CommonPlaces Breaking60 TravelingNotes UU Exploration Belief and Practice


As I was crossing 10th Street, I looked down and there it was in the gutter, near the curb: an 8 of spades. It was clear that this was an important moment: I could decide to pick it up or I could keep going. It was a fine spring morning and I was face to face with the issue of free will: are we free to act or is every act foreordained? I paused there, one foot on the curb and…

Let me back up a bit! I was in the city for an early meeting with colleagues and students. We had just spent an hour discussing a woman I knew well: six months ago she had developed a sudden pain in her hip, which turned out to be an infection and now she was doing well some six weeks after having received a total hip replacement. The conference dealt with her as a “case”: principles to be reviewed, a problem to be solved, guidance to be provided to surgeons in training.

However, I knew her as a friend and was aware of a concern she had: was there anything she had done (or could have avoided) which caused the infection? I had assured her repeatedly that there was not; that such infections were still occult to a great degree and that, sometimes, bad things just happened. But she continued to worry, while enjoying her rapid and, to her, somewhat unexpectedly rapid recovery.

The conference ended and, having said goodbye to my associates, I came out on the street. It was one of those cool, clear times when city life seems not only bearable but to one who has never lived there, even attractive. I had nearly an hour before the next fixed point in my day, and having given up my early morning walk to attend the conference, I set off to stroll, first to the east and then, as the hour drew on, west towards my goal.

As I was crossing 10th Street, I looked down and there it was in the gutter, near the curb: an 8 of spades. After a moment’s hesitation, I bent down and picked it up. It sits now on my desk as I write. It is destined to join the growing collection of small objects which I have similarly picked up over the years.

I think the point is this: The universe is so arranged that at that moment, the card and I were at the same place. I’m not terribly interested in whether this was random chance or a pre-destined event. I cannot know which it was nor do I much care, since in either case, I had no conscious part in its creation.

But, I did choose to pick up the 8 of spades. Now that in itself could also have been foreordained, part of a vast plan, or it could be the result of my own decision, my own free will. Again, I cannot know which it was nor do I care but, in this case, I can choose what I believe about the event.

Suppose I choose to believe that I was destined to encounter and pickup the 8 of spades. Then I must accept that all the events of my life are foreordained; that all the small changes of direction, all the pauses I made during my stroll were no choices at all; that I have no control or choice in my life.

But suppose I choose to believe that while the universe offers me choices, I can choose. Then my life lies ahead, exciting and filled with promise, each day presenting me with a myriad of choices and decisions to be made.

Since I cannot know which is the actual case, predestination or free will, I choose free will and all the benefits of that choice redound to me.

Possibly I can persuade my friend to do the same also and then, perhaps she can focus less on the choices offered and more on the opportunities taken.

I made this choice; I choose to believe in free will, and so should you.