A funny thing happened to me on the way to Cambridge …

That’s the opening line of one of my favorite stories. The story about the yawning difference that often exists between a dream and a destiny. A difference that ambushed me in the mid-1980s when I was fresh out of grad school and that to this day takes my breath away.

Dreams originate with us, with our personal agendas and finite imaginations. But destinies originate with something bigger, grander than all that. Call it the stars, the universe, or Fate. I call it God.

Do you have a dream? Maybe you’re living it. Or, like my young niece in New York City, still chasing after it. Or worse, living without one, lost in a fog of purposelessness.

Dreams originate with us, with our personal agendas and finite imaginations. But destinies originate with something bigger, grander than all that. Call it the stars, the universe, or Fate. I call it God.

Angelina Jolie’s recent movie “Unbroken” is based on the true story of Louie Zamperini, who as a boy growing up in Torrance, California, was a pugnacious troublemaker unexpectedly seized by a big dream – to win an Olympic gold medal in the 1500-meter race. A wayward boy whose destiny turned out to be something far more profound.

Louie’s destiny was to serve in World War II and be captured by the Japanese, who brutalized him to within an inch of his life. His destiny was to survive and become a born-again Christian who forgave his captors. His destiny was to found the Victory Boys Camp to give troubled youth – boys just like he was – a fair chance at a good life.

Louie’s dream never came true, he never won a gold medal. But his destiny inspired not just a major motion picture but countless men, women, and children worldwide who feel broken by life’s craziness and unexpected cruelties. His was a destiny that gives hope to anyone whose dreams have been shattered.

Dreams and destinies. The two can be as difference as night and day. I know.

I was born in East Los Angeles to a family of very little material means. My dad was a minister, so we lived from offering to offering.

Everyone thought I, too, would become a minister but in the second grade I was consumed by the dream to become a scientist. It was odd because none in my family knew anything about science and I’d never met a scientist in my life.

Nevertheless, that odd dream proved to be my ticket out of the barrio. After graduating from UCLA, I flew clear across the country to Cornell, where I studied physics, math, and astronomy. In those days, I was nothing but super-ambitious; I hardly ate or slept and had no social life.

Immediately after matriculating from Cornell with my multidisciplinary Ph.D., I headed to Cambridge, Massachusetts, with visions of teaching at Harvard dancing in my head. I was on top of the world! My dream had come true!

But that’s when a funny thing happened. When I came face-to-face with the beginnings of my destiny.

On the car trip from Ithaca to Cambridge, I stopped off at the Smithsonian’s Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. to attend a panel discussion on George Orwell’s novel “1984.” It was moderated by Fred Graham, then the legal correspondent for CBS News.

At the gala reception afterward, I noticed Graham standing alone with his female companion. For no particular reason except that he was famous, I walked up and introduced myself to him.
Upon learning that I was a scientist, Graham said something like, “Maybe you can settle a disagreement I’m having with my producer here.”

“Sure,” I said, “what’s the problem?”

“You know that giant pendulum out in the rotunda?”

“Yeah, it’s called a Foucault pendulum.”

“Right, that’s it. My producer says that once you get it going, you can leave it alone and it’ll never stop swinging. I disagree. I think they need to push it now and then to keep it going.”

This was a no-brainer for me. I explained that there wasn’t much friction to slow down the pendulum – just a little rubbing where the steel cable was attached to the ceiling – but enough so that the pendulum would stop eventually if it weren’t nudged now and then.”

Graham leaped on my explanation, gushing something like, “Would you like to be on television?!”
It took me a moment to grasp what he was asking – that he wasn’t kidding.

“CBS News is looking for a science reporter,” he explained. “If it’s okay with you, I’d like to suggest your name. I love the way you explain things.”

Months later, after I’d settled in Cambridge and was teaching physics at Harvard, I received the startling news. Jonathan Katz, executive producer of the “CBS Morning News,” was hiring me to be the show’s Science and Technology contributor.

From then on, my destiny increasingly took over my dream – ultimately comprising travels, experiences, and worldwide acclaim that far exceeded my childhood dream of being a scientist.

Today, my destiny is still revealing itself but already it has carried me way beyond my wildest imagination.

Destinies are not always pleasant – George Washington’s dream was to lead the quiet life of a gentleman farmer but his destiny placed him squarely in the center of the tumultuous founding of a nation. But I believe destinies are always more significant than dreams.

Why? Because dreams originate with us, with our personal agendas and finite imaginations. But destinies originate with something bigger, grander than all that. Call it the stars, the universe, or Fate. I call it God.

As I now see it, the best part of my own destiny is that it has given me the experience, credentials, and platform to communicate my thoughts about reason and faith generally, and science and the Bible specifically. This opportunity is very meaningful and timely because many people today are struggling mightily to reconcile those two great and oftentimes seemingly antagonistic authorities.

Do you have a dream? Are you living it? Chasing it? Still waiting for it?

If we have a dream and are chasing it, we must not allow ourselves to be so blinkered by it that we miss out on what’s happening around us. We need to allow life to happen to us. The closed doors as well as the opened ones, I believe, are how our dreams are revised or outright replaced to be in line with our destinies.

If we’re in the midst of living a dream, or don’t have one yet, we mustn’t for a moment believe it’s the pot of gold at end of the rainbow. If only we’ll allow ourselves to believe it, a dream is but a self-inflicted diversion. A way station on the road to something far more significant, ultimately more fulfilling – to our unique, exciting, probably very surprising God-given purpose in life.