People live in such different realities. Some of us believe that we are the absolute masters of our fate. We plan our lives, take the necessary actions, and as a direct and predictable result, we make things happen. There is nothing we cannot achieve if we put in the effort. Failure is a personal problem that we can avoid if we try hard and keep pushing ourselves. Others feel that we cannot change our destiny. It is written in the stars, and our fate is to a large degree determined and inevitable. We make our puny efforts, but have very little influence on the ultimate outcome of our lives. Many religious philosophies proclaim some version of “Man proposes, and God disposes.” The other side of the same coin is the more down-home and gender-inclusive saying: “The devil fools with the best-laid plans”.

The vast majority of the lawyers and doctors I interpret for lean heavily into the first camp. They are the directors of their fate, and have worked hard to come far. They expect life to go the way they mold it. They take great personal pride in where they have gotten, and where they are going. And without question, they can say what they are going to do next week, next month, and probably next year. They have plotted out their lives, even to saving for their children’s college (born and unborn) and preparing for their own eventual retirement. They are the masters of their own universe.

Most others, though – including the patients and families, witnesses, crime victims, and defendants for whom I interpret – have a widely different experience of life in a human body. Most were raised to believe in a very near and dear higher power that rules over us all, even to the hairs on our head, and this power must be appeased and acknowledged in our daily actions. This Almighty has the absolute power to reward and punish, in mysterious ways beyond our ken. So we must be duly humble about our place in the grand scheme of the universe. Call it God or Fate.

As our lives unfold in unexpected ways, we are given opportunities to garner extensive firsthand knowledge of just how puny and helpless each incarnated soul is in this fragile little snippet of flesh. Most of us find that we – and our loved ones – are hanging onto our lives by a single thread that can snap at any moment. We can get sick. We can become disabled. We can lose what made our lives meaningful, and be cast out to seek meaning anew. We can even get struck my lightning, if that is our fate. And of course, we will all die. But not everyone is comfortable with this “helpless” philosophy. Some cling hard to the idea that life is what we make of it, and we can do just about anything if we just try hard enough. These ones fearlessly continue carrying out their life plans with great determination and self-confidence, and consider the fatalists to be passive weaklings.

Something as simple as setting a medical appointment can reveal this philosophical divide and bring these diverging viewpoints into collision.

Doctor: So I’ll see you for follow-up next Tuesday.

Patient: Yes, if God is willing.

Doctor: But you WILL come, right? I need to remove the stitches!

Patient: God willing.

Doctor: I need to know that you are coming. You need follow-up!

Patient: I’ll come if God is willing.

Doctor, angrily: Well, I don’t see why God wouldn’t want you to come to your follow-up appointment next Tuesday!

Interpreter: Doctor, the interpreter would like to clear up this misunderstanding by clarifying that making any future plan without acknowledging that God is in charge is taboo, and considered tempting the fates to intervene and remind us that we are merely human. So please understand that the patient has every intention of coming, but considers her future to be in God’s hands.

The interpreter then back-interprets the same statement into Spanish, and the patient’s face lights up, and she says, “Yes! So it is! Man proposes and God disposes!”

Now, I have a very strong philosophy that when two individuals, whatever their power differentials on the surface, become deadlocked in a linguistic misunderstanding, it is not for me to merely clarify the underdog’s strange and mysterious philosophy to the apparent overlord. No. To quote another old adage, that train runs both ways! So I quickly tell the doctor that in order to clarify the linguistic misunderstanding, as I just explained the patient to him, I now need to explain the doctor to the patient, and with his permission I will tell her that the doctor thinks he knows where he is going to be next Tuesday. He thinks he is in charge of that. He shrugs a terse consent: “Go ahead, but make it quick!”

The patient is quite frankly amused to hear that this doctor thinks he knows absolutely what he is going to do next Tuesday, without considering God or Fate or even the devil. That is simply hilarious! She literally laughs in his face and slaps her knee. Ha ha ha! She clearly finds him so delightfully innocent. She points up to the sky and nods sagely at the doctor, kindly admonishing him: “The greatest Healer, above all doctors, and above us all, will decide if we meet next Tuesday! Only God willing!” She nods again, encouraging the doctor to stretch his narrow perspective and save himself future disappointment. We must be resigned to our fate!

The doctor is quite impatient as he receives this concluding bit of the patient’s philosophy. His hand is on the door. He is on a very tight schedule, and had expected to be with the next patient by now, and here we are exchanging ideas after he had neatly closed the session with a clean “see you next Tuesday” exit. He is visibly frustrated by this delay, as he is now 13 instead of 10 minutes late to his next patient. Time is money, and wasted time is wasted money. He has yet to truly fathom that the devil fools with the best-laid plans. Far from being resigned, he is frustrated!

The patient, meanwhile, is continuing to have a very different experience from the doctor. The patient is smiling as the doctor frowns. She is slow to gather her things and leave the exam room. She positively lingers. She has thoroughly enjoyed their extra three-minute conversation, in which she not only expressed her deeply held opinion, but was able to hear his surprising and misguided view of things. What a babe in arms! Truly, it is laughable. He thinks he knows where he will be next Tuesday! She walks out beaming and shaking her head with amusement. He is a good doctor and a good surgeon, but so simple-minded. What a childish philosophy. To think he is in charge of the future! Poor, misguided soul. We know better.