I recently read in a passage in Zora Neale Hurston’s autobiography, “Dust Tracks on a Road”, that she often had visions of her future when she was a child. They appeared in her dreams and accurately predicted upcoming events, trials and suffering in her life. At the time the book was written the author was about 50 years old and had seen all the prophecies come true.
I’ve never seen visions of that sort, but have had moments of perception that showed that I possessed a foreknowledge of episodes in my life. It was as if, in unexpected slippages in linear time, I was given a quick look ahead at some pages from a book that I had already read but only dimly remembered.
The first glimpse happened when I was nine or ten. I stood in front of the bathroom mirror and studied my face. I felt miserable at that moment about some recent disturbance in our family life and wondered if things would ever improve. I got a sudden sense that I was observing myself from a separate position. An older and wiser version of me calmly advised the young boy staring at his reflection that he was taking things way too seriously. Things would eventually work out, and there was no need for self-pity.
As I grew older I had moments of déjà vu. I remember sitting on the rug in our living room with my back to the sofa. It was summer and we had a floor fan in the front door way. I suddenly knew that my Dad was going to come home soon and what he would say when he greeted me. I had seen this movie before, and the gray light that streamed into the living room and the whir of the fan seemed so familiar. Minutes later my Dad opened the screen door, spoke to me and said the forecasted words verbatim.
When I was twenty I got the impression that a phase in my life was coming to an end, and a new one would eventually begin. I had a lot of difficulty with school work when I was little and almost flunked first grade. I did so poorly that I was called out of class one day and tested by a man from the school district. He stood me in front of a chalk board in an empty store room and told me to draw a large figure eight. Then he told me to redraw the number by moving the chalk in the opposite direction. He asked me several simple questions. I understood, though no one told me, that I was being tested for mental slowness.
I began to do better with the help of my mother, a woman who was a born teacher. She took time everyday to help me with my reading. As I improved in the third and fourth grades I began to take pride in my academic abilities, and when I moved near to the top of my class in fifth grade I began to identify with my academic prowess. My main source of pride was in my intelligence, and I dreaded any sign that I might be slipping back into my former state of dullness and confusion. A low score on a test disturbed my sense of well being and drove me to work harder.
This served me well through high school and the first two years of college. But one night as I drove home from the University of Dayton I had a sense that my desperate need to justify my existence through school work was a phase of my life that was coming to an end. I had proved to myself over and over again that I was intelligent and capable, and there was no need to keep up the frantic effort. In my mind’s eye I saw myself reaching the final passages of a chapter and closing the book. A year and a half later I gave up studying biology, escaped the company of uptight pre-meds, and took up fine art.
Since graduating from college I’ve had two hand-of-God moments when I knew that I was being called to do something difficult and that there was no backing out—I was facing a part of my story that couldn’t be rewritten to suit my preferences.
Soon after my brother had kidney failure his urologist discussed the possibility of an organ donation with me, my sister and mother and father. I was struck almost immediately with the knowledge that the donor was going to be me. It was a foregone conclusion. I was tested, and the tissue compatibility results showed a 96% match between me and my brother. I was the best candidate.
I also had a premonition when the surgery date was announced that my life was in danger—the operation would potentially be fatal for me. I almost died on the operating table when the sutures closing the artery that had fed the removed kidney burst open. I lost half of my blood in a manner of seconds, but the surgeon managed to clamp off the artery before I bled out. My abdominal cavity was still open at the time, and I would have died if the sutures had given way after they had sewn my guts back together and closed the incision.
My final sign came to me years later when my children were very young and my family attended the Orlando Friends Meeting. The meeting, while pledging allegiance to the Quaker peace testimony, was anything but tranquil. Attendance was very low as several members had recently left for calmer spiritual pastures, but the remaining Friends did not bring up recent conflicts or discuss their causes. I could tell from the veiled references and hostility that erupted during Meetings for Business that something was amiss, however.
After we had attended meeting for about a year the clerk, the man in charge of managing business meetings, had a job transfer to Atlanta. A few members of meeting mentioned me as a possibility to fill the vacated position. I was flattered for a brief moment before the realization landed on me that I would be refereeing disputes between entrenched enemies. I cringed when I considered all the ramifications and began to look for a way to slide out of the nomination. But I had another hand-of-God moment one day as I walked out of the meeting and fled to the parking lot. I suddenly knew without any doubt that it was my job to be the next clerk and that there was no way to avoid my duty. I also knew that I would have to suffer through many moments of strife and contention over the next few years.
I was chosen to be the next clerk and served for three years. I managed with the crucial help of a few friends to establish some sense of peace and harmony in meeting once again, although I was unable to fully undo all the knots of contention.
I’ve read in many books about near death experiences that we choose many of the elements and challenges of our lives here on earth. We pick circumstances that will accelerate our spiritual growth, and sometimes agree to conditions that will be instructive but painfully difficult. We choose our family members and lovers, even the ones that do physical and emotional harm to us. The glimpses that I’ve received do not fully confirm these accounts, but lead me to believe that my life has a purpose, and that all the random seeming successes, failures, insults and moments of gratification are part of a pattern. I can’t claim that I know this for sure, but the signs appear to point in that direction.
A few years ago I mentioned this idea, that we choose the circumstances of our lives before our births, to my mother. Our family had seen more than its share of difficulties in recent years as well as in the past. (My sister was dying from Lou Gehrig’s disease at the time I brought this up.) Mom listened in silence while I spoke, and then smiled sadly when I added, “What the hell were we thinking?”