"Beware the Ides of March!" said the soothsayer, and on a March 15 over 2,000 years ago Roman senators assassinated Julius Caesar, just as his fate had purportedly decreed.
Fatalism-the idea that some people are destined for trouble and that it's useless to take action to fight the descent-was a staple of Greek and Roman belief. Fatalism still figures prominently in Hinduism ("karma"), Islam ("kismet"), and many tribal religions.
Ted Yamamori, head of the Christian relief agency Food for the Hungry, once described an African woman who was mourning the death of her child. The youngster was sick but still alive, yet the mother was convinced that fate decreed her child's death. Mr. Yamamori changed fate by getting the child medicine that restored him to health.
Mr. Yamamori had his own near-starvation experience at the end of World War II in Japan. He survived, thanks to the kindness of strangers, and so do others. For example, kids in this country with troubled parents are often shuttled from foster home to foster home until they lose any sense of continuity and trust. Almost miraculously, an adoptive home with patient, compassionate parents can often bring them back from the brink of emotional death.
Mr. Yamamori is a believer in the Christian concept of providence, which is very different from fatalism. The difference is illustrated by a story about one of Stonewall Jackson's aides, Presbyterian minister Robert L. Dabney. One day in 1862 Dabney preached a sermon on God's "special providence," noting that in a recent battle "Every shot and shell and bullet was directed by the God of battles." Not much later Dabney found himself under fire and took cover behind a large gate-post. A nearby officer kidded him: "If the God of battles directs every shot, why do you want to put a gate-post between you and a special providence?" Dabney replied, "Just here the gate-post is the special providence."
That understanding of providence allows for individual initiative, because never-give-up individual action feeds into the ordained outcome. It proposes that people fight evil rather than accede to it. It suggests prudent risk-taking, not a clinging to what is current for fear of any change. It leads brave people to take action when they see children about to die either physically or psychologically.
Last month a successful entrepreneur I know did a stunning thing: He suddenly showed up with two little girls in tow. He seizes opportunities in business, and now he and his wife had seized this opportunity. They did not want to separate two sisters, so they adopted both, doubling their pleasure and work.
A fatalist might say that those two girls were destined for trouble-but adoption is their protecting gate-post, and their lives are now changed. They will face many challenges, but apart from the security of a family, who knows how much more difficult their lives would be?
Fatalism vs. providence: The contrast is clear even in sports, where victories depend on players stepping up rather than fatalistically going through the motions. Johnny Oates, manager of the Texas Rangers, put this well in a conversation we had in spring training eight years ago that has stuck with me. He said, "We play aggressively; I never want any Christian to be passive and start saying 'it's God will.' Our goal is to do everything in our power that's not morally wrong or illegal to win a ballgame. Second, if we lose, I tell the players, 'Go look at yourself in the mirror. If you did everything you could, go home and get a good night's rest. If not, remember what you did wrong, then go home and rest.'"
So we should act aggressively when we see children in need, or adults as well. We must not fall into inaction by fatalistically saying, "It's God's will." If we lose, we should not dwell on it: When we've done all we can and failed, only then do we know that the outcome truly is God's will.
That's very different from the resigned thinking that underlay events of the Ides of March that are the crux of Roman history and of Shakespeare's play, Julius Caesar. But we need to go beyond the Ides and recall the rebuke that Shakespeare's greatest character, Hamlet, gave to his friend: "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy."