"Beware the Ides of March!" said the soothsayer, and on a March 15 over 2,000 years ago Roman senators assassinated a leader purportedly fated to die then. Shakespeare tells the story magnificently in his play "Julius Caesar."
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) and many other religions.
Ted Yamamori, head of the 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. Yamamori changed fate by getting the child medicine that restored him to health.
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 parents can often bring them back from the brink of emotional death.
Yamamori is a believer in the Christian concept of providence, which is very different from fatalism. Here's how: In 1862, one of Stonewall Jackson's aides, minister Robert L. 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 gatepost. A nearby officer kidded him: "If the God of battles directs every shot, why do you want to put a gatepost between you and a special providence?" Dabney replied, "Just here the gatepost 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 leads brave people to take action when they see children about to die either physically or psychologically.
Last month, a successful entrepreneur I know seized an opportunity, but not one in business. He and his wife adopted two sisters. A fatalist might say that those two girls were destined for trouble -- but adoption is their protecting gatepost, and their lives are now changed. They will face many challenges over the next decade, but apart from the security of a family, their lives would be extraordinarily hard.
Fatalism vs. providence: The contrast is clear even in sports, where victories depend on players stepping up rather than fatalistically going through the motions. A conversation I had with Texas Rangers manager Johnny Oates, a Christian, in spring training eight years ago 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."
It's good to act aggressively when we see children in need -- or adults, as well. It's wrong to 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 resigned Roman thinking concerning the Ides of March. But as Shakespeare's greatest character, Hamlet, said to a fatalistic friend: "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy."