Not so long back, Autumn Barlow guest blogged here about the idea of whether things are Meant to Be. I’ve finally got round to formulating a response, so here we go. I don’t personally believe in predestination. I do not think there are any gods, fates or forces directing our lives and setting us up for certain experiences. Nor do I believe that before this life we all got together in heaven, or some other place, and planned how we wanted it to go and what we wanted to learn. I think that life is improvisation. I also know that I do not know how reality works, and that my theories are best guesses. I therefore want the most useful theory I can find. I cannot know if I am right, but ‘useful’ is something I can measure.
However, the idea of an ineffable plan can be comforting in hard times. When all you get are setbacks, the idea that it means something, or is taking you in an important direction might turn meaningless pain into a bearable sense of significance. The only trouble is, if the plan is either that of a deity, or your higher self in another realm, you have no personal control. You can only endure and follow the path that you were fated to take. I don’t find that helps me make the best choices, and that’s why I reject it as a world view.
Sometimes there seems to be nothing to do but endure, suffer, and try to survive. Sometimes it feels like the only available life lesson is ‘you do not get to win’. But there are always other ways of thinking about what happens. We might not be able to change our circumstances, but we can change how we think about them, and that can, in turn, change everything.
On Monday I was starting to feel like I would inevitably be crushed by forces I cannot control. By yesterday morning I had reasoned out that there must be ways of not being crushed. By the afternoon I had come to realise that I do indeed have very little power because responsibility lies elsewhere. I went on to recognise that I can choose to trust the person who does have responsibility for dealing with things. This is someone who has not previously had to step up and shoulder such a huge load, but that doesn’t mean they can’t, or won’t. By this morning I had come to the conclusion that maybe this other person needs the opportunity to grow that will inevitably come as a consequence of stepping up. My role is no longer to be on the front line. I’m now at the support end, providing backup, information, resources and trusting someone else to take the lead. I feel fine about this.
A week ago, in a wholly different scenario, I found a sudden weight of responsibility descending upon me. A vast amount of work loomed as a consequence, and work that I had no idea how to do. The prospect alone could have put me down, could have convinced me that I was beaten, or caused me to relinquish autonomy to someone else as a way through. On that occasion, thinking it through, I realised that I was indeed the one who had to step up to make changes, and that I could do it. Now well under way in that process, the responsibility I took starts to feel like freedom.
In both situations I could have accepted the idea that I am fated to be crushed. Having two, or three, or four hard things fall one after the other (midweek we learned a lot about mechanical repairs) the scope for taking it personally is huge. I could decide that the gods have it in for me and mean to break me. I could conclude that my defeat is inevitable and that I might as well just lie down and wait to die. This would be a story, not a truth, and would only become real through my embracing of it and my acting it out.
Another day, another challenge. I do look for meaning, but am increasingly determined that the meaning I need to seek is about how to make the best of it. Often, there is some kind of good to extract from even the worst setbacks. Often there are ways of moving forwards even when at first it does not feel that way. The only grand plan I think is going to matter is the one I construct inside my head. If anything can be described as ‘meant to be’ it will be because things have happened as I meant them. Or as someone else human and present meant them. As I keep saying to my child, there are often no ‘wrong’ answers when it comes to life, there are only the answers we choose for ourselves. Keeping in sight the ways in which we can choose is a big part of taking responsibility, and finding freedom. It’s only when we convince ourselves that we have no choices, and no power, that we’re really in trouble.