Including an Introduction to Dr. Norman Bethune
On February 10, 2005, during Spring Festival (aka Chinese New Year) in a rural area of China, I almost left this earthly plane. I can’t say I had a “near death experience” as I did not see lights, a tunnel, angels, etc. In fact, I did not even lose consciousness. I had the unique privilege of witnessing the works. I was without a seat belt in the front passenger seat of a van which met head-on with a bus. The man beside me died.
The intense drama of this event, plus its lead up and astonishing aftermath I have recounted in my book Dancing in the Heart of the Dragon, a Memoir of China. During my long recovery, I had much time to contemplate the accident, the voice that spoke to me in wreckage and the fact that I’d not gone through the windshield nor sustained any brain injury. Was it fate? Was it destiny? Was it all a meaningless fluke? Or was it the grace of God?
Approximately one year ago, Christina Hamlett, a Los Angeles based screenwriter, interviewed me online. Among her many questions, she asked me about predestination and free will. Since the ideas are inter-related, I responded by including some of my views on fate and destiny as well. With her permission, I am sharing this part of the interview here.
(By the way, the way I define the big terms below–fate, predestination, destiny, free will–stem from personal experience. I realize others may define the terms differently.)
~~Q: You indicate in the opening pages that sometimes an invisible hand directs the course of one’s life. Do you believe the major events in our personal journeys are predestined or are we still mostly creatures of free will?
A: I lay many long hours in a Canadian hospital bed contemplating that difficult question. I asked myself: “Was falling in love with China and almost dying there a matter of fate, predestination or free will?” My thoughts are not easy to express but I’ll try my best.
First I’ll mention my way of defining the terms. As you can see, I’m throwing fate into the mix. Fate is neutral and impersonal and implies events that are meant to happen. Predestination is used synonymously by some people. To me it differs in that it suggests a plan, not neutral, that’s devised by another, greater power. (That awesome, mysterious force is not male, but I shall call it God. Some call it “the Universe,” “Cosmic Intelligence,” etc.) Humans have no control with either fate or predestination.
Free Will and Consciousness
Free will is the opposite, allowing humans the ability to make conscious choices. The key word to note is “conscious.” People can only exercise free will to the extent that they’re conscious. For instance, in my life I’ve too often made choices dictated by unconscious dynamics; that is, by unhealed emotional wounds and habitual responses.
To be truly “free,” my will must involve intelligent self-reflection. For the major events, my will must also be accompanied by courage and strength. I’ve found that the more courageous I can be, the stronger I become. Strength I never knew possible comes to me from God.
You asked me if I thought predestination or free will characterized the lives of humans. I have a hard time with the idea of predestination. Maybe the issue is one of consciousness, i.e., the conscious awareness that we are all part of the greater power, God; that in essence, we’re all one. I believe the more we each heal our personal pasts (including what’s been passed down through our families), the freer we are to determine our own direction. I believe that when God sees us constructively use whatever awful stuff life throws our way, “it” says: “Here is one to enter into co-creative partnership with me. Hooray!” When we maintain an open and humble attitude, mindfully attuned with God, a new direction is created together.
Dance with the Divine to Create a Destiny
It’s like a delicate, dynamic dance with the Divine to co-create a destiny.
Especially after the accident, I had an uncanny feeling that China was part of my destiny. Do you remember I said a voice took me to China? When I was trapped in wreckage I heard the voice again. It used the first person and in a calm, matter of fact way said: “I don’t know what this is all about but I do know it’s part of a bigger picture and it’s a good picture and it involves me and China.” I’m grateful that I somehow had the presence of mind to notice and remember. ~~
Fate, the Springboard
As regards my title question about “fate or destiny,” I’d say the accident might have been “fate” (a neutral event meant to happen), or it might have been something that just happened. It really doesn’t matter. From the beginning I was not going to let it define me; if I could, I was going to define it. What I needed was an alchemical mindset, the belief that: My life will be better because of the accident than if it had never happened in the first place. And: There is a purpose to this pain.
It was hard. Among other injuries, my right knee was crushed. Surgeries were harsh; rehab was positively brutal. Thankfully I was able to heal physically in about two years and emotionally in about eight.
The Chinese have a couple of expressions for an alchemical mindset, the kind of thinking that helps transform garbage into gold: jī yùn (机 运) and niǔ zhuǎn wǒ de mìng yùn (扭 转 我 的 命 运). Both mean working hard to turn fate into an opportunity for good. What assisted my garbage into gold mindset, in addition to working hard, were: the synchronicities that had led me to China in the first place, the intensity of my feelings while there, the inner voice I heard more than once and the uncanny sense that something bigger was at stake. I kept in mind what Chinese people told me: Dà nán bù sǐ bì yǒu hòu fú (大 難 不 死 必 有 後 福): If you survive a horrible disaster, good fortune must follow, no ifs, ands, buts or maybes.
What I have learned from experience is that “bad fate” may provide a wonderful springboard into destiny.
Dictionaries define destiny much the same: “The inevitable or necessary fate to which a particular person or thing is destined; one’s lot.” Are we humans an ultimately controlled species, then? This gives me the creeps. I say no!
To me, destiny is something big, unique and special, something that we choose to create with a higher power because we cannot do it alone. It is our grand purpose that if fulfilled will leave the world a better place because we lived in it. In order to achieve it, we need to grow up. This means humbling ourselves and allowing our hearts to be cracked open and filled with as much gratitude and love as they can possibly hold. It also means accepting what life throws at us and using it to develop our characters and cleaning up our act, inside and out (also known as restoring our integrity). It means letting ourselves be used by the higher power with as little resistance as possible. It also means saying to ourselves and believing: “Whatever it takes is what it takes and I’ve got what it takes.” Those are the things destiny means to me.
Woundedness and Spiritual Growth
The accident broke my body, broke my heart and almost broke my spirit. The first three days I spent in two Chinese hospitals–one “primitive,” the other supposedly modern. A young friend heard the news, flew 2200 km from another area of China to get me, then saw me safely back to Canada. (A miraculous undertaking.) I had not wanted to leave China. It was only when I realized, albeit somewhat vaguely, that I’d better return home that I said yes. I was thankful for Canadian medical care; however, leaving China felt like my heart was being ripped right out of my body, a wounding more painful than the rest. In the midst of despair, two individuals came to mind. They were both medical doctors, men, and wounded in their own way. These two wounded healers, long since departed, helped promote my healing on the deepest level. They were an Austrian psychiatrist named Dr. Viktor Frankl and a Canadian thoracic surgeon named Dr. Norman Bethune.
Dr. Viktor Frankl, 1905-1997
Liberated after three years of Nazi concentration camps and struggling with the loss of almost everyone dear to him, including his young pregnant wife, Dr. Frankl set about writing an objective and compassionate account of life in the midst of unspeakable horror. That book, translated into English as Man’s Search for Meaning, had profoundly affected me when I read it many years prior to going to China. Its literal title, from the original German, speaks volumes: Saying Yes to Life in Spite of Everything: A Psychologist Experiences the Concentration Camp. Dr. Frankl truly turned fate into an opportunity for good, niǔ zhuǎn tā de mìng yùn. If ever anyone engaged in fulfilling a destiny, it was he.
One video may be enough but I cannot resist including this next one. The heart, soul, wisdom and humour of this man are so apparent. Here he is speaking to students in Toronto, perhaps in the 1980’s. The quote from Goethe is brilliant: “If we take man as he is, we make him worse. But if we take man as he should be, we make him capable of becoming what he can be.” Seeing, hearing or reading Viktor Frankl never ceases to inspire me.
Dr. Norman Bethune, 1890-1939
Almost 75 years since his death, Dr. Norman Bethune, Báiqiú’ēn (白求恩), is still honoured by the Chinese as a hero. Sadly, this Canadian surgeon who sacrificed his life to help the Chinese survive fascist aggression, is a virtual unknown in Canada. I want to change this state of affairs.
During the last three years of his life Bethune became a communist, a label that alienated him from the powers that be in Canada. Given the strident individualism of the man and his glaring need to be his own boss, I doubt that he’d have stuck with the party for long. The Chinese knew him as an idealist committed to the essential wellness of humanity. That’s how I see him too. With this in mind, a far more appropriate label for Dr. Bethune is “humanitarian.” Whatever the label, this courageous man deserves recognition in the West for his extraordinary contributions to the field of medicine and for his legacy that continues to inspire millions.
Dr. Bethune was an ardent despiser of fascism. Before going to China, he’d already served in the Spanish Civil War. In an area of Spain surrounded by Franco’s forces, he advanced the country’s mobile blood transfusion service by creating and leading a Canadian unit, which took blood right to the front. In the process, he developed his expertise in battlefield medicine.
In 1938, Bethune arrived in China at a time when the Japanese assault, which had started years before, was escalating. In a rugged mountainous region of Hebei province, again surrounded by enemy forces, Bethune saved lives (including Japanese lives), trained peasants to be doctors and nurses, wrote and illustrated medical text books, built a model hospital (which the Japanese promptly bombed), then died of a blood infection. Only 49 years old at the time of his death, Bethune had followed his heart to China and fulfilled his destiny there.
When I was in China, especially the first time, I could feel the presence of Dr. Norman Bethune. The experience was so powerful it moved me to tears. It involved the kind of relationship he had with China and the real difference he was making, but more than that. I’ll not go into it now, as I’ll be dedicating my next blog to Dr. Bethune. I look forward to sharing more with you then.
In the meantime, you might like to ask yourself whose lives have deeply moved and inspired you. Perhaps they will help you to know your own unique destiny. If you’d care to share in the comments section below, I would be honored.
Zhídào xià yīcì, wǒ de péngyǒu (直到下一次, 我的朋友),
So until next time, my friends,Ramona