Tag Archives: meant to be

Your ineffable predestination

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.

It Was Meant to Be

by guest blogger Autumn Barlow

It’s a common, throw-away phrase that makes my gorge rise. As a child I didn’t understand it. I was raised by staunch atheists, so why did my mum say it? And as an adult it just makes me angry.

It’s always useful to analyse those things which cause visceral reactions. You’ll have some. We all do. Bursts of emotion at hearing certain phrases; reactions we’ve had so long we don’t really question them. “Ooo, I hate that,” you might say, and flit onto the next distraction.

I want to get to the bottom of my hatred of this phrase.

It was meant to be.

When is it said? Usually in response to some positive outcome. What could be seen as a happy co-incidence is given some significance. Otherwise unconnected events are linked by our urge to give meaningful narration to our chaotic lives. Perhaps it anchors us in infinite time.

We don’t usually say it about bad things – like miracles, as Pratchett points out, which are only attributed to pleasant events. But awe and wonder are neutral values. I am in awe of a mass murderer – dwarfed by their personality, small as I try to comprehend their actions. It doesn’t mean admiration, though we tend to allocate such a tinge to the word. Though sometimes it’s said about a tragic event that no-one can understand, to try and make it all right. But say “it must have be meant, there must be some reason” to a parent who’s lost a child, for example, and you had better be able to run very fast.

Look at the “meant” part of the sentence. “Meant” has to have an originator. Someone, or something, to have had intention. There’s one reason for my particular antipathy to this phrase: my mum, who denied all religion and all spirituality, would routinely trot these words out. As a rebellious teenager I worked my way through rejecting pretty much all I thought my parents stood for, and though I have since, as an adult, re-evaluated my blanket denials, some things lingered. I’ve carried on some rebellions without thinking them through, and hating the illogical phrase is one of them.

It carries echoes, then, of woolly thinking and throwaway remarks. And more: I’ve always disliked people who seem to simply accept what they’re told.

Underneath that dislike is the unpleasant truth about myself: I’m jealous.

Jealous of those who appear to have an unconditional acceptance of how the world is. The world is as they have been told it is. They don’t question – and they feel secure. I envy that. I question, always, and have found no solace.

It was meant to be. Even if the person saying it doesn’t really believe in a directing force, who caused things to happen for our benefit, they still imply a kind of ease and relaxation with the universe that I simply don’t have.

Perhaps it’s because I want things to have meaning. I want events to have been “meant” by some higher power, something wiser than us. Maybe that’s the root of my anger – I feel that nothing does have meaning. And it should.

But I know that letting a higher power take responsibility for directing events mean that all events, good or bad, are driven by that power. So then we get into the blind acceptance of terrible happenings because “we can’t see the whole picture” and “it was god’s will” and I just can’t help seeing this ending in awful, lethargic apathy because if everything was meant to happen then what use is our will and our drive, our striving to create a better world? It was meant to be. Shrug it off.

And there it is. The root of it, coming even as I write this; it comes down to individual responsibility for our own actions, and an acceptance that what we do matters. Everything we do must be considered – what impact on ourselves, our community, our world, our universe?

Nothing was meant to be in that one-step-removed, impersonal, nothing to do with me denial of cause and effect. It happened because of people’s choices.

And that’s what makes me so furious. The way we hide behind phrases like this to mask our responsibilities for what happens in the world, because we feel so small and the universe so large, we think we can’t possibly have any effect.

But we do, and we must. We must mean to be.