A Brush with Fate

Catching up with an old friend, I learned he had been scheduled to attend a conference on the morning of 9/11 at Windows on the World, a restaurant on the 106th floor of the World Trade Center.  At the last minute he decided to stop off at his office around the corner to check his e-mail.  He was still at his desk when a secretary rushed in to tell him that a plane had struck the North Tower, where the restaurant was located.  No one who was at the conference that morning got out alive.   

I could tell by the way my friend told this story, even much after the fact, that he had been profoundly affected by his brush with fate.  Who wouldn’t be?  As a college sophomore I had walked away unscathed from a bad accident along a rain-slicked stretch of highway in Western Pennsylvania, amazed that I wasn’t dead.  More than 40 years later, I am still occasionally haunted by memories of how close we came to a head-on collision as the car spun out of control and flipped over.

But haunted by what, exactly?  I didn’t die; I wasn’t even hurt.  I have lived more-or-less uneventfully ever since, pursuing a career and raising a family.  As for my friend, he was not one of the 79 restaurant employees and 91 patrons who were trapped in Windows on the World on September 11.  He never set foot in the World Trade Center that day and never saw the towers come down, except on TV, even though he was right around the corner when it happened.  Like thousands of others who worked in lower Manhattan, his biggest challenge on 9/11 was making his way back home.      

Those who have experienced a brush with fate may come away feeling something momentous has happened, even if there is no outward change in their lives.  The Greeks, of course, were experts on the subject of fate.  For them, all roads lead to the same destination, no matter which way you turn.  Told by an oracle that he was destined to kill his father and marry his mother, Oedipus, the adopted son of the King of Corinth, flees to Thebes. The young Oedipus, who was never told he had been adopted, kills a stranger at a crossroads in an argument over the right of way and then marries his widow, thereby unknowingly fulfilling the prophecy.

Quantum theorists see the unfolding of events not as fate but as infinite possibility.  Every turn in the road leads to a different destination, but there is never a road not taken.  According to the “many worlds” hypothesis in quantum physics, every possible outcome of every event is achieved in some parallel universe.  So if Oedipus meets a stranger at the crossroads on the way to Thebes, he might simply yield the right of way and never get into the fight that causes him to kill his real father and marry his mother.  Or the fight happens, and the father winds up killing the son.  Or perhaps Oedipus stops off at his office on the way out of town to catch up on his e-mail and never encounters his real father at all.   Meanwhile, in some parallel universe, Oedipus gets into a fight with a stranger at a crossroads and unknowingly kills his real father before marrying his mother.

Between fate and infinite possibility, how are we to decide?  Perhaps it is all a matter of perspective.  Looking back, we can always reconstruct the chain of cause and effect that brought us from the crossroads to our destination, telling ourselves the outcome was inevitable, no matter what it is.  But is that fate?  Looking forward, we can see possibilities at every turn.  And while every possible outcome may theoretically occur in some parallel universe, our experience is limited to the one we are in.  We’ll never know where the road not taken would have taken us; for that matter, we don’t really know where the road we are on will take us.  For all practical purposes, we are always at the crossroads.    

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