I recently reheard a story I read in my youth. A young man while perusing the market in Baghdad looked around and saw Death walking in the crowd. Their eyes made contact; both the man and Death were startled and confused. Death turned around and the man ran off.  He went to some wise men to tell his tale and seek counsel.  They saw this as an ominous sign the man was soon to die. They advised him if he leaves immediately and goes to Samarra he will be able to avoid Death.  Samarra was a faraway town across the desert; the path to Samarra is a treacherous one.  Few people do so and when they must they go in groups and in the daylight. The fellow does this on his own and in the night, avoiding thieves, thirst, and wild beasts.  The next morning in the Samarra marketplace he stood  triumphant he had escaped Death when he felt a tap on his shoulder. He turned around to see Death. “But I came to Samarra to escape you!” he exclaimed.  “That is why I was so shocked to see your yesterday in Baghdad,” said the Grim Reaper,  “for it is written I was to fetch you in Samarra”.

This grim chestnut illustrates the notion some things aren’t avoidable; we can not escape some matters no matter what we try to do to thwart it happening.  I wonder if this is true. Admittedly some things like death, taxes, and bad air in Phoenix are inevitable but for the rest of it I am not certain. I hope to think we have choice in what happens to us and by this we are not passive puppets of The Fates.  Alas, this may be wishful thinking. Even physics seems against us. What we call randomness, such as how rolled dice will come up, only looks random because we don’t know all the factors that go into the throw. If we knew the position of the dice, the arc of the throw, and other factors we could predict they will come up double sixes or not. There are some chilling fancy brain scans findings that seem to predict the brain knows what you will do even before you consciously choose to do it.  Chilling.

I was trained in a school of psychology rather optimistic in its philosophy; it rests upon the axiom with insight, courage, and self-restraint one can do nearly anything and make your own destiny. This feels better than all roads lead to Samarra.  May our life’s journeys be less like Samarra and more like Cavafy’s Ithaka.*  We may not be able to alter the conclusion but it was fun and meaningful along the road.

*Ithaka – C.P. Cavafy.   One of my favorite poems.