The most arresting truth of fate--or chance, as some wish to call it--is how it intrudes in the lives of everyday people. It affects the weak and strong, the good and bad, the young and old. For some it pops up again and again, often in the strangest ways. Often in the strangest places.
Fate can mean romance. Joan Smith was a barroom singer in St. Paul, Minn., when Ray Kroc walked in. He liked her voice, the way her fingers tickled the ivories. Joan Smith, now Joan Kroc, is one of the world's wealthiest philanthropists as well as the president of the San Diego Padres.
Fate can mean tragedy--for some it continues to mean that. E. Jack Ridout escaped death by fate three times--he avoided Vietnam, was injured in the world's worst aviation disaster, and missed a seat on PSA Flight 182, which crashed in San Diego.
Fate can mean taxing survival to the fullest. Auschwitz survivor Helen Waterford came before Mengele three times and three times was spared.
Fate can mean fame, unwanted or otherwise. Photographer Hans Wendt, who almost won the Pulitzer Prize for a picture of the crash of Flight 182, is uncertain of the side effects of fame-at least that imposed by fate.
Fate can mean philosophical, theological (or semantic) confusion. Pastor Paul Pulliam of San Diego's First Presbyterian Church has puzzled over the meaning of fate, and the role God plays in it.
He isn't sure of the answers.
In the fall of 1982, an arson fire caused $1.2 million worth of damage to the First Presbyterian Church of San Diego. The church was forced to rebuild, almost from the ground up. Pastor Paul Pulliam later marveled that instead of being bitter, the congregation's main question was, "What can we learn from this?"
Pulliam, 59, isn't sure of the answer, but his thoughts on fate--and the more volatile concept, predestination--are clearer than before.
"Fate is something beyond human control, over which we have no influence," he said. "Rigidly ordained. The word fate makes me feel, 'I am a victim.' So I have to distinguish between fate and destiny.
"Anybody who sees history as mere fate probably feels oppressed, discouraged. The poor in ghettos probably feel that. The Christian faith would say history is not fate, it is destiny. The power over which you and I can control tomorrow has its limits. But we are not helpless victims of fate."
Pulliam believes God is "never surprised," that "history is not freewheeling," that as Jesus said, "Not a hair falls to the ground, no sparrow dies, without my knowledge."
Pulliam deals often with people speculating over the motives of a "loving" God. How is He compatible with fate's fickle finger?
To someone who says, "My father was killed in a car accident, my mother died when the house burned down, my child was stillborn," what does Pulliam say about God?
"That's very hard," he said with a sigh. "I have to say to them that God does not delight in human suffering. Evil is in the world, and because of that people do get hurt. I certainly don't want to put God in the role of maliciously causing these events. But neither do I want a God in whose domain such things run out of control."
Pulliam believes many disasters--fires, famines--are caused by man. He believes evil exists within all and sees such episodes as Auschwitz as evidence of man's "demonic" capabilities.
"To me, the whole purpose of religion is to challenge that evil, whether it exists in individual human hearts, or in the structures of society."
Still, questions remain. Pulliam said his own life has been colored by chance, and maybe fate. Certainly more so "than any foresight or wisdom on my part." He was in Pakistan for 15 years and received a job offer from the church in San Diego in the last piece of mail he got before returning home. He sees meeting his wife of 36 years as a wonderful, almost magic happening of chance. But he admitted that even in the strongest, most loving hearts, doubts about the darker side of chance--of fate--persist like nagging dreams.
"I do not believe life on earth is normal," he said. "I believe it is abnormal. Our world has been scarred and marred by the presence of evil in a way God did not intend. When we build a freeway, we know the moment it is built that innocent people will die, and not just bad drivers. Even children will die. Life, somehow, is like that."
Pulliam paused and looked out the window, toward a part of the church that is now rebuilt, better than before. Gleaming, he called it. No evidence of tragedy, of the hate that caused it, even exists.
"We have to do with fate what we can. I'm afraid . . . that is all."