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Choices are the hinges of destiny – Pythagoras (570 BC – 495 BC)

I’m intrigued, obsessed you might say, with the fascinating world of choices. There was a time when I never cared, took them for granted, hid them in a place I’d be sure to forget. Every so often, though, one would show up out of the blue, but most of the time they were only faded memories and lost opportunities.

A well known fact of ancient history: in 490 BC, the mighty Persian empire invaded Greece, only to be defeated by the Athenians at the Battle of Marathon.

A lessor known fact of ancient history: in 483 BC, the Athenians struck a rich vein of silver in the Laurion mines in eastern Attica.

The future looked bright, at least for awhile. But along with this unexpected wealth came decisions that needed to be decided and choices that needed to be chosen. Should the silver be distributed amongst the citizens of Athens? (women, foreigners, and slaves were not considered citizens) Let everyone enjoy the riches! Or, the other choice, the more conservative, under auspices of Themistocles: Should the revenue be used to expand the Athenian fleet to 200 triremes, just in case the Persians decided to return.

On a small rocky hill within view of the Acropolis, the Greek citizens participated in direct democracy, a type of democracy different than our own watered-down version. (Modern democracies, being representative, not direct, do not resemble the Athenian system.) The citizens met in assembly. A debate on how to spend the silver went back and forth between the two opposing sides. After a long afternoon, after Themistocles presented his case, after a haggling debate, the citizens finally voted and the tally counted. The margin of votes was slim, extremely slim, in favor of using the funds to expand the navy.

It could have gone the other way.

Choices are the hinges of destiny.

As Themistocles prophesied, the Persians invaded Greece again in 480 BC. This time, the Athenians were prepared. Because of its larger fleet, they was victorious in the straits of Salamis. The Persians retreated back to the east, never to return again. Our lives as we know it would have been entirely different if a minuscule number of people on a rocky hill in Athens voted another way. The Persian fleet would have been victorious and its empire would have extended into the Peloponnese and perhaps farther west. Western civilization, including our own, would have taken another direction, would have looked entirely different: our way of governing, our countless inventions, the basic fabric of who we are as a nation.

I was five years old in 1960. That year’s Presidential election is regarded as one of the closest elections in our history. On the evening of November 8, John F. Kennedy had an early lead when polls closed in the earlier time zones. As the sun set in California, Richard Nixon had gained ground. But it didn’t last long. The following afternoon Nixon conceded. Kennedy carried 11 states by three percentage points or less. Nixon carried 5 states by the same margin. Out of 68 million votes, the difference between the parties was only 113,000.

It could have easily gone the other way.

Choices are the hinges of destiny.

In the short 1036 days JFK was in office, he made a lasting imprint on our country: promoted the ambitious “New Frontier” domestic program, abolished the federal death penalty, laid groundwork for the Civil Rights Act of 1964, faced down Kruschev during the Cuban Missile Crisis, signed the Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, and asked Congress to create the Peace Corps. The list goes on and on. Now, fifty-eight years later, I can only begin to imagine how our lives would have looked if the election had tilted just a few percentage points the other way.

I was thirteen in the summer of 1968. The days were long. I listened to Beatle albums, put hundreds of miles on my minibike, watched Andy Griffith Show and Jerry Mathers on a small black and white TV set. But this summer of innocence was about to come to an abrupt end. On June 5th, 42-year-old presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy stood at a podium at Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. He had just won the California presidential primaries. A time of celebration. Kennedy planned to walk though the ballroom to another gathering of supporters elsewhere in the hotel. With deadlines approaching, reporters wanted a press conference, so it was decided he would forgo the second gathering and instead go through the hotel’s kitchen behind the ballroom to the press area. It has been reported that a group of teeny-boppers blocked his path. So, instead of going right, he went left through the kitchen doors. He started down a narrow aisle between an ice machine and a steam table. Just as he turned to shake a hand of a busboy, Sirhan Sirhan stepped from behind a low tray-stacker beside an ice machine and fired a .22 caliber Iver-Johnson Cadet revolver. Kennedy was pronounced dead at 1:44 on June 6, nearly 26 hours after the shooting.

It could have gone the other way.

Choices are the hinges of destiny.

Kennedy’s assassination was a blow to our country’s optimism for a brighter future for many Americans who lived through the turbulent 1960’s. Juan Romero, the busboy who shook hands with Kennedy right be before he was shot, later said, “It made me realize that no matter how much hope you can have, it can be taken away in a second.

Richard Nixon became the 37th President of the United States in 1969. The Vietnam War continued, thousands of American lives were lost, and Nixon is best remembered as the only president ever to resign from office. He stepped down in 1974, halfway through his second term, rather than face impeachment over his efforts to cover up illegal activities in the Watergate scandal.

It could have gone the other way.

Choices are the hinges of destiny.

Small events can entirely shift our lives.

Lately, I try to be mindful of the hundreds of the choices I make during the day. It could be as simple as turning right instead of turning left at a busy intersection. It might be choosing to walk down one street instead of the other. Or, it could be more complicated such as whether or not to say hello to a passing stranger, or to buy a cup of coffee for a homeless person, or choosing to leave someone you love right after an argument before making it right.

Why are these observations occupying so much of my time? Maybe it’s because I’ve entered the final third of life. Time is running out. The perfect time to reflect. If not now, when? If not me, who? Besides, with so many years behind me, there is more to reflect upon. Or maybe because I’m writing a novel. One of the themes is that all my characters have made choices, choices that result in having major, often devastating, implications on the characters themselves and more importantly, often not realized, on others. One thing always leads to another. Without the past there is no future, without the future there is no past.

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