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“A person often meets his destiny on the road he took to avoid it.” — Jean de La Fontaine, Fables
I’ve been thinking about that quote a lot.
Have you ever heard the story of Oedipus? It’s…a weird one. But it does relate really well to the quote. It goes something like this:
There’s an oracle who tells a man named Laius, the King of Thebes, that his unborn son, Oedipus, will kill him. Laius does not like this. When Oedipus is born, Laius takes him to a remote mountainside and leaves him to die. Not exactly what I’d call being a great parent, but hey, different times.
By chance, a passing shepherd rescues Oedipus and brings him to the king of Corinth, who raises him as his own. Many years later, after Oedipus is a grown, young man, he leaves Corinth and embarks on a journey.
Along the way, he crosses paths with an old man who is accompanied by a handful of servants. An argument escalates into a fight, and Oedipus kills the old man and all but one of his servants (like I said, different times).
The old man, of course, was his father Laius. However, Oedipus doesn’t find this out for many years.
Later on in his journey, he finds himself outside of Thebes (the land his now-dead father ruled), where he meets a womanly creature called The Sphinx. The Sphinx guards passage to the city and devours all who attempt to pass that cannot answer a riddle:
What walks on four legs in the morning, two legs at noon, and three legs at night?
Oedipus, being the “hero” of our story, correctly answers a human being because humans crawl on all fours when young, then walk upright in youth, and use a cane in old age.
The Sphinx, distraught and angry that she won’t be devouring Oedipus’ soul that day, kills herself. A bit dramatic if you ask me but whatever.
The people of Thebes, not knowing Oedipus was the one who killed their king, reward him with a marriage offering…to Jocasta…the widowed Queen. Oedipus, not knowing that Jocasta is his mother, marries her, and together they have four children.
Many years pass and at some point a plague strikes the city. The oracle (the same one who spoke with Laius about his son) proclaims that the plague will last until King Laius’ murderer is identified. So, Oedipus accepts the quest and comes to find out that not only was he the one who killed his father, but he also married his mother.
Jocasta and Oedipus are both devastated by their fates. She chooses the same path as The Sphinx and kills herself. Oedipus blinds himself so that he never has to look upon the agony he has caused ever again.
One might say that Laius met his destiny on the road that he took to avoid it. Worse, his actions (probably) led to a hell of a lot more anguish and suffering than if he had just raised Oedipus as his own.
I’m telling you this story because I’ve really been thinking a lot about that quote and the choices I’ve made in life — big and small — that were meant to avoid an outcome…but ended with me coming face-to-face with it anyway.
The first occurrence of this phenomenon (at least that I can remember) was back when I was 6 years old.
It was the summer of 1995, maybe 1996, and I had just graduated from my first full year of Kindergarten. I was a little guy, dark brown hair, brown eyes, and wicked smart. Maybe a little too smart for my own good.
My kindergarten class was hosting a celebratory, end-of-the-year picnic at a local playground. Huge, wide-open fields, lots of picnic tables, grilling stations, and a massive all-wooden playground with slides, tunnels, bridges, monkey bars, and everything else that you can imagine a kid would love.
Obviously, I was stoked to go play with all my classmates while climbing and jumping all over the place. Possibly do a few things to make my mom go “Jason, don’t you ever do that again!” If you know what I mean.
The whole Gutierrez crew rolled up — mom, dad, older brother, younger sister, and me. Within minutes, I was off with a few classmates frolicking through the mulch, playing a wonderful game of follow-the-leader.
One of my friends was leading us all around when he broke into a full sprint, then suddenly dropped to his knees and crawled army-style through a small, wooden tunnel on the ground.
I watched three classmates crawl through after him, but I hesitated. I surveyed the situation, saw a handful of wasps and carpenter bees swarming about, and immediately thought these kids were idiots and I was not going to be doing that.
“Oh, hell no.” (Or whatever the Kindergarten equivalent might’ve been back then.)
Five minutes later, I found myself sitting at a Dairy Queen about a quarter mile up the road, mother by my side, hand in a medium cup of ice, holding back tears (but failing), desperately trying to bring the swelling down from what could only be described as the most devastating bee sting of my life.
I took a detour around the tunnel and met my destiny hand-first while trying to avoid it. To this day, wasps, yellow jackets, and similar flying pests are one of my greatest fears. Fate sucks.
Pick any day of the year and I could probably tell you a personal story or one about someone I know who ran into their destiny on the road they took to avoid it.
I’ve hurt myself in the gym, accidentally woke up my baby son, sabotaged relationships. You name it, I’ve done it.
So, it seems this stupid quote has been somewhat of a recurring theme in my life, and I’ve actually grown to embrace it. It’s kind of a strange case of Stockholm syndrome.
I’d love to say that I’ve learned my lesson, but I’m not really sure there’s a lesson to be learned. Sometimes you don’t want something to happen, so you take steps to avoid it — like any normal person would do. But you can’t control fate. If it’s gonna happen, it’s gonna happen.
I just find it funny whenever I’m in the middle of one of these events and have to stop to take a mental note.
Master Oogway, you’ve ruined me.*
Image by Dreamworks Animation
*For 15 years I've been under the impression that Master Oogway from Kung Fu Panda came up with the quote. Turns out it was that de La Fontaine bum.