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Free Will Vs. Destiny
by Martin Green



The last time I’d been over to my friend Paul Lerner’s house to play chess, Paul, being something of a writer, had been working on a story about good versus evil. Also, as I recall, his cat Shandyman had jumped onto the chessboard while I was two pieces ahead and I’d had to settle for a draw. Now, perhaps somewhat unwisely, I asked Paul if he was working on another story and he replied that he was, about free will versus destiny.

“Free will versus destiny? What do you mean?”

“Well, some religions believe that people have free will, that they can make choices, as, for example, choosing between good and evil actions. But other religions, especially Eastern ones, believe that everything we do is predestined, that no matter what we choose to do the outcome is the same.”

“I see,” I said, although I wasn’t sure that I did.

“So what do you think?’

“Let me see. I guess I think we have free will. Like I chose to come out to California from New York and that changed my life. That wasn’t predestined.”

“But was your life really changed? You worked in an office; you married and had two children; you lived in the suburbs; you took up tennis; you retired and moved to our retirement community. If you’d stayed in New York wouldn’t you have done pretty much the same thing?”

“But I’d have married someone else and maybe my children would have been different and maybe I wouldn’t have taken up tennis, I’d have kept on playing handball.”

“Hmmm. True, the details of your life would have been different, but the general outline would have been the same. And you would have ended up in some retirement place, probably in Florida, not California.”

“I don’t know. I still think I chose my own life.”

While we were talking, Paul had set up the chess board and we started the game. As the visitor I was first up and so started with the white pieces and I made my usual move with the king’s pawn. Paul made his usual move with his king’s pawn and our game was underway. Neither one of us were skilled players so our games were usually pretty even. We were about in the middle of our game when Paul’s cat Shandyman came in. “Uh, oh,” I said. “He’s not going to jump on the board and knock off all the pieces again, is he?”

“Shandyman, get out of here,” commanded Paul. As usual with a cat, Shandyman ignored this command and came over to look at our game. Apparently finding it of no great interest, he yawned, gave Paul a reproving look, then jumped into the room’s most comfortable chair and closed his eyes. “I guess we’ll get to finish our game,” I said. “You know I’ve been thinking about what you said about destiny and things turning out the same no matter what you did. What about your life? Do you think it was meant to be and you had no choice in the matter?”

“Mmmm. Let me think about that. Yes, I’d have probably ended up here, just like you, no matter what I did. I left New York too and came out to California about the same time you did. I thought I was making a big decision, but, considering who I was and the circumstances, it was a preordained move. I’d gotten fed up with New York, too crowded, too dirty, too expensive and I’d always wanted to move West so going to California was pretty inevitable.”

“So that’s the way your story will be?”

“Yes, probably. Of course, whatever I decide to write has already been foreordained.”

After this Paul made his next move and he hadn’t seen my trap. I moved my knight so that I could take either his castle or his bishop. Paul gave up his bishop and, being up a piece, I kept on making exchanges until finally I won the game. “I suppose I was meant to lose,” said Paul, as he tipped over his king.

“I suppose so,” I said. As I’d hoped, getting Paul to think about this free will and destiny thing had distracted him so he didn’t see my trap. If he thought he was destined to lose, that was okay with me.




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