I recently read Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist. In it there’s a brief exchange between a young shepherd who’s wrestling with the idea of pursuing his life dream, and a wise old man who eggs him on.
The exchange goes like this:
“What’s the world’s greatest lie?” the boy asked, completely surprised.
“It’s this: that at a certain point in our lives, we lose control of what’s happening to us, and our lives become controlled by fate. That’s the world’s greatest lie.”
The idea of fate as a catalyst in American history is peculiar. For decades following the country’s founding, the American experiment was largely considered to be by design. In some eras, perhaps even today, it was thought to be sanctioned by God. Conversely, Americans can feel uncomfortable with the idea that their country and their national history are not driven explicitly by them, the people; fate takes control out of their hands and leaves the future up to chance—it’s unsettling to have no autonomy over your life and its direction.
But we’re hard pressed to consider the presence of fate when it comes to some of America’s most notable figures. Imagine if George Washington had not dodged at least four bullets in the French and Indian War, more than 30 years before he became the first president? Where would we be today had he not defied death?
Since Washington, no other president has looked death in the face and lived to tell the tale more often than Theodore Roosevelt. (In 1912, Roosevelt famously delivered a 50-page speech more than an hour long after he was shot in the chest with a .38-caliber revolver.) Can we really say fate was not at play when he nearly died in Pittsfield, Massachusetts?