Saturday, January 14, 2017

Butterfly Wings

Free Will vs Determinism. It’s an age-old debate in philosophy and religion. Whether you believe in higher powers or nothing at all, it’s a subject you cannot avoid. How much control do we really have over our lives? To what extent is our course determined before we are even born?

In chaos theory, the butterfly effect is the dependence on initial conditions in which a small change in one place at one time can result in large differences in the future. For example, a butterfly's wings might create tiny changes in the atmosphere that may ultimately alter the path of a tornado or delay, accelerate or even prevent the occurrence of a tornado in another location.

I don’t know about butterflies, but I ended up being a Texan for a lot of reasons, one of the biggest being the American Civil War. All four of my grandparents’ family histories trace back to the Civil War. Three of four fought for the Confederacy. It’s unclear what the other one was doing, but he was most likely on the Confederate side. Two died during the Civil War. Details are sketchy. What is known is that my maternal grandmother’s family moved to Texas from Kentucky in the 1850’s. After the war began, my ancestor joined a Texas Cavalry regiment then fought and died on the Western Front. He left behind a son who was born in Texas in 1861 and to that branch I am attached.

My maternal grandfather’s family also lost one during the war and it is a story straight out of the movies. They lived in SW Missouri near what is today Branson. The father was killed by Kansas bushwackers. Whether he was fighting for the Southern cause or was just in the wrong place at the wrong time, we’ll never know. But the young son and his mother loaded up the wagon and went to Texas. And from that young son, my family tree grew in Texas.

My paternal grandfather’s ancestor joined a Tennessee regiment as did his brothers. One of those brothers was killed, but my ancestor survived. He went back home to Tennessee, started a family and a few years later moved to Texas for better land, more of it and a new start.

And my paternal grandmother’s line goes back to Mississippi and an ancestor who joined the 37th Mississippi Infantry as a youngster, somehow survived and moved to Texas as soon as the war ended. His children were all born and raised in Texas. And the old veteran finally passed away at 98 and is buried in Texas having outlived all of those children.

Not only did all four family streams flow to Texas, but they flowed into a three county region south and west of Fort Worth where their children met and married and had lots of kids and those kids had kids and now here we are. They were country people. English, Scots-Irish and German; more Hill Southern than anything else. Loyal to family, extremely mistrustful of governmental authority, and inclined to bear arms and to use them. Not plantation people, not slave-owners. Like so many, they fought for the South because their friends and neighbors were on that side. For generations mostly Democrats until the Democrats got too liberal. Even still, some continue to vote Democrat just because they always have. Or they don’t vote at all. Baptists, Methodists and Church of Christ all well-represented among them. As prone to violence and alcoholism as to piety and good deeds. For better or worse, I didn’t fall far from that tree.

What if one branch of my family tree had grown in another direction? A decision here, an event there. A bullet missed by inches. One baby dies at birth, another lives a long life with many children of their own. Four families from different starting points move to the same state and settle in close proximity to each other. A great Civil War the common thread. And butterfly wings along the way, even back to the beginning of it all. So there is Free Will, but only in a small corner of one’s life created by forces which determine, for the most part, who and where and what we are or can become. It’s humbling and frightening to think about such things. But it’s also necessary. Necessary for perspective and necessary for faith. Most of all, it’s necessary for forgiveness. We’ll not figure out the mystery or the meaning of it all in this life, nor perhaps in the eternity to come. And that’s ok. It’s probably more than we could handle anyway.

“The LORD is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, forgiving iniquity and transgression, but he will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, to the third and the fourth generation.”– Numbers 14:18

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