I’m 8 years old, and still small enough to nestle deep within the plush green leather sofa that sits in the darkened family room in our house. The only light in the room streams out of the deep cathode ray TV, showing soldiers fighting bravely and speaking laconically on and around the grass-covered hills of Southern Pennsylvania, circa 1863. My brother and I are a quite a few hours into Gettysburg, Ronald Maxwell’s 1993 6 hour screen epic, adapted from Killer Angels by Michael Shaara. It’s Saturday afternoon, and we’ve nothing better to do than cheer as Chamberlain charges down Little Round Top, mourn with Pickett for his lost battalion, and–because we’ve seen it before–wonder with frustration why General Lee never–I mean never–listens to General Longstreet’s battle advice. If you’ve seen the movie before, you might know what I mean. Their conversations tend to go like this:
Longstreet approaches Lee, both men looking dignified but grizzled in their grey studded with brass, watching the battle unfold. It’s not going well for the Confederates.
–“Sir, if we move the left flank up, we could catch the Yankees by surprise and turn the battle in our favor.”
Lee glances at his trusted subordinate briefly, hands tightly clasped behind his back, then returns to staring far, far away.
–“It’s all in God’s hands now.”
Longstreet moves a little closer, holding his face in a tight-lipped neutral expression.
–“General, you must not have heard me. We can still win this battle. If we deploy the reserves on the left flank–”
–“–It’s all in God’s hands now.”
Longstreet turns away, kicks the turf, then glances up at the abode of the aforementioned deity.
–“You have got to be kidding me.”
That’s an exaggerated version derived from my very imperfect memory of the film. The actual film, though, does portray Lee in these interchanges as someone very convinced of the power of fate. And he does say “It’s all in God’s hands now” at least once
In the Longstreet modern world we live in, this view of fate appears only rarely. But it hasn’t always been that way. In my Icelandic literature class last semester we read several sagas. These 13th century fictional compositions mostly take place in a very real 10th/11th century Icelandic setting, and tell much about the culture and practices of that time and place. Interestingly, many of the sagas portray characters convinced of the fated nature of events. They are often so convinced that they follow the flow of fate as they see it even when that puts their lives at great risk. In the Saga of Gisli Surson, for example, Gisli’s blood brother Vestein goes raiding about the North Atlantic for a few years, leaving Gisli back home in Iceland. Before the two part ways, they forge a unique set of matching coins, and each promises to send his coin to the other as a coded signal to warn them of impending danger. This system comes in handy, because before Vestein returns to Iceland, a rumor spreads of an affair between him and Thorkel’s (Gisli’s brother’s) wife. The affair may or may not have actually occurred, but, in the face culture of 10th century Iceland, the mere rumor of it suffices to put Vestein in danger from the humiliated Thorkel or his friends, should Vestein return home. Gisli knows this, and sends Vestein his coin, which reaches him just in time to turn around and avoid the danger. Vestein looks at the coin, understands the message, then decides to press forward, saying that fate seems to be pushing him this way. He is murdered shortly after returning.
This attitude towards fate can be infuriating. And I’m the first one to yell “JUST BRING UP THE LEFT FLANK, LEE!” or “WHAT’S THE POINT OF THE COIN SYSTEM IF YOU AREN’T EVEN GOING TO PAY ATTENTION TO IT, VESTEIN” at my TV and/or English-language collection of the Sagas. Because, while certainly in large part dictated by circumstance, our path in life is not pre-decided. We forge it through the decisions and actions we make and take. Right?
I think so. In fact, I once wrote a whole blog about free will. It’s one of my favorite things, and not just because my name is in the phrase. A sense of the beauty and value of free will allows me to cope with The Problem of Evil and still believe in an all-powerful, all-good, God.
Plus, we do seem to make free choices. Like when I decided to delay my college education by a year after high school. I talked and deliberated for weeks about it–weighed the pros and cons, then decided to abandon the class of 2016 for the class of 2017. Or like when my friend Aaron decided against attending the University of Edinburgh, and instead choose UNC-Chapel Hill. He visited Edinburgh, loved it, but for various reasons made the choice to attend university closer to home. These are choices Aaron and I have discussed at length, because of their effect on our respective lives. If he had chosen to study in Scotland, than he would have had a very different set of experiences–probably more filled with Scotch-drinking and hiking in the Highlands. Maybe he would have been involved with advocating for Scottish independence a year ago. He might have even ended up dating a Scottish girl and settling down across the pond. One thing is for certain: he would not have been randomly assigned to be my suite-mate my first year at UNC Chapel HIll. We would not have become friends. And neither would he have been there to introduce me to my co-blogger, Michael, nor my current roommate, Alex. In fact, a Scottish Aaron means a drastic reduction (or, at least, alteration) in the friend group of American Will. A similar situation would have logically resulted from me deciding not to take a gap year and instead jumping right into UNC after high school. In this alternate universe, Aaron, Alex, Michael, and most of my other this-universe friends would arrive in Chapel Hill a year after me. Given the importance of first-year dorm experiences for making social bonds, I think it is unlikely that I would have become friends with any of them. I’d currently be Senior Will, spending time with a completely different group of people.
Choices made through free will produced a world where Scottish Aaron and Senior Will exist only in an alternate-universe. Aaron chose to remain in North Carolina for his college education, and I chose to delay mine a year, making me a junior this year.
Wait. That’s actually not right.
In fact, right now, Aaron is studying at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland. He’s probably strolling through New Town as I write this. Tomorrow, as I imagine it, he’ll wile away some Sunday hours with a glass of Scotch, listening to smooth jazz pouring out a pub speaker.
And I’m a senior. I’ve sent in my medical school applications, and I will receive my diploma from UNC in May. I’ll graduate as a member of the class of 2016.
The grooves of inclination, or circumstance, or–may I say it: Fate, have guided me and Aaron into the very situations that our decisions at the end of high school seemed to pull us away from.
Granted, the work of fate here–if that is indeed what it is–is less extensive than I may have at first made it out to be. Aaron is doing a study abroad trip to Edinburgh. He’ll be back at UNC next fall. So the chances of him leading any sort of Scottish independence revolution seem slight. And my gap year decision has hardly been negated either. I’m graduating a year early, so my experience has and will be very different than it would be if I had gone straight to college after high school.
Still, the fate-ishness of Scottish Aaron and Senior Will coming into existence this semester struck me. I still don’t think, like Vestein, that we are slaves to fate, marching down pre-destined roads toward doom or glory.
But I can sympathize with him. I can’t resist the feeling that a hand has guided my life, nudging me and pushing me–though not altogether so tightly or powerfully that I cannot move against its wishes.
This hand has not at all times appeared loving to me. But when I think upon my wonderful family, my friends, the many joys of my life and memories–it seems overwhelmingly clear to me that it is loving. Indeed the very fact that Aaron did choose to go to school at UNC, that I did choose to take a gap year. That we were placed as suitemates: the many blessings that those circumstances alone have brought me in terms of wonderful friendships–seems enough to convince me of that hand’s benevolence.
This hand of Fate, I believe, belongs to God. I think it acts vigorously in our lives, trying to draw us to Him. But I also think that it leaves room for free will in every second of every day. This free will–but also, paradoxically, God’s plan–is intact in every part of our lives. It is in our decision to get out of bed, or to sleep in. In our studying and in our working. In our talking, and in our contemplative quiet. In our meanness-es and in our kindnesses. In our gap years and our straight-to-college’s. In our Scotland’s and our America’s. It is in the big decisions and the little ones that have brought us to where we are.
I understand that this paradoxical belief–in free will and in a sovereign, active God–is not one that is palatable to everyone. Sometimes it is not even palatable to me. Yet it is a belief–a mystery, as theologians sometimes say when dogma doesn’t quite make sense–that speaks to my soul. I cherish it deeply.
So as I start my last semester, I’ll say with confidence, but far less dignity than Martin Sheen’s Robert E. Lee:
“It’s all in God’s–and our hands–now.”