When my sons were little, they used to love to get fortune cookies. But as they couldn’t yet read, they were dependent on me to tell them what the fortune said. Of course, me being me, I just made stuff up. So they’d get a cookie that said something pseudo-profound, like “There are no shortcuts to any place worth going,” and I would change it to, “There is a good boy in this restaurant wearing blue shoes!” Their little eyes would get wide with wonder, and they’d look at each other and say, “How’d dat cookie know dat?”
Sometimes I’d work it to my advantage. “The cookie says if you pick up the toys in your room, you will get a popsicle!” Whatever worked, as long as it was very specific to them. Imagine their disappointment when they were old enough to read and realized that the fortune cookies weren’t customized…
When my daughter was little, the boys joined in on the fun. She would hold the menu, peering intently at it, and pretend to read: “Ice cream. French fries. Chocolate cake,” and we’d laugh and say, “No, silly! This is a broccoli restaurant! Everyone has to eat broccoli with every meal.” [The fact that we told her nearly every restaurant specialized in broccoli may be why she loves broccoli to this day and will fight me — viciously, and with forks — for the last few spears when I make it with garlic and olive oil.] The boys and I also played the fortune cookie game with her, and they would help her crack open her cookie and then read, “The little girl in the pink dress is very sweet and loves her big brothers.” Her eyes would get all wide like Cindy Lou Who’s, and she’d say, “How’d dat cookie know dat?”
I wish fortune cookies were real. Or fortune tellers. Or anything that might give me a clue to how things are going to work out, so that I could stop worrying — which, as we all know, is a ridiculous exercise in futility.
Some years ago, I went to the Feast of San Gennaro in Manhattan. (By ‘some years ago,’ I mean 25…I just realized that. How in the hell did I turn into my grandmother overnight?) In between stuffing my yapper with cannoli, guzzling Peroni, and dodging a weird guy named Sal, I sat down with a fortune teller on the corner of Mulberry and Grand. She told me — a recent college grad — that I was going to go back to school in a few years’ time. Medical school.
Medical school has not happened, shockingly. What is the world coming to when you can’t trust Madame Claudia on a street corner? She was wearing scarves with little dangly brass circles and everything, so I totally thought she must know her way around a crystal ball.
Divination — the attempt to foretell the future — has been around as long as humans have walked the Earth. Both the Old and New Testaments forbid divination, whether by soothsayers or unwarranted prophesying or other practices, but of course the idea of foretelling the future predates the Bible, and appears in virtually every culture.
So the evidence is there: we humans desperately want to know what’s around the corner. But alas…no such luck. We’re stuck with what we’ve got: making the best decisions we can given the limits of our knowledge.
Too often, this inability to know how things are going to turn out translates to living a life that is constrained by fear. And a life that is fear-based can’t be anything better than lukewarm.
We try so hard to mitigate the possibility of failure and of pain by taking not the path to the left or right, but the middle way — the one that follows the fenceline and thus ensures the most direct and safest route — that we rob ourselves of the possibility of joy.
I watch my dogs when we’re out on the trail, and they just go for it. Squirrel runs by? Oh hell yes! They’re on it, even if that means braving branches and mud and the very real possibility of hurtling off a cliff. Another dog catches their eye? See ya! They’re off, tails wagging, because this may just turn out to be the greatest game of chase ever played. Stranger walking down the trail? They are pretty darn sure it’s a friend, and one who wants to play and probably has treats in their pocket. They greet life head-on, with an expectation of pleasure…or at the very least, having their ears scratched!
I’m not saying we should act like dogs — the whole ass-sniffing, rolling in dead things would get awkward. But maybe there is a lesson to be learned there, that rather than fear, we could try greeting the world with a bit more joy. With a bit more enthusiasm. With a bit more faith in the future.
What do you say?