Posted by: Inside-Out Peace | December 15, 2010

Effect and Cause, or Cause and Effect?

George Washington had several narrow escapes from death early in his military career.   Kenneth C. Davis, in America’s Hidden History, mentions that when Washington later became the leader of the Continental army, some people interpreted those escapes as “proof of his destiny”.  (p. 92) 

What is “destiny”?  What do people really mean when they say something was “destined” to happen? 

The word itself is very much like the word “destination”.  Imagine that you have decided to take a vacation.  The first thing you need to do is choose a destination.  Once you have made that choice, many other things will have already been decided as well.  For example, will you pack flip-flops or hiking boots? 


Even for things that aren’t fully decided, most of the choices are reduced to relatively few options.  You have, say, 10 hotels to choose from, rather than 1,000,000.  If you’re going to Hawaii you can fly or sail, but you won’t be driving (unless you live there, but then it isn’t exactly a vacation, so that doesn’t count.)

On the day of your departure, you will do many things that you don’t ordinarily do, that will ultimately result in your arrival at your destination.  You are doing them because of that desired future event.  Once you arrive, you are in Hawaii because you got on the plane, but you also got on the plane because you were going to Hawaii.  The effect is a cause, and the cause is also an effect.

Once people know the cumulative result of all the major, and seemingly minor, events in someone’s life, there is an easy tendency to view those major events in the same way as getting on the plane.  But in reality, it’s getting on the plane that caused you to be in Hawaii, not being in Hawaii that caused you to get on the plane.  You would not conclude that you are in Hawaii because it was “destined” – you know that it is the result of conscious choices that you made. 

However, calling George Washington’s command of the Continental army his “destiny” implies his command is the cause of his survival.  It is a belief that future events can directly affect the present, even when we don’t know what those future events will be, and in ways that we ourselves have no control over.

So, you wouldn’t say that it was destiny that brought you to Hawaii, even though that is clearly a case of the future affecting the present.  But, imagine your plane has to be diverted for some reason, you end up in San Diego, decide to stay and have a wonderful time there.  Perhaps you even meet someone or learn something, that you wouldn’t have if you’d gone to Hawaii, and that connection or knowledge turns out to be very important to you later on in life.  In that case, you might very well say it was “destiny” that you went to San Diego.  Why?  What is different? 

The only difference is that you did not expect that outcome.   No one who wanted to go to San Diego would get on a plane that was scheduled to go to Hawaii.  People use “destiny” as a way of comforting ourselves, by avoiding the reality that everything we do may turn out differently than we expect it to.  This isn’t necessarily a bad thing – if we had to plan for every possible outcome, for every single decision, we’d never get around to doing anything!  It is true, though, that nearly every decision we make has consequences –  for good and bad – that we did not expect, either because we didn’t think about it in that way, or because we could not possibly have foreseen them even if we had. 

George Washington didn’t survive because of leading the Continental army, he led the Continental army because he survived.  Our future isn’t causing our present – our present choices are causing our future, whether intended or unintended.  I find this thought more comforting than the idea of destiny, because it means that even if I find myself in unexpected circumstances, I am still in control of my choices, not some future event that I don’t even know about.


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