When I was studying Appalachian culture in college, one debate we often had in our classes was about whether the Appalachian people were fatalistic in their worldview. As a twenty-something with a wide world awaiting her and a head full of dreams, I argued that we were, in fact, not fatalistic.
Years have spun out since then and those class arguments are things of distant memory… until recently, anyway.
I was speaking with a young man (twenty-something) and listening to his fatalistic outlook on life. He is struggling with drug addiction and just assumes that he will always be an addict. His father’s side of the family is full of drug addicts. His mother’s side is full of alcoholics.
“It’s in my blood,” he said, “In my DNA. There’s no escaping it. The way I see it, it’s a fifty-fifty chance that I’ll wind up mentally ill, since only one of my parents are. But both of my parents are addicted to something, so it’s just basic math.”
I wanted to argue his “basic math” approach. I thought out lecturing him on the power of choices and that the sort of fatalism he was talking about was really nothing more than a choice to surrender… but something in my brain clicked and I was transported back to my college days.
I didn’t think about those classroom arguments, however–I thought about my life outside the classroom.
I thought about my own assumptions that a single drink of alcohol would turn me into an alcoholic. There were so many alcoholics in my extended family, it just seemed like basic math to me back then. I wasn’t one because I had been raised in a dry house. There was never alcohol present, both of my parents were tee-totalers.
But in the homes of people I loved, family and friends, there was often alcohol-induced chaos. It seemed so simple: Don’t bring alcohol into the home, don’t become an alcoholic. Bring alcohol in to the home, become drunks. I couldn’t see a middle line.
In high school and college it seemed as if alcohol and drugs were everywhere and I often felt very alone in my abstinence.
This was the mid and late nineties–the coming-of-age years for the internet. AOL instant messenger, ICQ, and Yahoo chat rooms helped me connect with people just as frustrated with a drug and alcohol obsessed society.
I discovered the Straight Edge punk movement and liked the fact that these were people who could have youthful fun without alcohol and drugs. I quickly felt a kindred spirit with them and began to identify as Straight Edge.
I didn’t know any other Straight Edgers in my local community, but that didn’t stop me from scrawling a big X on the back of each hand as we walked into a bar. To the bartenders, this simply indicated that I was underage (even though I wasn’t), but I hoped maybe another straight-edger would find me through the secret code.
Thankfully, they never did.
I eventually came to realize that the Straight Edge movement was extremely fanatical and that many members often held militant views. Their ideology spilled over from drugs and alcohol into other beleifs they held and in some locales they are listed as gangs, or sometimes as domestic terrorists.
But online I had found a people who I thought understood me, and my own fanaticism began to spill over into other aspects of my life. The same either/or mind set that had me thinking there was absolutely no gray area between being a problem drunk and being a tee-totaller slithered into my spirituality.
Either people saw God the same way I did, or they were wrong.
Either people lived as disciples the same way I did, or they weren’t really disciples.
It was my own version of fatalism. Either I’d become a drunk or drug addict like so many other people around me, or I’d have to avoid drugs and alcohol at all costs.
Either I’d go to hell for all my sins, or I’d have to live a rigidly religious life.
Every slip up I had as a young adult, every poor judgment, every bad decision, every act of youthful curiosity, every bend to peer pressure left me consumed by a tremendous feeling of guilt and fear. This, of course, would spin me into the downward cycle of anxiety and depression until I found myself in dark, dismal places where I just assumed I was beyond salvation and would give in to the worst parts of myself.
I suddenly saw myself in this young man.
His fatalism caused himself to surrender to what he sees as inevitable. My sense of fatalism had me so entrenched in one narrow way of thinking that I couldn’t see hope beyond what was in that tiny little rut I was living in.
My heart expanded as I thought about how much life I’ve lived in the twenty years since then and how much I’ve learned about how wide God’s grace and mercy is.
I didn’t have to be one rigid thing in order to avoid becoming something I didn’t like.
And this young man doesn’t have to surrender to something just because those around him have.
It took me years and lots of experiences. I met a lot of saints along the way who didn’t live or think like me, but clearly were people very in tune with God. I discovered that God was with me, even when I ventured out of the rut and existed some place else. I found God living and thriving in unexpected places, shining in unexpected faces, and drawing people in to salvation in unexpected ways.
All those experiences helped me to see that my fatalism, my assumption that I would become something I disliked if I ventured an inch to the left or right, was a choice I was making. I had to learn to un-choose it and to let God show me all the ways that God’s grace and mercy can happen in this world.
So I shared my past with this young man, who seemed amused at the notion of this middle-aged preacher standing in a mosh pit, stone-cold sober, or thrashing about madly at a screamo punk concert. We laughed about my past, and then we got real about how every thing that lies ahead of us is not a pre-ordained, inescapable un-choice… there is always a choice.
I un-chose fatalism and chose freedom.
Once I was out of that narrow way of thinking and existing, I could truly see just how huge God truly is. And I hope that this young man can see that his world, his future, and his opportunity for grace, forgiveness, and hope is just as big.