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Today, while gardening, I thought of Judas.

That probably sounds odd, but you need to think of something carrying out mindless, repetitive tasks such as mowing, weeding or brushcutting. Certainly it's more peaceful thinking of Judas than what one should have said to an employer in the 1990's or to one's parents thirty years ago.

Judas is a profoundly tragic figure. What I wondered today and what I have wondered about over the years is whether he was destined to betray Christ.

Reading the accounts of the Last Supper, it seems clear that Christ knew that Judas was going to betray him on that particular evening. He even urged Judas to proceed with his treachery. The question then comes, was Judas destined, that is divinely impelled to betray Christ. If he was, it's a profoundly depressing concept. Was this a man whose principal role in creation was to carry out a heinous act? If that's so, Judas had no reason to feel guilty. His life had been set as rigidly as a train must follow its track or an animal its killing instincts. It also means Judas had the awful uniqueness of being the only man who was damned before he was born. That seems monstrously unfair.

Judas, like the accused in a Perry Mason drama, had motive, means and opportunity, but that doesn't add up to destiny-only powerful temptation.

But doesn't the fact that Christ appeared to know what was going to happen suggest the existence of destiny? Can you prophesy something that doesn't happen?

I think you can. The Old Testament offers numerous accounts of bewhiskered prophets making dire predictions. Some of those prophecies described what later occurred. Others predicted what would occur if some individual or group didn't change their ways. The second group of prophecies suggests that the predicted outcome isn't inevitable - one is able to accept or ignore the warning using free will.

Christ knew that he was to be betrayed by man. That was foretold. If Judas hadn't betrayed Him, then some other trusted follower would have had to perform this function. Or perhaps not. If suddenly humanity had taken the totally unlikely step of reforming en masse, then all the rest of the sad, bitter but ultimately triumphant Passion story would not have followed. Judas had free will even after Christ urged him to continue what was to prove his course of action.

I think Christ had a strong presentiment of what was likely to occur when he visited Jerusalem for the last time, but at any point in time, the players in this stirring drama may have chosen differently causing, perhaps, a completely different outcome.

Yes, many of the events predicted occurred but we also need to recall that Christ was self-consciously following the script that had been written long before he was born. He knew by studying the Scripture that He was meant to do this and do that and therefore did it. To that extent, the past shaped His future but that doesn't mean Christ was a prisoner of prophecy.

The question of free will is important because many people believe their lives are shaped by destiny. Many find it easier to blame a demonic force than accept their wicked actions were of their own invention. It's a sort of mystical Eichmann defense; 'I was only following orders'. It's also incredibly flattering to believe that God or the Devil has selected you to carry out some action. To feel you have been selected by a supernatural force is the most intensely egotistical conviction we can have.

Some people - Napoleon, Hitler, De Gaulle and others - saw themselves as the children of Destiny. There is some sense in that view if we accept the Great Man theory of history. I find the opposing theory that all leaders are simply swept along by the giant, ungovernable movements of their times - the historical imperative that Tolstoy suggests - difficult to accept. The times, it seems to me, certainly call out the man, but equally the man shapes his (or her) time. Without World War 2, Churchill would have remained a footnote in political history. Yet he chose to fight on rather than appease a seemingly invincible foe.

In this age, some positive thinking boosters suggest anyone can do anything, but clearly there are many people denied fulfilling their potential by the force of circumstance. We may do great things, but only if we're able to get our ducks of motive, means and opportunity neatly ranged as targets. Of course, we'd all like to believe that our success occurred mainly because we are smarter and work harder than others. Often however, if we're honest, much of our success is due to dumb luck.

It certainly means a great deal if you're a writer who wins the Booker Prize. However to even compete, you almost certainly came from a literate background. That places you many rungs up the ladder to Booker success than say being the child of an Indian ragpicker or Brazilian quarry digger.

Of course, destiny exists and it profoundly affects human events if we mistake destiny for pure chance.

Annie Oakley was part of a Wild West show that toured Europe. One of her tricks was to shoot a lighted cigar from the mouth of VIP's: Impressive stuff, given the notorious inaccuracy of Colt 45's! Alternative historians ask, In what ways would the world be different today if, instead of shooting the cigar out of the mouth of Kaiser Bill, she plugged the bellicose German leader? Thousands or millions of related events from the defeat of Germany, the rise of Hitler, the Holocaust, bombing of Dresden and so on probably wouldn't have occurred or would have happened in profoundly different ways than they did.

It was destiny that a bullet snuffed out the cigar of Kaiser Bill when a few inches higher it might have entered his skull. That doesn't however mean that some divine force steered the bullet to its target. Hitler believed that he survived various assassination attempts because God was protecting him. It would however be too horrible to think that destiny might sometimes deliberately favor malevolent forces. Much healthier to think that it's all pure chance! For all we know, the world has just been spared some ghastly dictator because his mother has, two minutes ago, fallen under a bus.

It may be argued that believing in your destiny is no bad thing. There was once a popular singer who boasted that in time he would be 'bigger than Sinatra'. Of course, that didn't happen. The singer died at a tragically young age. It's doubtful that he had the talent to achieve that extraordinary goal. He believed it was his destiny. He was wrong, but because he believed that, he almost certainly attempted and succeeded far more than if he had been 'realistic'.

Unfortunately, many of us ensure we will never reach our goals, i.e. fulfill our destiny because we set a goal far beyond any hope of achievement. Fortunately, most of us also gradually realize and accept that sobering fact. We may be a good but not superlative actor. Finally, we may not dine at the top table, but there are plenty of delicious pickings during or after the feast. The world is not rigidly divided into 'winners' and 'losers'. It's more comfortably divided into partial winners and partial losers. You can make a financially successful and creatively fulfilling life as an artist well below the ranks of the even vaguely famous. Many whom we think of has having splendidly fulfilled their destiny, probably privately wish they had been better able to develop their talent.

Over a decade ago, I wrote an article about business in Hong Kong. This was before the colony reverted to PRC control. It was at the time when the rich flaunted their wealth with shiny Mercedes saloons passing people who struggled each day to put food on the table - a grossly inequitable and crassly materialistic society. As I prepared the article, I wondered whether the people who each day sold some trinkets from a stall felt angry when they thought of those living in luxury at the Peak. 'Generally not,' an expat suggested. 'These are people who live hand to mouth, without any welfare net, but most believe that they too have a destiny. They know that some of the richest families in Asia started with no more than a stall and today own a chain of hotels. They don't resent the rich. They believe it's their destiny to join the elite.'

Who would take this hope away? It transformed every tiny sale from just a miserable way of affording that night's meal to a small, but gradual step toward vast wealth. Finally, it may not lead to buying a hotel, but a lock up shop - a still incredible achievement from such a low base. Something one could rightly feel proud to have achieved. Who knows, the dream may take a further generation or two to achieve, but buying that lock up shop might be the essential turning point in the family's fortunes.

As Samuel Johnson observed, 'Yet it is necessary to hope, though hope should always be deluded; for hope itself is happiness, and its frustrations, however infrequent, are yet less dreadful than its extinction.'

Perhaps humans shouldn't expect that they have a destiny. Perhaps if we were spiritually enlightened creatures, we should live lives as accepting and unambitious as a cat in the house or cow in the field. That however is not the essence of being human. It would be terribly sad for any intelligent and reflective person to think that his or her life had no special meaning - just 'also rans', no better or worse than millions of others. Better to cling to a dream, even if that dream is finally accepted as a partial or total delusion.

Given the fact that as many of the world's benefactors as murderous thugs have followed that elusive, egotistical dream, it's impossible to say whether it's good or bad that so many of us privately believe we have a destiny.

Stephen Collicoat

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by Stephen Collicoat

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