As a historian of the ancient world (I hate to be called an ancient historian), I encounter a lot of references to “fate” or “destiny.” Greek and Roman tragedians, historians, and biographers all harp on how people’s lives are determined from the moment of birth. There’s nothing you can do to avoid your fate, whether you’re a fictitious character like Oedipus (kill your father, marry your mother) or a historical person like Julius Caesar (“Beware the Ides of March”). As Herodotus said, “The destiny of man is in his own soul.”
Many religious people—and I live and work among such folk—seem confident that they know where their lives are headed. I have friends, family, and colleagues who say they can “discern” exactly what God has in store for them, at least in the next step. The son of one of my cousins has taken his wife and two small children to Kenya to do missionary work, with a five-year commitment. I don’t disparage their certainty, but I don’t share it.
With a lot of years behind me now, I find myself wondering how much of the course of my life has been the result of my own choices and how much has happened over which I had no control. I find myself able to see my—or anyone else’s—“destiny” only by looking in the rearview mirror. I don’t claim to be raising an original question, just considering one to which I’ve never found a satisfactory answer.
My pondering on this subject has been particularly keen recently because I see 1964 as a year that completely changed the direction of my life. Now, fifty years later, I’m still wondering if I did it, or if I was unwittingly following some inexorable plan. The Roman philosopher Seneca said, “Destiny guides the willing; the unwilling it drags.” At some points I have definitely felt like one of the dragged.
To begin with, on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving in 1964, my high-school sweetheart got married. If the marriage hadn’t ended in divorce fourteen years later, this would be her 50th anniversary. I ran into her and her second husband in 1992. We talked for almost an hour. She told me about her abusive, alcoholic first husband, and the problems her four children had had (drugs, alcohol, early pregnancies). At age 46, she already had six grandchildren.
I remember thinking, “If you had stayed with me, your life would have been a lot better.” (Yes, smug, arrogant.) Later the thought occurred to me, “If she had stayed with me, my life might have been a real mess. She could have contributed to the dysfunction in that family as much as anyone else.” Her second marriage apparently didn’t last either. When she visited one of my social media pages two years ago, she left her name—her maiden name. We’ve had no contact beyond that.
Her decision to marry closed one chapter of my life emphatically. But I made a critical decision of my own in 1964. I transferred from the University of South Carolina to Carson-Newman College (now University), a Baptist school in Tennessee, because I thought I was being called to become a minister. Turns out I wasn’t, but I ended up finishing college in three years, winning a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship, and going on to graduate school. I can’t be sure any of those things would have happened if I had stayed at USC.
If I had stayed at South Carolina, another life-changing moment definitely would not have happened: I would not have met the girl who became my wife in 1967. She entered with the freshman class at Carson-Newman in the fall of ’64, although we didn’t meet until a year later. Her father told her she had to go to a Baptist college if she expected him to pick up the tab. She narrowed the choice down to Georgetown (in Kentucky) or Carson-Newman. She picked Carson-Newman, she says, simply because it was farther from home. Agnes DeMille’s words seem apropos here: “No trumpets sound when the important decisions of our life are made. Destiny is made known silently.”
So, were we destined to be together for 47 great years (so far, plus two years of dating), or has it just been our good luck, aided by some choices that probably weren’t made for the best reasons? Perhaps I should settle for Iris Murdoch’s rather agnostic assessment of the question: “Our destiny can be examined, but it cannot be justified or totally explained. We are simply here.”
Another decision that looms large in my rearview mirror was made in 1977, and it doesn’t feel like it was entirely mine either. As I finished my Ph. D., I was applying for teaching jobs. I was invited to an interview at a college I had never heard of in Michigan (they picked my name out of a candidates’ listing to which I had subscribed). I liked the people and the college—except for the fact that it was in Michigan, so far away from my family in North and South Carolina. A week later the dean who interviewed me told me the department wanted to hire me, but the provost hadn’t been impressed with me, so I would not get the job.
The next fall the job was advertised again. I contacted the dean and asked if I should apply. He said, with regrets, no. Then in March of 1978 he called and asked if I had a job yet. I was in a one-year position in North Carolina and had no prospects beyond that. My wife and I were considering the possibility of her teaching high school fulltime and me staying home with our sons. The dean said the department definitely wanted me and the provost had relented and would let me come for another interview. That interview went well, except for the snow that fell in the first week of April—an omen, no doubt.
When the offer came a week later, I wasn’t sure I should accept it. Michigan was so far away, and it snowed in April there, and a top administrator wasn’t exactly in my corner. Maybe I should wait a year and apply to other places. But my dissertation advisor said that, if I didn’t get a job right out of grad school, I likely never would. So I took the offer, thinking I could stay in Michigan for a few years, get some teaching experience, then get a job back down south, where I thought I belonged. I’m now in my thirty-sixth year at the college. Twenty years ago I bought the dean’s house. I jokingly (?) ask people, “If you’ve spent more than half your life on the wrong side of the Ohio River, is it still the wrong side?”
One life-altering incident happened during that “extra” year in North Carolina. My wife and I adopted our second son. If we had gone to Michigan in 1977, we would never have had that opportunity. I don’t know who he would be or where he would be today or what our family would be like without him. Also, if we hadn’t come to Michigan and stayed here, contrary to all our expectations, we would not have adopted our two daughters from Korea, and we would not have our grandson. Is that “destiny” or am I just stumbling along a path, trying to see a step or two ahead of me and not bump into anything?
The Roman emperor and Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius said, “Adapt yourself to the things among which your lot has been cast and love sincerely the fellow creatures with whom destiny has ordained that you shall live.” I’ve adapted myself to snow blowers and roof rakes (yes, I have to rake @#$% snow off my roof) and I dearly love the fellow creatures who make up my family. I’m just not sure about that “destiny has ordained” bit.
Who I am now and where I am today seem to stem from decisions made in 1964, both mine and other people’s. As J. K. Rowling said, “Destiny is a name often given in retrospect to choices that had dramatic consequences.” The only way I can see any pattern to some pretty dramatic consequences in my life is by looking in my rearview mirror. Is there a plan there, or am I trying to imagine one? Why do I want to see a plan? Would it make me happier if I could believe I am where I am because I was destined to be here, or would it merely relieve me of the responsibility for my choices?
To end on a more upbeat note, let me wish everyone a joyous holiday season!