“And who knows but that you have come to royal position for such a time as this.”
A major theme in literature, hell in life, is the idea of fate/destiny vs. free will. Do we actually have the option to choose our own path or are we predestined for something outside our control?
Much of our discussions in my class this week have centered around this, and oddly enough in my personal life as well.
This week with my seniors we talked about Paradise Lost, which I’ll admit is one of my favorite and lest favorite works to do with high schoolers. I love to talk about it because of the major themes it introduces and the way it requires them to think from different perspectives (particularly with all the allegorical implications—with the epic hero being called into question and the shift in how we perceive the hero and of course the purpose in writing a piece and how it reflects the historical backdrop of the author’s intent—there is such a wealth of discussion to draw from). It’s my least favorite for the same reason. There is no way to cover it all and even when I try to cover a tenth of it; the material can seem tedious (even to my best students) and so I often come away with a sense of disillusionment.
However, isn’t that just like a human?
After we look at Paradise Lost we move on to Lanier’s piece on “Eve’s Apology” and we talk about the Quarelle des Femmes. This is always entertaining for a myriad of reasons, not the least of which is because it’s our version of the blame game for the fall of Eden. During Lanier’s time the Quarelle des Femme (Question of Women) and used in the later half of the 19th century where the roles of women were being questioned and challenged probably for the first time in recorded history and a large part of it centered around, or at least used as evidence, Eve’s role in the fall of Eden. So in “Eve’s Apology”, Lanier argues that Adam is just as much at fault for the fall of Eden as Adam and offers evidence supporting that claim and refuting much of the misogynistic mindset held previously. While the piece is heavily biased, we then hold our own debate about who is responsible for the fall of Eden and I assign students their own roles for this debate (they don’t choose sides) and then they have to offer evidence to prove their “opinion”. I allow it to go on until it gets repetitive or to heavily laden with pathos. Then we discuss. Then I allow them to broaden their scope because students argue with me that Adam and Eve aren’t the only players. So they split into four corners—Adam, Eve, Serpent or God—who is the most to blame. Out of about 30 students, only 4 stick with Adam and Eve holding most of the responsibility—the rest split between the serpent and God and we discuss the ramifications of this and then students reflect.
But to me, isn’t this just like a human?
Adam and Eve didn’t want to take responsibility in the garden, and even today we don’t want them to hold the responsibility. We want to say it’s the higher powers that are really responsible. If God hadn’t created that tree then… Well if the serpent hadn’t present temptation then…. Personal responsibility is just not something humans are fond of.
Which is why the fate vs. free will theme is such a popular one. If it is our fate for something to happen then we don’t have to take responsibility for the ramifications of our decisions, right?
I’m not so sure.
Because here’s the thing. Yes, God created the tree in that garden. But what if he hadn’t? Would we have free will? If there is nothing to choose—does choice exist? Sure, God is so outside of time he probably knew what was going to happen when he created the tree, but he still decided to give us the choice because he’d rather have companions and a relationship with us than naked drones in a garden. Because if we didn’t have free will, we wouldn’t be stuck in the “middle state” that Pope describes in his “Essay on Man”. We’d just be beasts in a garden with no capacity to reason or choose. That sounds like a boring person to have a relationship with. I mean, I love my dog, but I need my human friends.
And if there was no one to tempt us, no serpent, then we would never know our own integrity. Adam and Eve both made a choice. “When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it” (Genesis 3:6). Maybe it was their destiny, but it was also their choice. Regardless of whether you see this story as literature, or as spiritual, the lessons it teaches are worth remembering.
Which brings me back to Esther, and of course myself. Esther was brought to the palace, but it wasn’t of her own free will, exactly. I mean, technically she probably could have run away, but where would she run to? She’s a teenager in Susa. She runs off into the desert to do what? Get eaten by wild beasts? Die of dehydration? Become a Bedouin or a prostitute? Really, her only viable option was to go to the palace to be either the King’s concubine or queen, and she lucked out. She was chosen as Queen. Then, Haman, the conniving weasel decides he doesn’t like all the Jews (bad blood between his people and the Jews, exacerbated by Mordecai’s disobedience of the ordnance to pay homage to Haman) and so he’s going to kill them all. Great. What he doesn’t know is he has just sentenced his queen to death. Oops.
Well, who knows, Esther, maybe this is your destiny.
I don’t know about you, but those are not very comforting words when approaching your husband for leniency could mean your death.
But, isn’t that just like a human?
Mordecai needs Esther to do this to save her people, so who knows! Maybe it’s your destiny—and that keeps his hands clean if it goes wrong (I’m being a little harsh on Mordecai, but I really feel for Esther. Poor girl.). But in a weird way, that who knows does give us hope.
Because, as Beth Moore points out in her Esther study, when the who knows becomes “I know” we know it is our destiny—and this is when we are disillusioned. When we come face to face with our destiny we sometimes feel like it should have more meaning than just ‘who knows’. I feel for Esther here—she’s faced with a destiny and she realizes that either way she will likely die. What a moment of mortality for a teenager. Not on the same scale, but I’ve had those same feelings of, dude, it wasn’t supposed to turn out this way.
I had a plan. I knew what my life was going to look like, and this wasn’t it. I’ve wanted to be a teacher for pretty much my entire life, but when you get up one day and your students come into class and aren’t responsive, or are responsive negatively or ask you things like: “Ms. Carmichael do you ever get bored when you are teaching?” I kind of just want to throw my marker in the air and say “to heck with this destiny.”
But I don’t.
Because more often than not when we have a personal relationship with God, we know that even when our destiny doesn’t seem to be exactly what we thought it was, He’s still got a hand in it—which is why I love Esther’s response. She doesn’t say yes, exactly. She says, “Go gather and fast. I will go. And If I perish, I perish.”
Hello, thank you personal responsibility. I did not hear a “If I perish—it’s your fault Uncle Mordecai” or “If I perish, God will avenge me”. It’s “If I perish, I perish”. Esther realized two things about this debate. 1) Destiny requires sacrifice and 2) Destiny requires action (free will).
I’ve had that response to my life more than once. “Okay God, I’ll keep on here. But if I snap, I snap.” I haven’t snapped yet (though I’ve been close some days, kids, so you better watch yourselves ;-)). Some days are harder than others, especially when I’m struggling with my own personal life. I’m exhausted for reasons outside my control, I have family issues (and boy do I have issues), and I do, contrary to popular belief, have a life outside of school. Even so, who knows? Maybe you’ve been brought to this position for such a time as this?
Because 1) Destiny requires sacrifice—and I can attest to that and 2) Destiny requires action (free will) and I’ll add a 3) Destiny requires thankfulness. Because, after all, God created us for SOMETHING, he gave us free will to give us a purpose, and that is something to be thankful for even when things get tough.
I guess my point is this. We spend a lot of time debating whether it’s destiny or free will—when in reality, it’s both. Or destiny is dependent on our free will. The more we rely on our God the more He will guide us to the destiny we were born for. The more we resist, the more suffering we will endure on our way to our destiny—whatever that may be. Because, isn’t it just like a human to make things more complicated than it has to be?
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve explained something to my students 12 or 13 times and then I tell them to get to work and then they ask me what they are supposed to be doing. I explain it once more and they say: Oh, is that all?
Yes, dears. That’s all. Don’t make it more complicated than it is. And I remind myself of the same.
Don’t make it more complicated than it is.
Because isn’t that just like a human.