Who’s in Control?
Who’s in Control?
Life often seems random. Good and bad things seem to happen without apparent causes. Good people suffer; bad people prosper. It feels like the luck of the draw. We live our lives waiting for the next shoe to drop.
Roman mythology depicted all of us being influenced for better and for worse by fortune, luck, spinning randomly on a Wheel of Fortune. The wheel was graphically portrayed in miniatures in fine manuscripts and in the huge rose windows of the cathedrals at Amiens and Basel.
Medieval depictions of the Wheel of Life (or Fortune) were derived from the second book of Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy (circa 524 AD). It depicts four positions in life — happiness, loss, suffering, and hope.
The wheel characteristically bears on its rim four shelves of “stages” with four human figures. The figure rising on the left (9-o’clock) is usually labeled regnabo (I shall reign – hope for a better future); the one at the top (12-o’clock) is marked regno (I reign – happiness, prosperity, “on top of the world”) and is often crowned; that descending on the right (3-o’clock) is regnavi (I have reigned – grief, loss of fortune, health, love, etc.); and the clinging or writhing figure at the lowest point (6-o’clock) is sum sine regno (I have no kingdom – despair, defeat, suffering, “down and out”). The victim at the bottom is sometimes depicted as thrown from the wheel by gravity and centrifugal force, and sometimes as crushed under a heavy wheel. Round and round we go, slaves to fate.
Fortuna turns the wheel.
Fortuna is the Roman goddess of fortune. To underscore her greater importance sheis often depicted larger than the human figures. Medieval representations emphasize her duality and instability. She sometimes, as in the picture below, holds a cornucopia of abundance in one hand and a rudder to direct fortunes in the other. She sometimes has two faces, either side-by-side, or back-to-back like Janus, one smiling and one lowering. Sometimes one eye is shining and one is weeping. She may appear blindfolded, like Justice, but without the scale because she brings ill and good fortune randomly. Sometimes her head is bald behind but has a long forelock for seizing, like Opportunity. Her clothing may be of changeable colors or sharply divided into dark and bright or rich and beggarly.
Fortuna controls the ominous Wheel of Fortune. She may propel it with a graceful touch of a spoke or with an awkward-looking crank; each revolution may be swift or require a lifetime.
Sometimes, I hear people say things like, “God is in control;” or, “Everything happens for a purpose;” or, “God is sovereign” (meaning God causes everything that happens). Others indicate they hold to a theory of randomness, or to a world influenced by magical but unpredictable forces. Still others just take their lumps.
But God doesn’t cause evil. The events of our lives are caused by a network of influences – God, the devil, ourselves, others, environment, genetics, and so on. The causes are too complex and interwoven to be always discerned and unraveled, which is why it is understandable that we sometimes feel like we’re on a medieval wheel of fortune being cranked around by some random deity.
The idea of a revolving wheel taking us from happiness to loss to suffering to hope and back to happiness is, at best, an over simplification. Life is not that predictable – more like rafting a swollen whitewater river than riding a train. A train methodically follows a predisposed track. The river is wild. We have some control, but no matter how skilled we become, we’ll still bounce off some rocks and get good and wet. In reality, the river is in control, but we don’t simply bounce along towards the waterfall. We’re in a raft with others and we’ve been given paddles, some knowledge of eddies and rapids, and guides. We don’t control the river, but we’d do well to coöperate with it. A wise person listens to the guide. A wise community pulls together.
Life is unpredictable. It can bounce us around and beat us up. One minute we’re drifting lazily down a placid stream; the next, we’re fighting the rapids. Suddenly we’re upside down gasping, then the danger passes and we’re enjoying the view. At times we are crushed. At times we are hopeful. We all suffer losses. Sometimes we’re on top of the world. Fortuna doesn’t spin the wheel. Human choices, angelic (both good and evil) freewill, environmental and genetic factors, and, yes, God, all combine to turn providence, just as gravity, winds, currents, topography, physics, climate, and weather combine to produce a rafting river. The Great Guide behind all guides is Love – the Spirit of God. That Spirit inspires lesser spirits with wisdom for the journey. The skilled pastoral counselor, life coach, or spiritual director intuitively knows when to paddle, when to back the oars, which rocks can be safely bounced off of, and what must be avoided. It behooves us to listen to the wisdom of the elders.