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Friday, April 19: This week, one of my students was absent all week. She’s a sweet girl who poured her heart out to me a couple of months ago about losing her father in a car accident when she was a child.

Toward the end of this week, she came to see me in my office, crying.  She handed me an excused absence for the three days of the week she had missed and told me her uncle just died in a car accident.  Then she said, “You know, teacher, it’s the same uncle who called you about your car.”

the tomb of Mohammed bin Ali in Salalah, Oman

the tomb of Mohammed bin Ali in Salalah, Oman

Before I listed my car for sale to the public on April 1, I mentioned to my students that I was going to offer my car for sale starting in April.  This student immediately called her uncle, while we were still in the classroom, and told him about the car.  She asked me all the details and I wrote them on the board.  She did what most students do when I write homework assignments or anything important on the board. She took a picture of the information with her phone.

That evening, her uncle, who sounded quite young on the phone, asked me about the details of the car.  I told him all about it and he said he would get back with me. The next day after class, the student accompanied me to the parking lot so she could take pictures of the car.

gravestones in Salalah, Oman at the Tomb of Mohammed Bin Ali

gravestones in Salalah, Oman at the Tomb of Mohammed Bin Ali

Her uncle called again after seeing the pictures of the car that my student had sent him.  But he never arranged to see the car, and I never heard from him again.

When my student told me that her uncle, this same uncle, just died in a car accident, my heart went out to her. I was shocked.  Although I’d never met the young man, I had spoken to him twice on the phone.  When I asked how the accident happened, she said he was alone in the car and fell asleep.

more tombstones in Salalah

more tombstones in Salalah

Though there isn’t much traffic on Oman’s highways outside of Muscat, people drive like maniacs here.  Fatal car accidents happen quite frequently.  According to a May 22, 2012 report by MuscatDaily.com: ONE KILLED EVERY EIGHT HOURS IN ROAD ACCIDENTS IN OMAN, these are the statistics:

Road facts
–   Every eight hours someone is killed in a road accident in Oman
–   Every hour someone is injured in a road accident in Oman
–   Every 56km there is a death on Oman’s roads.
–   Speeding and reckless driving account for 72 per cent of all accidents.
–   In 2011, ROP imposed over 2.24mn fines for speeding.
–   Compared to 2010, 2011 saw a 30 per cent increase in the number of deaths due to speeding.
–   Nearly 60 per cent of all deaths on the roads are due to speeding.
–   According to WHO, road traffic accidents are the third biggest killer of people in Oman.

After she left me, I thought about my poor distraught student and the tragedy of losing an uncle to a car accident after already having lost her father to an accident when she was a child.

Then the thought hit me:  I wondered if the uncle would still be alive if he had bought my car. I wondered if the time he took to buy the car, or the fact of being in my heavy solid GMC Terrain, might have changed the trajectory of his life and thus the outcome.  The whole idea of this made me think of the movie Sliding Doors, starring Gwenyth Paltrow as Helen, the main character.

a cemetery near Plakias, in Crete, Greece

a cemetery near Plakias, in Crete, Greece

Sliding Doors is a 1998 British-American romantic comedy-drama film starring Gwyneth Paltrow and John Hannah. The film alternates between two parallel universes based on the two paths Helen’s life could take depending on whether or not she catches a train.  In the film’s conclusion, both tracks of life, one of which leads to Helen’s death in the arms of her new lover James, and the other which leads to Helen leaving her cheating boyfriend and ending up by chance on the elevator with that same James, both end with what we can assume is the same ending.  The audience is left to speculate whether it was fate or coincidence that brought Helen and James together in the end (Wikipedia: Sliding Doors).

I mentioned my thoughts about my student’s uncle to one of my Muslim colleagues and she said, “It wouldn’t have made any difference.  We believe that everything is written before you are born.  He was fated to die on this day, and it would have happened no matter what he did.”

Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris, France

Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris, France

After my colleague’s comment, I looked up the belief of fate or predestination in Islam.  I found that Qadar (Arabic: قدر‎) is an Arabic word for destiny and divine foreordainment. Essentially, destiny is what Allah has decreed. Allah has knowledge of everything in His creation. Nothing occurs except by His will. Human beings are given free will, and it must be made clear that destiny does not have a cause-and-effect influence on the choices humans make. The choices that humans make are all within Allah’s knowledge.

Some Muslims believe that the divine destiny is when God wrote down in the Preserved Tablet (“al-Lauḥ al-Maḥfūẓ”) all that has happened and will happen, which will come to pass as written. According to this belief, a person’s action is not caused by what is written in the Preserved Tablet but, rather, the action is written in the Preserved Tablet because God already knows all occurrences without the restrictions of time (Wikipedia: Predestination in Islam).

This is a fascinating question which I’m sure all of us have from time to time.  After checking into Islam’s belief on this, I thought I would check to see what Buddhism says about fate.  According to About.com: Misunderstanding Buddhism, the word “karma” means “action,” not “fate.” In Buddhism, karma is an energy created by willful action, through thoughts, words and deeds. We are all creating karma every minute, and the karma we create affects us every minute.

cemetery in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

cemetery in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

It’s common to think of “my karma” as something you did in your last life that seals your fate in this life, but this is not Buddhist understanding. Karma is an action, not a result. The future is not set in stone. You can change the course of your life now by changing your volitional acts and self-destructive patterns.

The Christian Bible is very murky on the concept of fate or predestination.  Some verses state that it is preordained by God which people will be saved and which are doomed to eternal hell.  Other verses say that it is God’s perfect will that all people should be saved. Most of what I can find about Christianity has to do with salvation or damnation, rather than about if one’s life is predetermined, as to life or death or other earthly matters (A Matter of Truth: Predestination).

I can’t help but wonder about this situation, along with countless others.  On September 11, 2011, many people were late to work and so avoided death in the World Trade Center attacks.  I have a friend who was in a terrible bus accident in Africa; by some freak chance she and two others survived while everyone else on the bus was mangled horrifically and killed.  My friend Mario was in El Salvador during the revolution and was afraid for his life many times.  He wonders why he never was killed when so many people he knew were gunned down in the streets.  I’ve heard of people who missed their plane flight and when the plane crashed killing everyone on board, they wondered why they were lucky enough to have been detained, and thus spared.  And I’m sure the Boston Marathoners and spectators who were injured or killed this past Monday, April 15, never thought they would be victims of a terrorist attack.  And those who didn’t happen to be at the finish line wonder why that incident happened at a moment when they weren’t crossing the line.

a cemetery in Akrotirion, Santorini, Greece

a cemetery in Akrotirion, Santorini, Greece

I remember reading the amazing book, The Bridge of San Luis Rey, by Thornton Wilder, that told the story of a (fictional) event that happened in Lima, Peru, at noon of Friday, July 20, 1714. A bridge woven by the Incas a century earlier collapsed at that particular moment, while five people were crossing it. The collapse was witnessed by Brother Juniper, a Franciscan monk who was on his way to cross it. Wanting to show the world of God’s Divine Providence, he sets out to interview everyone he can find who knew the five victims. Over the course of six years, he compiles a huge book of all of the evidence he gathers to show that the beginning and end of a person is all part of God’s plan for that person (Wikipedia: The Bridge of San Luis Rey).

I don’t believe in predestination.  Otherwise why would we have free will?  We ultimately don’t have control over our lives, but we do have the free will to take certain actions, which of course have certain or uncertain outcomes.  There really is no way of knowing whether a person’s life is preordained by God or Allah, whether our actions, or “karma,” determine our fate, or whether our lives are just a series of coincidences.  Any way you look at it, only one thing is certain.  We all will die.

cemetery in Santorini

cemetery in Santorini

In the book I am currently reading, The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, by Sogyal Rinpoche, the author says: Death is a vast mystery, but there are two things we can say about it: It is absolutely certain that we will die, and it is uncertain when or how we will die.

The author goes on to say: Switch on a television or glance at a newspaper: You will see death everywhere.  Yet did the victims of those plane crashes or car accidents expect to die?  They took life for granted, as we do.  How often do we hear stories of people who we know, or even friends, who died unexpectedly?  We don’t even have to be ill to die: our bodies can suddenly break down and go out of order, just like our cars. We can be quite well one day, then fall sick and die the next.

colorful gravestone in Santorini, Greece

colorful gravestone in Santorini, Greece

No one can know if that young man’s untimely death was preordained, or if he would have forestalled it by doing something different.  Whatever beliefs we have assimilated over our lives are what ultimately determine how we look at it.  In the end, we really cannot know.

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