Now, I don’t claim to be a philosopher, or anything like that, but I have done some really deep pondering in my day. I mean, all those long, dusty summer afternoons I spent as a boy sitting on the front steps of the company store among older coal miners waiting for the shift to change back in the 1940s, surely must have served some useful purpose that I can apply to these later years. I’ll admit that I couldn’t chew, whittle and spit as well as some of them, but even if I do say so myself, I could flat ponder.
About a quarter of a century ago when I was a high school English teacher, my seniors studied Elizabethan poet John Donne’s “Holy Sonnet 6,” and I decided that Mr. Donne must have done his fair share of pondering, too, when he suggested that “fate, chance, kings and desperate men” hold dominion over our lives.
The older I get, the more apt I am to adopt the opinion that the first two play less of a role than the latter. I guess I’m like a lot of folks who don’t take much stock in fate, thinking it a synonym for luck and believing that, for the most part, we make our own.
Likewise with chance, I think I believe that we make choices as to what we do, and that which we call chance is not really chance at all, but rather a result of the choices we make.
But while I tend to resist fate and chance as factors that govern our existence on a day-to-day basis, I have more than a little problem shooting holes in the “kings and desperate men” part of the theory. For example, every time I put gas in my car, I can’t help but think just how accurate Donne was. Here I am in Eastern Kentucky more than 400 years after he penned his verse, and the simple act of gassing up my car is dictated by some wealthy wannabe king on the other side of the planet who decided I need to pay nearly three dollars for a gallon of regular.
I guess my cynicism is showing, but I just can’t buy it. As I watched those old coal miners nearly 70 years ago sit on their haunches in the shade, cram their jaws full of Red Man and ponder out loud on the actions of FDR, John L. Lewis and Ewell Blackwell and the Cincinnati Red Legs, I think I might have learned something. Even though I had no idea at the time that it was happening, I became acutely aware that it didn’t take all day back then to decide what to do with a bully. Old John Donne may have genuinely believed that we can’t do much about fate and chance, but my store-porch logic suggests that a swift kick in the seat of the pants might be all that’s needed to get the attention of a few so-called “kings and desperate men.”