Yesterday was spent traveling south to Florida to spend Thanksgiving with my family. As has been my custom for the past several trips, I picked up some audio books to listen to while we drive. I typically get these at Cracker Barrel, which leaves me at the mercy of the local selection, but I usually manage to find something interesting. The first book for this trip was a short one by Michael J. Fox, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Future. It’s a life lesson book that seems intended to be given as a graduation gift.
I really enjoyed this book. It is a quick read (or listen) and Fox’s wit and optimism are both delightful. As with other children of the 80s, Michael J. Fox is one of my cultural icons, so it was fascinating to hear about his life, and his advice carries the weight of a pop culture hero.
What I didn’t know before listening to this book is that Fox is a high school dropout. He makes good use of this revelation by emphasizing the education he received by living life and arguing that it is in fact comparable to what he would have picked up in high school and college. The epigraph to an early chapter is a famous quote from Mark Twain, “I’ve never let my schooling interfere with my education.” Of course, he is not encouraging others to drop out of school. He is simply pointing out that we are all educated in different ways.
While his autobiographical life lessons are all quite interesting, what I found most compelling were his reflections on Parkinson’s disease. The insight he draws from his continuing experience with PD is that we are not in control of our lives. For Fox, PD itself is the perfect metaphor for this truth. The lack of control he has over his body is a reflection of the lack of control we all have over many elements of our lives.
After initial attempts to numb himself to his new condition through drinking, Fox gradually comes to accept the realities of life with PD. He eventually learned that the most important part of adversity is what you do with it. “You never truly know which way the wind is blowing until the shit hits the fan. And further, if you don’t mind getting a little dirty, that breeze will carry you a long way.” Fox has done a lot with and because of Parkinson’s. His reflections are as wise as his life is inspiring.
I found this discussion of control to resonate with my ongoing engagement with the questions of providence. Just this past Sunday, our confirmation class considered this topic and what it means for our lives. Usually, we frame this issue as a debate between free will and fate. Are we free to choose our own destiny or is something (or someone) directing our paths?
The directness of Fox’s reflections on his life with PD helped me think about this theological conundrum with a little more clarity. The simple truth is that we do not have ultimate control of our lives. This is a fact. Michael J. Fox had no control over early onset Parkinson’s. Each of us can think of numerous examples of things in our lives that we have had no control over. This fact is our necessary starting point.
While I think it is clear that we maintain a certain degree of agency and self-determination in our lives, it is equally clear that much of our experience is beyond our control. The question, then, is how to understand those uncontrollable elements. Is that God? Is it the absence of God? Is it pure chance?
These are questions without answers. The best we can do is provide a worldview or narrative that offers some kind of explanation, as provisional and incomplete as that explanation may be.
What narrative rings more true for you? One in which a personal god intervenes in the lives of humanity? One in which an impersonal god creates the world and then lets it run its course? Or one in which there are no gods at all, leaving the flow of history to the whims of chance?