by Karen Frazier, Managing Editor
When I was 16, my best friend was struck and killed by a drunk driver. He was on the side of the highway, helping someone change a flat tire. He was safe at home when the phone call came, and he headed out to help someone he barely knew because, for some reason, he was the one that she chose to call.
It was the first day of Spring Break (April 2, 1982) and my family was headed off for a vacation in California when we got the late night call telling us of Dan’s death. It was the first death I had experienced (other than a grandfather and great uncle when I was 12) – and certainly the first unexpected one. Dan and I had been close since we were 11 – and we shared the same birthday. It was a bitter pill to swallow. I still dream of Dan to this day – usually right around the anniversary of his death. I often wonder what he could have been or become if he had lived. Would we still be friends? Would we still even be in touch? Would he have lived up to the promise that he showed as a teenager – all talent, intelligence and wide-eyed optimism?’
Of course, these answers remain only in the realm of speculation because someone chose to drink the night away and get in a car. According to witnesses, she swerved across four lanes of I-5 at just the precise time in the exact place where Dan was changing a tire. Dan died instantly.
This isn’t intended to be a rant about drunk driving, a cautionary tale or a tribute to a long-dead friend who I loved dearly (although all of those things are a part of who I am because of this early life experience). Instead, I want to look at it because of what people told a group of grieving, wounded teenagers in an attempt to comfort us.
“It was his time.”
“It was God’s plan.”
Was it his time? Did God really plan to kill my friend Dan in such a way? The sequence of events that led up to Dan’s death was certainly one in a million. Dan was safe at home. Someone he barely knew got a flat tire. Someone he barely knew called him, of all people, to come help them. Instead of saying, “but I barely know you,” he went to help. Someone else spent all day in a bar drinking. After driving along miles and miles of mostly deserted highway, she swerved in the exact place where Dan was changing the tire. Not across one lane, not across two lanes. Not even across three lanes. Four lanes. That’s a pretty big swerve – even for a drunk person.
This belief in predeterminism is pervasive in our society. We hear it a lot, especially surrounding death. There seems to be a belief among many that when your number’s up, there is NOTHING that you can do to prevent it. In the 2002 film adaption of HG Wells’ Time Machine, professor Alexander Hartdegen travels repeatedly back in time in an attempt to save his ill-fated fiancee, Emma. And yet, no matter what Alexander does, Emma dies. At the same moment that she died in all other timelines. Her mode of death is different, and she dies in different places. But she always dies. The implication is that poor Emma’s number was up – and nothing could save her.
Do we come into this world with a certain number of years, months, weeks, days, hours, minutes and seconds stamped invisibly on our foreheads? It appears that many believe the answer to be “yes.”
Right now here in the Pacific Northwest, a couple is on trial for the death of their 15-month-old daughter. She died of pneumonia. The parents are on trial because they are members of a church that believes in miracles over medicine. The parents opted to pray for their daughter’s health rather than seek what the court and expert medical witnesses contend would have been life-saving medical treatment. Certainly those parents believe that it was God’s will that their daughter was taken from them. Certainly they believe that 15 months was all of the time that little soul was meant to have on this earth and in their arms. How could they believe anything different? To do so would certainly be even more emotionally devastating than the death of their child. Having a child die is unimaginable. Being responsible on some level for that child’s death – well I think that might actually be unlivable. God’s will, in this case, probably trumps parental error for those parents.
Looking logically at predeterminism, however, there is a certain intricacy to it that makes it seem virtually impossible – or at least highly improbable. Think of those stories you heard after 9/11 where people who were supposed to have been on those planes weren’t. Were they spared for a reason? Did God have another plan for them? Or was it just blind luck – and coincidence? And if God did have a plan for them, what about His plan for the thousands that perished on that day? It would seem that the world took notice for five minutes – and then went back to what they were doing. Was that really God’s plan?
Like everything else, I have no answers, only questions. We live with at least the illusion of free will. It would appear that we have choices, and what happens to us as a result are the logical outcomes of those choices. But I can’t say for certain that this is what is happening. What if our free will is really only an illusion, and we are living out our lives within a framework set forth by an unseen hand? Do we have certain people, places and events stamped on our souls? And if we do, then what happens to free will? Is it merely an illusion?
These types of questions are the reason why I stay almost exclusively in the category of “agnostic”. Logic tells me one thing. Something inside of me tells me something else. What causes that dichotomy that I am experiencing? Is it merely that I have a questioning mind, but was raised within a framework of belief and it is difficult for me to give in to the logic? Or is it that somehow, it was predetermined that I spend most of my life asking questions and seeking elusive answers?
Since I can’t possibly know the answer to that, I have no choice but to go with the flow and see where it leads me.