I recently returned from an amazing trip to Senegal. I was there to visit my step-daughter who is serving in the Peace Corps. It was incredible to get a taste of her experience living in a village in an inner region of the country. Returning home, as many have asked us if we had a good vacation, I have found myself answering, vaguely, “It was an experience.” I’m so glad we had the opportunity to have this experience and yet it is unlike anything I’ve ever done for vacation before.
There is much that I could say about the trip and all that we experienced, from the landscape, the people and cultures, the food, to the village way of life. But I’d like to share one story that I shared with two of my classes at Religious School last night in the context of our theological, “God Talk” sessions. The topic? Transportation.
Public transportation is quite an experience in Senegal. Aside from our initial trip in from Dakar to the inland region, where we shared a private ride with another Peace Corps family, we opted to use public transport to get around. We found ourselves getting into vehicles that, in any other country, I would never dream of traveling in. There was not a single taxi ride that we took for very local journeys that did not involve a taxi with multiple cracks across the front windscreen. All of the shared 7-seater cars that we took had taken some kind of beating on the severely potholed roads that we traveled. But the most challenging ride we took was in one of the regional minibuses that ride from market town to market town. After a three-hour wait on the side of the road following a beautiful hike to a waterfall in a fairly remote eco-tourist location, this was all that came by, and we decided that it was possibly our only ride back to home base that day.
These buses are loaded with as many people as they can hold, along with any assortment of items up on the roof (in another location we saw three goats that had been purchased in the market town seated up top). After a very bumpy hour-and-a-half ride back to base, one of us seated in the aisle on a bag of rice and one of us with a set of live chickens under our seat, we arrived safely at our destination.
We had planned to take an overnight back to Dakar at the end of our trip so as to avoid traveling in the hot daytime. However, upon arrival at the market town where we expected to make that connection we learned that the reservation that had been made by phone didn’t exist as that particular bus had been rerouted for that one night to Touba for a Muslim pilgrimage. Another lengthy wait ensued and we got ourselves a ride on a 7-seater that brought us safely back to Dakar in plenty of time for our plane home the following night.
The following morning, sitting in a Dakar coffee shop, I picked up one of the French newspapers. My French isn’t what it used to be, but I could translate enough of the front page article to see that the previous night, a bus on its way to Touba had been in a head-on collision with one of the regional minibuses. Not just any bus: the bus we were supposed to take. All 26 occupants of the minibus were killed.
After taking in the tragedy of the story, my very next thought, reflecting back on the previous day’s frustrations as our plans had gone awry and we’d had a long, hot wait for alternative transportation was, “Perhaps it was meant to be.” And in almost the same moment of utterance, I felt ashamed. Meant to be that we were not on one of those buses? Meant to be that we had to change our plans? But surely not meant to be for the 26 souls who died?
As I shared the theological implications of the statement with my students, we reflected on how often we find ourselves, upon seeing the larger picture, or realizing that something good has come out of something that we initially perceived as bad, voicing such a statement. It’s familiar to many. But what do we actually mean by it?
For some, their belief is indeed shaped by a sense that something larger than ourselves – often understood as God – is guiding the direction of our lives. When we experience something negative or painful or tragic, one who believes this can find it a meaningful way to manage their suffering through the faith that there is a bigger picture and a larger plan that we simply don’t understand. However, for others, this kind of belief leads to incredible anger toward God and a magnification of their suffering.
For some, the statement is less of a theological statement about God’s hand in our lives and more of a pragmatic statement of relief that, perhaps by random chance, we ended up going left instead of right, left 5 minutes later instead of 5 minutes earlier. In order that we find ourselves where we are right now, it had to be that the turn of events prior evolved as they did.
Beliefs about the extent to which God has a will and is directly engaged in our lives are many and varied throughout Jewish philosophical thought. They feed into a wide range of beliefs and opinions of the extent of free will vs “fate.” If we do not believe in fate, is it a contradiction to believe that something was “meant to be” in the sense of God having a hand in the specifics of our lives?
For some, their belief in God is more of a sense of the pulsing energy of existence that encapsulates and goes beyond all things knowable and unknowable. To that extent, it is more of an ever-unfolding “is” than an entity with conscious will, at least in the way that we understand those words in human terms. For such a believer to use the phrase “it was meant to be,” they have more in common with the one who believes that it is all just random chance, except that this unfolding of their life and reality may be imbued with a greater sense of awe and a sense of the mystery of it all that provides the foundation for their spirituality.
Personally, it is in this latter group that I find myself. But what I realized as I analyzed these ideas with my students is that a variety of different belief systems can lead to the same outcome – a way of accepting that which “is,” whether felt as positive or negative, and taking the next step forward into life because or in spite of what has just come before. It’s not arriving at the specific formulation of one’s belief that is most important; it is recognizing how it serves or hinders one’s ability to live a meaningful life in this world. And understanding that the only moment that we truly have is this one.