Events and Interpretation

According to Biblical tradition, David’s son Qohelete once said that “all things come alike to all: there is one event to the righteous, and to the wicked; to the good and to the clean, and to the unclean… I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all” (Ecclesiastes 9).

The statement expresses the universal realization that chance, change, and suffering impact all, not just a select few.  However, while events may “come alike to all,” the way they are interpreted varies dramatically. Objectively, the events are constant for all, but subjectively, they are often constructed as drastically different in the interplay of sense data, cognition, memory, and emotion.

Augustine heard some passages being read in the garden and took this as a sign of God’s existence and calling for him and thus converted to Christianity. A writer might have heard the same passages, reflected on their beauty and literary qualities, and walked on with their day. An atheist might have heard the passages, noted their qualities but remained unconvinced and thought no more of it.

It is not enough to say that “time and chance happeneth to them all”; fortune, whether interpreted as good or bad, is not a given. We can worsen or better our fortune through our own conditioning, behaviour, emotional patterns and habitual ways of thinking. I note Solomon’s wisdom, if this verse really was written by him, but I think that he paints with too broad a brush. The situation is more complex and our account of it must be more nuanced if it is to reflect this complexity.

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