Friday, October 20, 2006

Senseless Fate, Meaningful Destiny

It doesn’t make sense. Recently, the absurdity of fate has dominated the headlines. An outgoing 18 year old, Anastasia De Sousa, goes to school in the morning; a gunmen bursts into her school, Dawson College, and she’s shot dead. A highway overpass collapses, killing 5 young people. Beyond the headlines, everyone has been personally touched by an absurd tragedy. Fate seems senseless.

Fate’s absurdity engenders strange reactions. Some of us become superstitious, nervously clutching rabbit’s foots and red strings, hoping these will bring us luck. Others become fatalistic. While visiting Northern Israel during the Lebanese war, I asked our driver Ofer if he was worried about the Kaytushas raining down. He said no, because ‘when it’s your time it’s your time’.

Fate often seems unjust, and the unanswered question of blind fate makes philosophers of us all. Some are certain that they can explain every twist of fate, secure in the knowledge that someone else’s sins are the source of all suffering. Others are angry at God and the world, upset that the utopian vision of their childhood has been shattered by reality.

I have an aversion to these philosophical ruminations. Personally, I prefer the view of the Mishnah in Pirkei Avot, that says we simply do not know why the wicked prosper or the righteous suffer. By accepting fate as a mystery, at least it won’t be an insult, an affront to the victims who are often blamed for their own misfortune.

Fate doesn’t require an answer, it requires a response. Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik notes there are two phases of life: fate and destiny. At times man is passive and helpless, a mere object of fate. At other times, man can take control of his environment and become the master of his own destiny. Most of life seems to fluctuate between moments of fate and moments of destiny. However, even in our worst moments, fate does not reign supreme; we can always choose how we respond to fate.

It is in the response that a meaningful destiny is found. Do we respond with cowardice and confusion, or with a sense of higher purpose? We can choose either to surrender to fate or to struggle for a meaningful destiny.

Rabbi Seth Mandell recently told me a story. (Seth directs a foundation in memory of his son Koby, who was murdered in a terror attack. The foundation runs camps for children who have lost a family member to terror.) A girl in his camp was so grief-stricken that she had begun to cut herself on the wrist. On the first day of camp, the girl’s counselor saw the cut and remarked “time heals all wounds”. The girl angrily reacted and said “it does not”, a global reference to all wounds, both psychic and physical. The counselor persevered in befriending the girl. Towards the end of the camp, the girl stopped cutting herself and the wound healed. Noticing this, the counselor lightheartedly remarked “I guess time does heal all wounds.” The girl responded: “no, it does not…. But love heals all wounds”.

This phrase is a formula for transforming fate into destiny. Fate may cut us deeply, and leave us angry and confused. But with a little bit of love, we can still find a way to heal our wounds and reclaim control of our destiny.

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