For me, the world has always been more of a puppet show. But when one looks behind the curtain and traces the strings upward he finds they terminate in the hands of yet other puppets, themselves with their own strings which trace upward in turn. —Alfonsa, in All the Pretty Horses, by Cormac McCarthy
As none of us know what’s next or what might have been, we discuss fate academically. We want to make sense of events and, after the fact, align moments that contribute to our successes or calamities. We can’t say for sure we’re right, but we’d like to be. Some of us place faith in a guiding intelligence, certain of God even in the absence of reason.
Though, intellectually, I see my inner order-maker at work, I’m not immune to explanation. Last weekend I landed in the hospital for a night, kept for observation when my blood pressure dropped suddenly. The doctors looked for causes, and I joined them, trying to figure out where I’d gone wrong, how I could have avoided that hospital bed. A collection of very scientific precedents probably did lead to my fate—the doctors told me so—but something led to those precedents and precedents led to those precedents… and so on.
We just can’t know. Lawrence Thompson‘s collection of Robert Frost’s letters reports that “The Road Not Taken” was a response to Frost’s friend Edward Thomas who, on their walks together, always sighed over what might have been. Frost disapproved of Thomas’ laments, but most people read the poem as affirmation. “Think carefully,” they interpret the poem as saying, “because the path you take today makes all the difference.”
Frost might ask, “Who knows, really?” One decision can’t matter much, and it’s hard to live thinking each act is consequential. Time moves quickly. My doctors, rightly, would tell me no moment deserves blame. They might encourage me instead to focus on the cumulative effect of my decisions, the patterns and habits they communicate.
Confucius is right, we are what we do daily… yet every decision creates those patterns and habits too. Each road must be taken in turn.
Other animals have a huge advantage over us here—instinct keeps their wheels on the rails—and, if we are more adaptable and less lost off the rails, we sometimes do ourselves terrible damage with assumptions about what’s acceptable, desirable, and beneficial. Nature isn’t perfect—predators overhunt, plants exhaust the soil—but they don’t choose. Nature isn’t deliberately delusional, as we sometimes seem to be.
Three-quarters of the way through All the Pretty Horses, John Grady, the main character, talks with Alfonsa, the grand-aunt of the girl he loves. At seventy-three, she’s in the mood to consider how she’s landed where she has. She remembers studying experimental method in school, learning the way scientists use control groups to gauge the effect of a single variable. But Alonsa tells Grady:
In history there are no control groups. There is no one to tell us what might have been. We weep over the might have been, but there is no might have been. There never was. It is supposed to be true that those who do not know history are condemned to repeat it. I don’t believe knowing can save us. What is constant in history is greed and foolishness and a love of blood and this is a thing that even God—who knows all that can be known—seems powerless to change.
Alfonsa sees there’s no sorting out causes and effects. History records and explains instead of teaches. And her cynicism about humanity’s habits extends forward and backward—we have and will make mistakes—and knowing or God won’t save us. Yet, after her dour assessment, she still tries to protect her grand niece from Grady’s attentions. Knowing limitations doesn’t save Alfonsa from responsibility, and she acts, hoping to give her grand niece the future she could not have herself.
She tries. We try, knowing decisions—even the simplest—can create outsized effects. The time may come for second-guessing. We imagine the parent of a missing child and those subject to silly miscalculations bringing death and destruction. In their place, we’d do what every human does, ask why endlessly and inexorably, even if investigation will yield nothing but futile, fruitless, torturous effort.
Moment by moment, decisions shape fates bigger than understanding, yet we act. Instinct won’t protect us. Free will is the mark of our species, its defining characteristic, its bane and boon. Yet free will and fate won’t matter in the end. We are here. Afraid every act matters, sure everything does and with little reason to hope, we hope. We hope our acts will add up properly. We hope what seems right, is. We must.