I have borrowed the title of Amy Tan’s book, The Opposite of Fate as a focus through which to consider the week’s events, public and personal. This non-fiction book is a series of musings, leaning toward autobiography, in which the Chinese-American writer posits hope as fate’s opposite, according to The Penguin reader’s guide. As I recall, however, the opposite of fate is destiny: fate is something imposed, whereas destiny involves conscious choice. Some cultures, including Tan’s parents’ culture, believe in fate. Some, like the Greek culture, are even called fatalistic. Certainly, the idea of destiny involves more optimism. We don’t like to think of ourselves as being ground down by the gods, anymore than we like to admit that life is just a series of random events. We crave meaning as a way to survive.
Thornton Wilder in his 1927 novel, The Bridge of San Luis Rey, takes a fictional event, the collapse of an Inca rope bridge in 1714, as the starting point from which to examine the idea of fate. Brother Juniper, a Franciscan monk, researches the lives of those who died in the collapse in order to see whether there is “direction and meaning in our lives beyond the individual’s own will”. He produces a large book and, for his pains, he and his book are burned in the public square. Wilder formulates a clear question but leaves the reader to decide the answer.
That question occurred to me as I listened to the 6 o’clock news last Monday, where the bombing of the Boston marathon was reported. Sifting quickly through fate and destiny, I arrived at random chance. Random chance can, of course, lead those so inclined to postulate that such things are tests and it is the way we respond to them that matters. On the off chance that is so, I resolved not be terrorized and demoralized. Living in a relatively terror-free city helped, as did Friday’s manhunt in Watertown and its positive outcome. But the agonizing puzzle remained.
In the very early hours of Tuesday morning, a member of my extended family passed away at the age of 104. He was a distant in-law, long since divorced, but still a part of the lives of his grandchildren and great-grandchildren, my nieces and nephews. They visited him on his birthday and holidays. I had seen the photos of the family gatherings on fridge doors but, until then, I hadn’t really thought about his advanced age. He was 27 years older than I am now, lucky double 7. He was older than either of my parents would be if they were alive. He had outlived my grandmother, who died at 96, a mere 19 years older than I am now. I was still doing the math when a friend phoned to ask me when I had last seen Sally S. A week ago, on Friday, I thought. The caller had seen her on Sunday and so, comparing our answers and others, her daughters arrived, forensically, at her death date, Tuesday April 16th. Unable to contact her, they had found her in her bed on Thursday. She had apparently died on the same night as the 104 year-old, but there the similarity ended. She was 74. Personally, I’m inclined to go with Sally’s choice, if choice it was. I lack the oldster’s courage.
Meanwhile, I was knocking about asking why. Why did the ancient grandpa live so long?
My grandmother used to ask why she was still alive when she was only 85. Her husband had died 15 years before, but he still turned up in her dreams, telling her, for example, that the potatoes in the woodshed had sprouted blossoms and needed to be put in the ground. She still lived in their farmhouse, out of sight of the next house, surrounded by fields, pasture and woods and without transportation. Selfishly, I assured her, when she asked, that she was the center of the family and that her many grandchildren depended on that. Toward the end, she went to live in a nursing home where the staff was French and she was addressed not by her husband’s last name, which she had had for 78 years by then, but by her maiden name. Her question became ever more valid, but she was too muddled to ask it.
Do we come here with our own scripts and requirements, plans for what we need to do and possible exit dates? My Aunt Mae thought so and she thought there were several possible exit strategies, which we can choose depending on how complete our mission is or how consciously we are living. Did she mean we can avoid fate if we fulfill destiny? I know that she thought a child’s death did not mean a wasted life.
In answer to the question, why did the 104 year-old live so long, someone answered that it was just divinity wanting to experience itself as a very old man.
That darned divinity, I thought, always such a mystery.