Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Future Not Foretold

About 60 years ago I had my fortune told. The only piece that stuck was that I would live to age 86. It was a safe bet. At 32 that seemed like forever. So far, so good.   I didn’t believe a word she said but I held on to that number, 86. Memory is a selective muscle. Soon I’ll be in trouble.

Thirty years later, just for kicks, I tried a palmist on the Santa Monica pier. She asked if I wanted the $5 reading or the $10. I told her I’d settle for the short version. My creases revealed that I’d live a long life. I wondered if for $10 I could have bought immortality. If I had said anything insulting she might have told me to leave by the back door which led off the pier into the bay of jellyfish…or worse, the waste water from the L. A. Basin. That would have shortened my life considerably.

When fortune-tellers show up in movies it strikes me as a cheap narrative device. They propel the story line and are never wrong, even when they are. If Emily Dickinson had her fortune told as a young woman she might have been told she would travel widely. And she did in her imagination even though she rarely left her room.

Soothsayers and seers go back to the Greeks who warned us to heed the prophesies. Of course we mere mortals often bumble it anyway. Oedipus' parents were told he would kill his father so he was left to rot in the wilderness only to meet his real father years later on the road and kill him. Who knew he had been adopted? A teachable moment: Be careful whom you murder.

Did Caesar listen to the call: Beware the Ides of March? Not on your life…or his. If he had we wouldn’t know about Anthony and Brutus and therein lies a tale. It all comes down to the struggle between free will and fate, aka the Gods, destiny, the unknown. The ancients had trouble with the notion of randomness and the opaque. For the most part we have learned to live with it without losing our inquisitive nature. Every question mark does not require an exclamation point to follow.

It turns out there is a hierarchy of prognosticators. Oracles had a direct line to Zeus, the grand puppeteer of the day, while seers had the gift only of interpreting mortal signs such as entrails, tea leaves or the pattern of birds. In this sense we are all seers. We call them hunches or intuition. Don’t try it at the racetrack with the rent money. The wish is the father of the bet.

However intuition deserves its due. After all has been quantified high intuitives pick up portents, scraps of overlooked information. They know an omen when they see one. They listen better, notice more and endow it with a new dimension... or so I'm told.

In one version of a Greek myth we read that Calchus, a great prophesizer, witnessed a fire dance by a warrior the night before his battle to the death with an opposing tribal strongman. All done for sport to distract the armies on their way to Troy. He intuited that this was a dance of death foretold. He was wrong. It was a dance of triumph. Even crystal balls need to be wiped from time to time.

We want to both know and not know what’s around the corner. Medical science, through identifying markers, can now predict certain hereditary disease but not all of us choose to peek into the future. I was glad to know I’d make it to 86 when it was an abstraction, but I’m not so pleased with the finish line up close. Like Melville’s Bartleby, I prefer not. So much of life seems like a multiple choice. I’ll go with,all of the above are true. We have an impulse to unravel the mystery but life is less a caper to be solved than a revelation to be lived.

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