But For The Grace Of God

Life can turn on a dime, goes the saying: the smallest of coins; the smallest of chances; the smallest of opportunities. Life can be governed by events that seem insignificant, and it may be only with the benefit of hindsight that we can take the long view and see that one decision tipped a line of balancing dominoes, knocking off a whole chain of events that led to where you are now. And all of that is before you even consider the very random chance of being born: born when you were, in that place, to those parents, into those circumstances. It was nothing to do with you – you just showed up. So when they say: ‘life’s what you make of it’, maybe it’s more correct to say, life’s what you make of what you’ve been given, for we are not all given the same.

Last summer I drove along part of the continental divide in Montana in the northern U.S. It’s a drainage divide where, on one side of the mountains, the water feeds into the Pacific, and, on the other side, the water eventually flows to the Atlantic. My guide took me to the top of a mountain, somewhere called the ‘Scapegoat Wilderness’, and we pulled in to look at a steam. “That way,” he pointed east, “It joins the Missouri River. It’ll join the Mississippi in about 2,500 miles and then flow into the Atlantic.” Pointing west where a stream was flowing on the other side of the road he said, “on that side the water takes the shorter route to the Pacific. Maybe via the Snake River or the Columbia River.” There on the roadway mountain pass I thought about each person in the world being like a drop of rain, not knowing where we would fall, the direction in which we might flow, and how little of our life course might be up to us at all. This all came back to me last night when I picked A. up from the airport bus in the centre of Edinburgh. We walked down East Market Street, past Friday night revellers emerging from Waverley ready for their night out, past the art set at a well attended launch in the Fruitmarket Gallery, past the new oyster bar on the Canongate (£15 for six), and past the many rough sleepers tucked into doorways in this city. How much of where we end up on a Friday night is down to disposition, happenstance, luck, bad life choices, or the way the rain fell for one person and not for another? You might think: well, the rough sleeping, that could never be me, but isn’t it a case of, ‘there but for the grace of God go I’?

I once heard a radio documentary about a burns hospital in East Grinstead, England dedicated to healing the horrifically injured WW2 pilots. The Hurricane fighter aircraft were made of frames covered with a skin of stretched Irish linen coated with a varnish that was highly combustible – making the planes into matches waiting to be struck. In East Grinstead, the townsfolk became accustomed to, and fond of, the horrendously scared patients who would stroll through the town over the months of their treatments. As a show of respect and support for the airmen, the townsfolk removed all of the mirrors on public display in the town. The care, compassion, and empathy of the local people was beautiful to learn about. And it is a simple kindness too. Do we feel so much for others these days? Is it easier to have empathy for war heroes than it is for rough sleepers (may of whom may well be war heroes)? Are we apt to forget that ‘but for the grace of God’ it could be us? Are we more reticent about letting the scarred walk among us, quicker to cross the street than to look them in the eye?

Life can turn on a dime, but I am not so sure that it can reverse itself so quickly on that same dime. Who knows where the rain will fall? But once it falls – up in the continental divide at any rate – its course is determined. May you be grateful that you have been born into a certain life, that your dominoes have tipped in a certain direction, and that you have kept your balance, so far.

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