I’ve never really considered writing posts that build on one another like magazine installments or episodes in a Netflix series. Up till now, I’ve let each post stand on its own. Still, after nearly seven years of writing a weekly post, certain themes come up. One theme involves the business owner last week who had to let three employees go because of Covid (see Victory in Defeat). When she explained the situation to me and how she handled one of the employees, she used the phrase “meant to be” (cf. Meant to Be).
I’ve been thinking about that phrase all week. Many people believe that whatever happens was meant to happen. It couldn’t have occurred any other way. However, other than things like gravity and electromagnetism, the evidence for “meant to be” is usually given post facto, meaning that people don’t predict what will happen. They merely confirm what has already taken place. If you remember your English Lit survey class, you’ll recognize this as a first cousin of Alexander Pope’s “whatever is, is right.”
Think of people you know who either have failed or succeeded at love, career, health, or wealth. You often hear them describing the outcome as “meant to be.” Or, conversely, how often have you been told that if a hoped-for relationship or job is meant to be, it will happen? Nothing will stop it. You find this kind of reasoning, filled with a sense of inevitability and even predestination, all over social media. But if you take will and grace seriously (the concepts, not the sitcom), then you’ve got some serious “splainin to do,” to quote another sitcom.
By way of personal example and as a way of leading into numerology, which is where we’re headed, consider this. I know my current job was meant to be, because the last four digits of my cellphone are exactly the same as my office phone. In fact, they line up so nicely on my business card that someone might conclude either that I am a wonder with Verizon, or getting my job was meant to be. And if it were meant to be, not even Verizon would be able to stop me. Of course, their decision to acquire Yahoo! couldn’t have been meant to be, unless you think God is cruel, but we’ll leave that for another post.
Let me point to another example from the first book of the Mercury trilogy, The Gringo (2011). The main character, Richard Mercurius, has been struggling with the same problem of meant to be as he tries to figure out why his life is falling apart in the jungles of Guatemala:
“Most people used ‘meant to be’ as an escape from whatever problems they were facing, but he saw it as the lazy man’s guide to a shallow life. That started to change as he sat there waiting for his drink and watched seagulls jockey for position above the water. It was certainly no coincidence that Nick and Katherine were here, just as it was no coincidence that the address of the Kiss was 1961 Cahona Boulevard, which, in addition to being the year Hurricane Hattie hit the Belizean coast, was the year JFK was sworn into office and Richard was born. Then there was the number itself, ‘1961,’ which was one of those rare numbers composed of three or more integers that looked the same upside down as right-side up. He wasn’t a superstitious man, but, good God, what could be more telling than that? He was finally connecting all of the dots, and for the first time in his life, he seemed to be in the right place at the right time for the right purpose.”
Trying to be in the right place at the right time for the right purpose is very Aristotelian. Richard’s ultimate goal, as it was for Aristotle, is happiness. He looks for signs that tell him in which direction to go to find it. When they don’t appear, he simply makes them up, but that’s hard to do when the FBI is hunting you in the jungle of Tikal and everything you try turns to, well, mierda.
This reminds me of the character Tereza in Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being who lives in the same myth-making world and sees signs everywhere, including park benches. She turns out to be more delusional than Richard. And then, according to E.M. Forster, “Actual life is full of false clues and sign-posts that lead nowhere. With infinite effort we nerve ourselves for a crisis that never comes.” For Forster, the unsuccessful man isn’t one caught unawares but one who prepares for a meant-to-be event that never takes place.
Still, some people will say that the non-meant-to-be event was meant to be. When that happens, I tell them about my cellphone and 1961. But then I add that God will not be mocked. His plan for each of us doesn’t line up nicely on a business card.
Image credits: interior of Thunderbird by Nagy Arnold on Unsplash. Want more (why wouldn’t you)? Go to Robert Brancatelli. The Brancatelli Blog is a member of The Free Media Alliance, which “promotes alternatives to software, culture, and hardware monopolies.”
Forster’s ‘false clues’ make me think of a quote by the novelist Ellen Glasgow: “All change is not growth, as all movement is not forward.” Sometimes what may appear as Kismet is really a push two steps back.
Yes, Robert. These are concepts that are difficult to wrap one’s head around. I guess I think that “what is…” is what is meant to be because it is, after all, what is. “Meant to be” can be viewed through the lens of a whole series of events, in which decisions, this way, or that were made. It seems that persons, given their histories, genetic mysteries, and the interplay of factors, go down inevitable paths and so, in that way, what is, is meant to be, and could not be otherwise. Kind of like, if a person takes a medical compound, certain chain reactions follow…