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? Continue reading
David Blaine’s street magic specials are always fun to watch. If you haven’t seen what he does, this is a great example.
Now, if you’re anything like me, your immediate reaction was, “Oh my God – how did he do that?!” It almost felt like he was reading that woman’s mind, since it looked like she had the choice to have “picked a card, any card.” But in fact, where magicians like David Blaine are truly masters of illusion is in creating the best illusion of all – the illusion that we have free choice.
One of the reasons magicians are able to “know” what card we’ve picked is because they have already determined what card they wanted us to pick – it was never really actually “our” choice in the first place. Their trickery lies in their ability to lead us to feel invested in “our” decision.
Stephen Macknik and Susanna Martinez-Conde are the authors of the book Sleights of Mind: What the Neuroscience of Magic Reveals About our Everyday Deceptions, and they argue that the reason we feel like we were the ones who actually picked the card was because “[o]ur minds will go to surprising lengths to preserve [our] sense of agency and choice.” (pp. 171-172) In other words, our brains sometimes lie to us, leading us to believe that we have much more control over our situations than we actually do.
And yet that’s actually not all that surprising. We know in our own lives that we do not have unlimited choice – there are very real limits to what we have the freedom to do. We can not simply “choose” to get a million dollars – we have to work hard at a high-paying job, and even then, luck will play a big role in whether or not we succeed. We cannot just “decide” to lose weight – we have to diet and exercise, and even then, our metabolism or our willpower may make it challenging to meet that goal. Our genetics, our environment and our past decisions all restrict our choices to an extent. While we may want to believe we have total and complete free will, when we reflect on it, we recognize that we are not nearly as free as we think.
Rabbi Akiva’s Magic Show
This question of how much free will we truly have is actually a very old one, and it’s one the Rabbis grappled with, as well. And perhaps the most classic statement comes from Rabbi Akiva in Pirkei Avot, when he said, “All is foreseen, but freedom of choice is given.” (Avot 3:15)
But how does that work? How can there be free choice if God has foreseen everything?
Well, think about a magic trick, but think about it from two different perspectives — from the point of view of the magician who is orchestrating the trick, and from our point of view, experiencing it. For the magician, “all is foreseen” — he knows what is going to happen, and has planned everything out meticulously. But for us, it feels like “freedom of choice is given,” because we feel we could have picked any card at all. And that’s the point. For the trick to work, we have to believe that we are the ones in charge — even if that’s not really the case.
So that realization can also help us understand Akiva’s statement — except this time, let’s think of our lives from two different perspectives — from God’s and from our own. Now, we may believe that God has foreseen everything, or we may not. I think it actually doesn’t matter which one is true, because as imperfect human beings, we will simply never be able to know objectively one way or the other. The crucial belief for us to hold onto is that “freedom of choice is given” — and it’s crucial for us to hold onto that belief, even if that, too, is not always the case.
And that’s because if we simply feel invested in our choices — even if sometimes they aren’t always “ours” — we can then own them and take responsibility for them. If our only belief is that God has foreseen everything, that could easily lead us to abdicate our own sense of responsibility. But if we believe we are the ones in charge of our lives, then we can take pride in our ideas, celebrate our accomplishments, and become accountable for our decisions — regardless of how much they really are “ours.”
So whether or not “all is foreseen,” it’s much more important for us to act as though “freedom of choice is given,” because that’s how we feel a sense of ownership of our actions, over ourselves and our own lives. Because whether or not “all is foreseen,” and whether or not “freedom of choice is given,” we know from experience that there is great value in feeling like we can pick our destiny — any destiny we choose.
(originally published on Sinai and Synapses)