Thursday, February 19, 2015

Chances, choice and the Pit of Despair

© 1987 20th Century Fox.
So ... anything happen while I was out of my mind?

About two or three weeks ago, I fell into an emotional pit. Without going into too many details: I've been at the job pond for awhile, and my résumé has gotten several nibbles; however, I’ve had some difficulty getting the hook to catch so I can land the fish. Moreover, developments in the family situation have arisen (I’m sorry, I can’t be more specific than that; some details aren’t mine to divulge), the long-term consequences of which aren’t all clear ... but of which one is that I’ll probably have to move to a different place in the next year or so. To go back to the fishing metaphor: I don’t have all day to catch my dinner.

Some people live all their lives under the illusion that they have complete charge. If anything bad happens to them, it’s because they zigged when they should have zagged, either ten minutes ago or thirty-five years ago. Certainly, I hold that a lot of what happens to us are consequences of decisions we make ... or don’t make; like Geddy Lee sings, “If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice.”

Having majored in sociology, as well as completing some hours in psychology, political science, and economics, I’m more skeptical than I was before about the degree to which determinism is supposed to explain human behavior. It’s a presumption not fully validated by the available evidence. Moreover, some degree of free will is a necessary precondition to the validity of reason. So yes, we make choices, and our choices have consequences; we have no business laying off on God, Satan, society, or bad luck every rotten thing that happens to us.

Having said that ....

Someone (I don’t remember exactly who) once defined luck as the moment when preparation meets opportunity. But I wonder if the person who came up with that definition had ever had the experience of having to take opportunity A1 — or opportunity B — because opportunity A, the one for which she’d prepared, never manifested. Or because personal obligations and commitments forced her into a fallback position, one for which she was fortuitously better suited but hadn’t consciously prepared. I know there are people who get opportunities for which they’re not prepared. This leads me to the contrapositive presumption that there are people fully prepared for opportunities they’re not offered, and which they can’t find on their own.

I’m only skeptical about the degree to which psychology and society are said to influence behavior; I don’t dismiss them as factors. They don’t explain everything, but they do explain quite a bit.

More to the point, much of both intersecting factors, preparation and opportunity, lies in the hands of other people — people whom we don’t control, whom we can’t control. Opportunity is being at the right place at the right time; we’re constantly exposed to stories of people who were at the wrong place at the wrong time.

Other people make choices, too. Joe Schmuckatelli takes a shortcut through a plaza to get to work from his lunch date — only to fall dead on the bricks, killed by a sniper’s bullet, chosen for death at random by a man with whom he never had contact before. There was no discernable reason for him to prepare for such a possibility; indeed, no one could prepare for every possible fatal incident and still remain a functioning human being. Joe is dead, not because he made a choice ten minutes or thirty-five years ago, but because the sniper made his own choice, one Joe could never know of, let alone prevent or dissuade.

Other people make choices, too. A small, seemingly inconsequential incident becomes grounds for an important decision years after the fact. A man on a horse-drawn trolley deliberately ignores an elderly woman in need of a seat, unaware that the man sitting across from him, a local politician named William McKinley, will one day be the President to whom he will apply for a government post ... and that his application will be rejected because of that years-earlier discourtesy.

Other people make choices, too. A woman in need of a job, who would be an excellent fit for the position advertised, is pre-disqualified because Human Resources decided to limit the stack of résumés by requiring a bachelor’s degree. TV personality Mike Rowe recently observed that we have “mistaken qualifications for competency;” perhaps we have also confused certification with qualification. For all our attempts to make hiring a science, it’s still a crapshoot: poor fits still get hired, while great fits still get left on the curb.

Other people make choices, too. A man walking down a road falls into a quarrel with a stranger and kills him. Later, he wins a kingdom by saving it from destruction, and takes the recently-widowed queen for his wife ... unaware that he has married his own mother and killed his own father, fulfilling a prophecy he had tried to avoid. Oedipus could have just given way to the stranger on the road ... but then, Laius could have given way as well.

The “butterfly effect”: it’s not just for determinists anymore.

In the song, “Beautiful Boy (Darling Boy)”, John Lennon sings, “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.” We say things like that, and like “S**t happens,” and “It is what it is,” and we live by them, because we simply can’t afford to live in existential terror of all the things that can happen to us — or to our loved ones — that are beyond our ability to prevent or minimize. Get busy livin’, or get busy dyin’. Put on your big-boy britches and deal with it.

Nevertheless, William Ernest Henley was wrong: we may be the captains of our souls; but we are not the masters of our fates. At best, we can only use such winds and seas as we are sent to reach our desired destinations; at worst, we must suffer tempests and shipwrecks from storms unexpected and currents unlooked-for. A timid captain refuses to sail in all but the best conditions; a foolish captain refuses to run before the wind or strike his colors when necessary.

He who boasts of his soul’s invincibility has had his fortress breached by the most insidious sapper of all: Pride, the precursor of destruction. (Cf. Proverbs 16:18) A man isn’t unconquerable just because he hasn’t been conquered to date. We don’t become strong by taking no account of our weaknesses. In one version of the story of Hercules and Antaeus, the giant boasts that he is too immense to be moved ... just before Hercules lifts him and crushes him to death in a bear hug. Antaeus was only strong so long as he was grounded. Oedipus was forced to carry out on himself the sentence he pronounced in his self-righteousness and ignorance.

Let no man count himself fortunate until he has passed through all his days unscathed.

It isn’t abject fear or superstitiousness to bend the knee in humility, to acknowledge the lack of power one has over so many things. Rather, it is to be grounded in the ultimate truth of things. “For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities; for when I am weak, then I am strong.” (2 Corinthians 12:10) It isn’t weakness to show gratitude for what we’ve been given, to grant recognition and thanks for choices that others have made in our favor, when it was in their power to deny us.

And, as someone once said on Babylon 5, there’s a queer comfort in knowing that life is unfair; for it would be terrible to believe we deserve every bad thing that happens in our lives. Besides, we don’t necessarily deserve every good thing that happens to us, either. Good happens, too. Wishes occasionally come true.

You’re not really in control of anything, except your own decisions. And that’s not a totally bad thing. So make the best decisions you can; trust in the Lord; and don’t worry over troubles that haven’t arrived yet. Today has enough problems of its own. (Cf. Matthew 6:34)

The air is cleaner outside the Pit of Despair.

Out of the depths I cry to thee, O Lord!
    Lord, hear my voice!
Let thy ears be attentive
    to the voice of my supplications!

If thou, O Lord, shouldst mark iniquities,
    Lord, who could stand?
But there is forgiveness with thee,
    that thou mayest be feared.

I wait for the Lord, my soul waits,
    and in his word I hope;
my soul waits for the Lord
    more than watchmen for the morning,
    more than watchmen for the morning.

O Israel, hope in the Lord!
    For with the Lord there is steadfast love,
    and with him is plenteous redemption.
And he will redeem Israel
    from all his iniquities.
Psalm 130