Free Will Versus Destiny

The following series of essays have been written while teaching ESL (English as a second Language) classes to adult students from all corners of the world (this writing exercise began last month, and continues to be a part of my classes). Each morning, the first class – that began this project – was required to answer one of two questions. At first, I was the one to ask the questions, but I quickly turned it over to the students. Their questions ranged from simple, everyday life things, like, “Why are you studying English?,” to complex, philosophical questions, such as, “What are the limits to freedom?” The class would write for an hour, and I would join them. We would listen to the Gypsy Kings, U2, Coldplay, Tango, and much more. Once we were through, we would read our responses aloud, and then have a conversation about each person’s analysis. It was humbling to hear from people from Saudi Arabia, Korea, Thailand, Turkey, and elsewhere. All our answers were motivated by a desire to convey an honest, open response, and everyone had an earnest desire to share with the others. As mentioned already, I continue to carry out this exercise with my new classes. It is a thrilling experience, and when I am away from the classroom during the weekend, all I can think about is this: “I can’t wait to be back at work on Monday, so that I can write with all of my students, and then share!”

Like so many complex, philosophical ideas, these two concepts – free will versus destiny – have been explained tirelessly by the greatest minds. (Mind you, when I refer to great minds, I don’t just mean sagely philosophers). Regardless of a person’s station in life, human beings think about, debate, and question how or even if there are intersecting points between free will and destiny.
Each human mind conceives of these two things in a peculiar way. In addition, a person’s cultural background and – most importantly – the particular moment in time (what historians call historical context) in which she finds herself, informs her understanding of free will versus destiny.
So, the peasant from, say, Peru might think about free will versus destiny differently than a surgeon who sews up bodies in Los Angeles, California. However, both individuals might just consider it in such a way that intersects with a teacher who works in Denver, Colorado. In a word, perhaps at heart, all three of these people think about free will versus destiny in the exact same way.
Imagine them sitting down together at a round table. Furthermore, the peasant, the doctor, and the teacher aren’t the only ones who are at the table. In fact, there are many people at the table who come from all walks of life. For instance, there is a man from the military, perhaps he’s a colonel, there’s a Persian calligrapher, and there’s also a pianist from Russia. The list of people goes on and on – indeed, it’s an endless group of people, sitting at this large and round table. These guests at this table can come and go as they see fit. Not only do they come from all walks of life, but also different countries and different centuries. When they arrive at the table, even though they come from different epochs and lands, hold their own values and speak all sorts of different languages, they are all able to speak clearly with one another about free will and destiny. That’s to say these apparent barriers, in part, dissolve.
The conversation is hosted by God, but there should a disclaimer about His role at the table. First, God does not lead the conversation. Second, God does not offer His take. Instead, He just listens. You see, God has too much respect for the people at the table, so he just sits back, relaxes, and ensures that all of them are taken care of.
It should be noted that, while the people, who – as already mentioned – come from various centuries, lands, and cultural backgrounds, can understand one another, they are divided into two distinct groups: the Brokens and the Unbrokens. Even though the Brokens can understand the words being expressed by the Unbrokens, they are incapable of comprehending the meaning behind those expressions. In a word, the Truth expressed by the Unbrokens remains opaque to the Brokens.
The ones at the table who are not broken have a clearer perception of how free will and destiny are intertwined. These people do not feel trapped by Fortuna, but they are quick to point out to the broken people that free will has its limitations. The Brokens can’t understand, and are especially confused when the Unbrokens laugh. And the Unbrokens laugh and laugh and laugh! They are, after all, descendants of Sarah. When they laugh, the Brokens become angry, not realizing that the Unbrokens mean no harm. After all, their laughter does not come from malice. God understands this, sits quietly at the head of the table, and smiles with His deepest love for all of the people. The Unbrokens occasionally smile back at Him. But then quickly begin to laugh again and go about their business.
Angels and little, fat-cheeked cherubs deliver exotic fruits, spicy wines, and delectable meats to the table. The Brokens aren’t able to eat. Even worse, the more the Unbrokens drink and eat, laugh and smile, the angrier they become. This worsens their already shriveled up appetites, and they demand answers about the most serious issues about free will and destiny.
“The question doesn’t have to be discussed in such lofty terms!” The Unbrokens sing in unison, which is then followed by joyous laughter.
God continues to smile. Jesus relaxes and sips some wine. The Unbroken laugh and say, “Jesus, are you drinking your own blood?”
Everyone, except the Brokens (of course), laugh harder. Jesus laughs, too.
It should also be noted that this conversation is already always happening, and the Unbrokens make a point to ignore the heaviness of all of these questions. The Brokens, on the other hand, insist on getting to the bottom of the question, but their fury distracts them. Even more peculiar, they don’t realize that God and Jesus, along with all the saints and prophets, are at the table. The angels and darling cherubs are also absent from their view.
Soon, the jokers and jesters arrive. There is a procession of these players, and they bring gifts of gold, myrrh, and clown tricks. They come to the table with a cadre of camels and donkeys, lions and doves. All the creatures have purple balloons tied around their necks.
The angels continue to fill the table with fruits and meat, wine and water. They also bring out little cakes and other sorts of sweets. The Brokens refuse to eat, and become angrier.
“We haven’t even talked about free will and destiny!” The Brokens scream.
Their shouts are muffled by more uproarious laughter. God continues to smile, while Jesus sips his wine and talks to St. Francis and Mother Mary.
The unbroken continue to sing, and welcome the jesters and jokers.
“Let’s just play! Just play! That’s what we do!”
Jesus claps, and God leans back in His chair. The Brokens throw up their arms in disgust. Some leave the table, stomping out in a fit of rage. But, a few stay behind. The longer they stay, the more they begin to see. Some of them even discover that God is at the table. When they see him, they suddenly begin to laugh. The more they laugh, the healthier they become. They look at the Unbroken, and hear these words, “Welcome to the land of milk and honey! Now it’s time for you to play with us!”
The feasting intensifies and more Brokens improve. The celebration continues to grow.
One day – God hopes – ALL will join in laughing at the table. He’s waiting patiently. And that is all He can do – wait.

—Cryn Johannsen





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