me something. Whether or not the education leads me in a given direction, the experiences I had while living and working in my adopted home have had a profound effect on me, and I can say I would not be who I am without having had those experiences.

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