Waxing Philosophical

At those junctures in life when I am stuck and absolutely unsure where to turn, when I can almost see the contours of a proverbial question mark floating above my head, I will more often than not choose to call upon a higher power to give me inspiration. It is a habit that my parents cultivated in me as a child and has since grown and developed over time. When I was living in France, this habit was a tad bit rusty. I spent Monday through Friday of every week waking up early, preparing to teach, leading random activities, and planning the evening program. There was hardly any time to think, let alone pray or nurture any kind of faith.

When I did attempt to ask God for help in choosing whether I should take the job in Barcelona, or claim my spot in the Masters program at CSULB, I cannot say that I had any major revelations. People over the centuries have often talked of hearing God’s “voice” in one way or another, but during my time at American Village, I wasn’t really hearing anything. There was no thunderous response; no telltale sign that this was the correct path I was supposed to be taking.

I was, however, reminded of my friend Nic. Nic is a Deist and as such, he thinks of God as the “Divine Clockmaker” who carefully designed the materials for this world and put them all together. He says that if you examine the complexity of nature—all of the patterns and intricacies of galaxies and hemispheres, the vastness, the magnitude of it all—it is difficult to conclude that everything came together by random chance. There has to be some sort of supernatural being who structured it with purpose and intent. As the Divine Clockmaker, God designed all the gear shafts of this universe, wound them up, and then removed his hands from the process, allowing the clock to start ticking as it may.

Nic doesn’t believe that God intervenes in our lives because if He did, then it would inhibit the notion of free will. The second God starts fooling with the clock again we are subjects of his determining and not our own. Our decisions suddenly become insignificant. Free will no longer exists.

When I consider all of this from a present-day standpoint, I am immediately reminded of my favorite travel memoir, Eat, Pray, Love. Towards the latter part of the narrative, Elizabeth Gilbert is living in Bali and she befriends a single mother named Wayan whose business is struggling and who is being evicted from her home. Wayan and her eight-year-old daughter have nowhere to go and so Gilbert decides to secretly raise money for them to have a home. She emails everyone she knows in the United States, explains the dire situation, and asks them to donate whatever they can. Gilbert ultimately raises over $18,000 and when she finally tells Wayan what she has done, Wayan is overwhelmed with shock and gratitude. She asks Gilbert, “What would I do if you never came here?”

Gilbert considers her question and responds by stating, “But I was always coming here.” She then discusses a Sufi poem that talks about how God drew a circle in the sand around the exact spot where we find ourselves today; only He drew that circle eons ago. “I was never not coming here,” she writes. “This was never not going to happen.”

In the eyes of Elizabeth Gilbert, God had planned it to be so.

Yet, if God is the Divine Clockmaker and He is neither intervening in our lives, nor drawing circles in the sand, then everything that happens to us is the product of our choices alone. Nic believes it is arrogant for us to think that in this great big galaxy, the human beings on planet earth are important enough for God to invest His time and energy in. We don’t know what else is out there, he says, and it seems incredibly likely that we are not the center of the universe.

I don’t believe we are the center of the universe—after all, that would be quite narcissistic of me—yet, I do believe that God loves us for some crazy reason and does take an active interest in our lives. I could go ahead and quote The Bible on this subject, but I won’t. Instead, I will ask you to consider how we can explain miracles if God does not directly involve himself in the affairs of this world. How do we account for events that cannot be scientifically explained and that seem far too complex to be labeled as “luck” or random coincidence?

The most prominent example of a miracle that I have witnessed in my own life happened about seven years ago. I was on the 57 freeway driving out to visit a friend in Fullerton when a van that was in the slow lane to the right of me decided to merge into my lane. I must have been in his blind spot because this blue van turned on its signal and started heading directly into me. Rather than honking the horn, as I should have done, I reacted on impulse and decided to swerve out of his way and into the lane on my left hand side. However, just as I turned the wheel sharply to the left, I glanced over my shoulder and noticed there was already a car in that lane. If I moved over, I would end up doing to that car exactly what this van was doing to me!

In desperation, I violently swung the wheel back to the right, hoping that the van might have noticed me by now; but he didn’t. He was almost in my lane and was about two seconds away from hitting me. The only thing I could think to do was to slam on my brakes and to swing the steering wheel back to the left so that I would be slightly out of his way, only this time, my wheel had been spun one too many times.

I completely lost control of my 1986 Honda hatchback and it started spinning in circles. In total, I spun across four lanes of freeway with my foot firmly planted on the break the entire time. When the car finally did skid to a stop, I was less than a foot away from the center divider and was facing on-coming traffic in the carpool lane.

I remember just sitting there, clutching the steering wheel firmly, so terrified I could barely breath. When I finally dared to lift my face, I looked up to find that all of the cars facing me had come to a complete stand still. All five lanes of traffic were just sitting there and looking at me, as though they were waiting for me to stop.

Traffic that day had been traveling at around 70 miles per hour. How had they all been able to stop in time? How was I able to spin across four lanes of freeway and hit no one? I had come dangerously close to crashing against the center divider, as well; yet my car had halted at precisely the right moment. After all of that, it didn’t even have a scratch on it.

How can we explain any of this other than to proclaim it as a miracle?

Moving back to Long Beach marked the beginning of many questions in this arena as I delved headlong into Literary Theory for my Masters program and began attending my old church on a regular basis. In the process of my philosophical inquiry, some questions were answered, while many still remained a mystery. But the one answer that became abundantly clear is that in choosing to forego the job in Barcelona and move back to Long Beach, I had made the right decision.

It hadn’t been an easy choice. Sitting in the computer lab at American Village and sending that email off to the director of the school in Barcelona—telling her I couldn’t accept the job after all—was incredibly difficult. I remember being plagued by a saddening sense of finality mixed with the slightest hint of regret. It was that panicking voice inside me—the voice of longing and of loss and of mourning for something that never was, but that could have been.

I chose to move back to Long Beach because it meant working towards my future goals and desires; whereas, living in Barcelona would be more about having fun, pursuing adventure, and living aimlessly. I liked the idea of working towards something solid and tangible—a degree that I could hold in my hands and list on my resume.

Looking back on my life since then, I can’t imagine it having happened any other way. I could sit around and ask how my life may have ended up had I stayed in Barcelona, but it never actually seems like a real question. Instead, it feels as though I was always coming here, as though it was never not going to be this way.