For Such A Time As This: The Will To Meaning in Fatalistic Serendipity
By David Metcalfe
February 19, 2019
The (almost) Holocaust and the Serendipitous Savior
One evening, King Xerxes and his bros were hanging out in the palace, celebrating a 180 day feast (seems like a reasonable amount of time for a feast). The feast was basically a non-stop drinking party. As the King was getting a little tipsy, he asked his servant to bring out his wife, Vashti, wearing nothing but her crown (they don’t tell this aspect in Sunday School, but seriously, most scholars interpret it this way). Vashti, apparently, was not interested in exposing herself in front of the King’s guests, so the King banished her from the palace forever. Staying consistent with his misogyny, he sent out an edict that gave men full power over their wives, with the ability to criminally prosecute them for disobeying their orders.
With his former wife now banished forever, King Xerxes decided to hit the dating scene. He visited local clubs, speed dating, and singles nights at the community center. Oh wait, no, he didn’t do that, because he was a power hungry maniac and horrendous misogynist, so instead he forced a bunch of women, without their consent, to participate in a beauty pageant where he would judge the winner as his new queen. There was one girl, a Jewish orphan living with her cousin Mordecai, who was clearly more beautiful than the rest of them, and he chose her. Her name was Esther, and she was about 15 years old (he was over 40 at this time…gross).
Shortly after this, there was this egomaniacal kiss ass named Haman who was given the position of prime minister of Persia. Everyone was supposed to bow to him, but Mordecai refused to, because he only bowed to the Jewish God. Deciding this to be reasonable justification for extreme antisemitism, Haman petitioned the King to murder all of the Jewish people. The King went along with it, and the people were told that, on a certain day, they were allowed, even encouraged, to kill as many Jews as they could.
When Mordecai found out about this, he sent servants to tell Esther what was going on and ask her to change the King’s mind. She was hesitant, because the King had not invited her into his presence in over a month (sounds like a great marriage). But Mordecai persisted that she must, sending her a letter saying, “Do not think that because you are in the King’s house you alone of all Jews will escape. For if you remain silent at this time, relief and deliverance for the Jews will arise from another place, but you and your father’s family will perish. And who knows but that you have come to your royal position for such a time as this?”
Esther eventually petitioned the King, and he agreed that the Jews should not be killed. But a King could not reverse an official decree, so they sent the Jews lots of weapons and military support so that they could defend themselves. They successfully defended themselves, and very few died. In perfect poetic justice, Haman was then hanged on the very gallows he built to hang Mordecai on, and Mordecai was given the title of prime minister.
Grime and Punishment
The news anchor, Kent Brockman, begins a feel good story about a man from Springfield,
“Abandoned by his parents at age four, Frank never got to go to school. He spent his childhood years as a delivery boy, delivering toys to more fortunate children. Then, on his eighteenth birthday, he was blown up in a silo explosion. During his long recuperation, he taught himself to hear and feel pain again. As the years passed, he used his few leisure moments each day to study science by mail. And, last week, Frank Grimes, the man who had to struggle for everything he ever got, received his correspondence school diploma in nuclear physics- with a minor in determination.”
Mr. Burns sees the story, and is so inspired by it that he decides to give Frank Grimes the title of Executive Vice President at the nuclear power plant. The next day, Frank Grimes is brought into his office, but unfortunately for Frank, Mr. Burns sees a story about a dog who pulled a toddler from the path of a speeding car, and then pushed a criminal in front of it, so he decides that the dog is more inspiring and should get the title of Executive Vice President instead. Frank Grimes is given an entry level job for low pay, where he works alongside Homer Simpson.
Homer is incompetent at his job and has no work ethic whatsoever, and yet, things seem to always work out for him. Grimes can’t believe how lazy Homer is, and he comes to hate Homer for what he sees as a perpetual string of good luck for no deserved reason. Homer wants to make friends with Frank, so he invites him to his house for dinner,
Homer: Welcome to the Simpson residence, or “casa de Simpson,” as I call it, heh heh.
Grimes: Yeah, what did you want to see me about, Simpson? This better be important.
Homer: It is, it is, but first, let me introduce you to my family, my perfect family. This is my wife Marge, our beautiful baby, my daughter Lisa, IQ a hundred and fifty six, and my son Bart- he owns a factory downtown.
Grimes: Uh, look Homer, I’m, I’m late for my night job at the foundry so if you don’t mind telling me…good heavens! This, this is a palace! How can, how in the world can you afford to live in a house like this, Simpson?
Homer: I dunno. Don’t ask me how the economy works.
Grimes: Yeah, but look at the size of this place! I live in a single room above a bowling alley and below another bowling alley. I’m sorry, isn’t that-
Homer: Yes, that’s me alright. And the guy standing next to me is President Gerald Ford. And this is when I was on tour with the Smashing Pumpkins. Oh! And here’s a picture of me in outer space.
Grimes: You? Went into outer space? You?
Homer: Sure. You’ve never been? Would you like to see my Grammy award?
Grimes: No! I wouldn’t! God, I’ve had to work hard every day of my life, and what do I have to show for it? This briefcase, and this haircut! And what do you have to show for your lifetime of sloth and ignorance?
Grimes: Everything! A dream house! Two cars! A beautiful wife! A son who owns a factory! Fancy clothes and…lobsters for dinner! And do you deserve any of it? No!
Homer: What are you saying?
Grimes: I’m saying you’re everything that’s wrong with America, Simpson. You coast through life, you do as little as possible, and you leech off of decent, hardworking people like me. Heh, if you lived in any other country in the world, you’d have starved to death long ago. You’re a fraud! A total fraud!
Eventually, Homer drives Grimes so insane that he grabs an electric power rod and gets electrocuted to death. At the funeral, Homer falls asleep and says, “Change the channel, Marge!”, and everyone laughs.
The Good, The Bad, and The Lucky of Fate and Free Will
You likely found the story of Esther to be satisfying, and the story of Frank Grimes to be disconcerting. Here’s why:
In the story of Esther, there is a variety of what we might call “good fate” and “bad fate”. It is good fate that Esther happens to be naturally beautiful and live in one of the areas where Xerxes is collecting women for his beauty pageant. It is good fate that Mordecai happens to be a wise man who is able to give her good counsel. It is bad fate, however, that Haman happens to be a particularly egomaniacal dictator and hardcore anti-Semite. It is bad fate that Xerxes is very unapproachable and hard to deal with.
So, what’s to determine the winner between good and bad fate? It all comes down to one decision: Esther can either go to the King and ask him not to kill the Jews, or she can remain silent and hope for the best. She has a choice.
In the story of Frank Grimes, there is a variety of good fate and bad fate as well, but it is a much harsher dichotomy. Everything in Homer’s life is good fate. He got his job at the nuclear power plant without any training or experience. He happened to get a wife that’s way too good for him and treats him way better than he deserves. He happened to have successful children despite being a bad parent. But for Grimes, everything in his life is bad fate. Despite working hard and making all the right choices, life continues to beat him down. He happens to be born to parents who abandon him without reason. He happens to fall victim to a silo explosion. He happens to get an entry level job instead of Executive Vice President, simply because Mr. Burns happened to see a dog that caught his attention.
So, what’s to determine the winner between good and bad fate? Fate itself wins! And whoever happens to fall in its favor wins by default. Since fate happens to be good to Homer, he wins. There was no choice.
We like the idea that we are “masters of our own fate”. We don’t want everything to be decided for us. Imagine if you never got to make another choice in your entire life: you could only eat a certain type of food, wear certain types of clothes, do certain tasks; all prescribed for you in advance. Or imagine if every outcome was already set for you: who you would marry, how much money you’ll make, who will win each World Series, and you couldn’t make any difference in any outcome. In either of those scenarios, would life still be meaningful?
The Will To Meaning
Frank Grimes certainly didn’t think that being a victim of fate was a life with any meaning, and he killed himself as a result. For Esther, she had purpose, and the ability to decide whether to fulfill that purpose gave her a significant sense of meaning. As Mordecai said, fate brought her to her position specifically “for such a time as this”. Fate was merely a backdrop of a play in which she starred and wrote the script.
In understanding free will, we must first consider how the exercise of it takes place: what is the primary goal or motivating force of human behavior? Well, since this question falls into both philosophy and psychology, it gets considered within both disciplines. There are three main schools of thought.
1) The Will To Pleasure- Finding its philosophical basis in the work of Epicurus and later, Jeremy Bentham, and its psychological manifestation in the work of Sigmund Freud, “the will to pleasure” is the principle that people’s decisions are based in what they think will bring them pleasure and avoid pain.
2) The Will To Power- Finding its philosophical basis in the work of Friedrich Nietzche, and its psychological manifestation in the work of Alfred Adler, “the will to power” is the principle that people’s decisions are based on their desire for achievement, ambition and striving to reach the highest possible end in life.
3) The Will To Meaning- Finding its philosophical basis in existentialism (most notably Soren Kierkegaard), and its psychological manifestation in the work of Victor Frankl, “the will to meaning” is the principle that people’s decisions are based on their desire to find meaning in life.
For the purposes of this article, I won’t bother going into a lengthy justification for why “the will to meaning” is the best for explaining human behavior. But I will briefly and simply explain it here.
In every decision that someone makes, we can see that they, in some sense, attach meaning to it. In people’s jobs, if they find their work meaningful, they are much happier. In people’s marriages, if they find their romantic love meaningful, they are much happier. The shows people watch, the friends people have, the hobbies people enjoy, etc., all have some connection to meaning. If someone does not find something meaningful, they will not do it.
One may rightly ask, then, why people do sometimes operate solely for the purpose of pleasure. A “one night stand”, by its very nature, is an attempt to attach no meaning and achieve full pleasure. When someone orders food at a restaurant, they are not considering the meaning of steak vs spaghetti; they are trying to decide which will bring more pleasure to their taste. This may be explained by the idea that the person is finding an overarching sense of meaning in pleasure itself. This explanation then enables one to account for the fact that people often forgo pleasure in light of some kind of greater meaning (often without hope of a future, greater pleasure, as proponents of “the will to pleasure” are forced to suggest).
The same thing can then be said of people operating solely for the purpose of power. They are able to operate that way, because they find meaning in it. They believe that achievement say, in their career, will bring meaning to their life. Or in the case of megalomaniacs like Napoleon or Hitler, they believe that taking over the world will make their lives meaningful.
Meaning, Fate, and The Necessity of Will
If we agree that “the will” is the means by which we create meaning in our lives, we must then believe that meaning hinges on the ability to exercise that will. Fate can be thought of as all occurrences that do not depend on the will (or at least not directly). The extent to which our lives depend on fate is an interesting one, and quite dependent on culture, people, personality, social systems, and more, that a person exhibits or exists within. In the case of Homer and Frank Grimes, fate seemed to be everything in their lives. In the case of Esther, fate was just part of a narrative that she ultimately told. However, for Mordecai and Haman, they did not have the opportunity to exercise free will in that pivotal moment, as Esther not only controlled her own destiny, but theirs as well. So, to them, Esther’s choice was fate.
Now, who, in these stories, feels that fate was a bad thing? Well, the people who fell victims to it (Haman and Frank Grimes). For those who did not exercise their will yet were blessed by fate (Mordecai and Homer), they felt that fate was a good thing. This may be seen as a blow to the “will to meaning” concept, but it is not. This is because Mordecai and Homer both would have made those choices anyway, even if fate had not made them for them. Mordecai would’ve chosen Esther to approach the King, and Homer would’ve chosen his wife, job, and serendipitous opportunities. When fate wrongs us, we feel despair at our lack of will to change things. When fate does us right, we feel as though our will is so synonymous with fate that it does not matter, and we feel good.
But no one has either extreme. Rather, we live in a world where our will seems to control some things and not others. At certain times, we may feel that we are doing everything right, and yet, everything is turning out wrong, and thus, fate is against us and our will is useless. This disintegrates our sense of meaning. But really, our will does do things. We may come into situations like that of Homer and Frank Grimes, and we may come into others like Esther. But we do not know which situation we are in at any given time. We never actually know if our will is going to matter. But since we do know that it sometimes does, the only logical solution is to act as though it does, and hope for the best.
As we increase our belief in our will as a means to create meaning, we are inspired to act in a way acknowledging that our decisions matter. If our life circumstances get us down, we can take comfort and find purpose in the fact that we can always choose to make things better. Even if we are overwhelmingly faced with “Frank Grimes”, we know that eventually we will get our “Esther”, or even our “Homer”. And ultimately, we may get our “Haman and Mordecai” i.e. fate will bring about justice, independent of our own will, but still deserving, nonetheless.
We come into a world that is confusing, absurd, and often seems unjust. We don’t know who we are, why we are, even what we are. But as we live, we find meaning in certain things, and we exercise our will in a way that develops those meanings. Those meaningful things can be found in every decision we make; whether choosing coffee or tea in the morning, to choosing what job offer to take, to choosing who to marry. Pleasure and power are merely subcategories of the larger concept that determines our choices.
Esther found meaning in the ability to choose whether to risk her life to save her people, and solace in the result. Mordecai and Haman felt the justice that her choice fated upon them, which was good for Mordecai and bad for Haman. Frank Grimes found no meaning in his life, because his inability to exercise his will in a world where fate’s power worked only against him was simply too depressing. Homer enjoyed his fate, because it was synonymous with his will, and made him feel as though he had created meaning (although it was, in actuality, fated upon him, as in the case of Mordecai).
These characters, and our own lives, paint a picture of ourselves as people who want to make meaningful decisions, and reap the benefits of fate. There is a concept called “amor fati” or “love of fate”. This is not to mean that fate always works in our favor, but rather that we must learn to accept it and choose to develop meaning through it. When we suffer or go through hard times, we can choose to learn and grow from it. When we go through good times, we can also learn and grow from those, but in a different way. This is a major concept in Victor Frankl’s “logotherapy”, that seeks to help depressed or anxious people find meaning in their lives.
We are all in a place and time, and can choose how we interact with it. We decide whether we will control our own destiny, or whether we will let fate decide for us. To find meaning in our lives, we have to actively exercise our free will in ways that are more than merely momentary pleasures or self-serving power. We need to find something greater than ourselves, and pursue it passionately. Just as Mordecai said to Esther, we can all understand that we are who we are and what we are for a reason, as long as we choose to make it so. In every choice we make, fate worked towards it for “such a time as this.”