Have you ever had a class in the dark? I don’t just mean with the lights off, so that the projector casts a hazy blue glaze over the lecture hall. I mean completely pitch dark. I mean so dark that you can’t see your hand stretched out in front of your face.
This past week in my IntroSem class, “Modern Meanings of Life,” at the suggestion of one of my classmates, my professor decided to teach the day’s lecture without any kind of light. My class unanimously agreed, not for any particular reason beyond simple curiosity. In one definitive flick of the switch, the harsh overhead lighting vanished, and blackness enveloped our windowless classroom. A collective “Woah” emerged from all of us, not realizing quite how dark it would be. It was a strange sensation having my eyes wide open but seeing only blackness. I couldn’t tell I was blinking except for the feeling of my top and bottom eyelids tapping together. Increasingly conscious of the dozen or so bodies around the room, I heard every rustling of notebook paper and exhausted exhale of breath.
“Okay, so what did you think about St. Theresa of Avila?” A voice emerged loudly from the darkness to my right. Presumably my professor. We had read “The Way of Perfection,” which details how St. Theresa, a 16th-century Spanish nun, looked to God as the guiding light in her own life. Acutely aware of the sounds arounds us, everyone hesitated to speak. Eventually, a conversation began surrounding the question of what dictates our own lives, instead of that of St. Theresa. Perhaps the darkness made us more introspective. A central question emerged around how much of our lives we really control, in contrast to what is determined by forces “larger” than us. From St. Theresa’s perspective, every minute action in her life was predetermined by the God to whom she dedicated her existence. In contrast, a few of my classmates believed that human agency gave them control over each decision that affected their life. This theory was based on the idea that free will gives every person the power to choose how they react to any given situation.
As my eyes began to adjust to the darkness around me and blurry outlines of shapes sharpened into the profiles of my classmates, the conversation shifted to a discussion of fate. Although humans may react to any given situation as they please, many of my classmates argued that sometimes the situations we’re presented with are beyond our range of control. We discussed how a person cannot dictate natural phenomena, such as the weather or time of day, the reality of growing old and getting sick or even the actions of other people. Are these greater factors swayed by chance, luck, science? Is everything simply up to fate? It’s somewhat idyllic to think that, unbeknownst to me, the next person I meet or place I walk into to could affect my life in a way completely out of my control. However, it’s also empowering to consider that I may have the ability to make my life exactly what I want it to be.
So, what do you believe? Do you make the decisions that dictate your life, or does fate have the upper hand?
Contact Elizabeth Dunn at eldunn14 ‘at’ stanford.edu.