A couple nights ago, I had a dream in which the theme was that so much of life—and life’s path—is accidental. People in the dream were finding opportunity in changed circumstances, redecorating and repurposing spaces out of failed businesses. Individual characters in the dream, people who had been known to me before, were showing up in unexpected new roles. The dream was so compelling, I thought that the accidental and synchronous nature of life would make an interesting subject for a post.
As a young man, I never expected to end up in the mountain desert of West Texas. I never expected to have backed into a commitment to youth justice or to the plights of young people who did not have nurturing parents as I did.
Out of curiosity, I recently did a search for one of the kids I knew in high school. He was one of my smartest classmates, and I discovered that he’s ended up as a building contractor in California—no problem about that, but one could never have predicted he would be working with his hands and not just his head. I’ll bet his life has involved a great many chance events that led to this destination.
We live in a society of control freaks. Modernity’s emphasis on planning and control leads us to regard such accidents either as “interruptions” or, alternatively, they’ve led to a heightened appreciation for chance events in the course of one’s life—especially as they influence educational and occupational careers, and family relationships.
What is a chance event? According to academic researchers Michael J. Shanahan and Erik J. Porfeli: (1) Chance events are unlikely occurrences, although neither researchers nor the people who experience them are well situated to estimate their likelihood. (2) Chance events cause changes in the life course, although these causal links are often highly speculative. (3) Chance events are unintended, although many life course intentions are broadly stated and cover little of what happens in specific terms. (4) Chance events are occasions that warrant explanation because of their social significance and, consequentially, most unlikely, momentous, and unintended occurrences are ignored.
But enough of the eggheads… well, almost. An everyday term for ‘chance events’ is Luck.
In 1995, a professor of philosophy from the University of Pittsburgh named Nicholas Rescher wrote a book called LUCK The Brilliant Randomness of Everyday Life. We humans, Resher asserts, live in a “halfway house” between chance and cunning and, try as we might, we cannot master the vagaries of luck, whether by tarot cards or probability charts. Neither, however, are we mere victims of serendipity; skill, choice, prudence, and a moral compass all have their roles in the game of life.
Years ago, when I was 8 or 9 years old, it was the 4th of July and workmen were busy with preparations for our country club’s annual fireworks display. Several hours later, after dark, families would be camped out on blankets on the broad lawn between the 10th tee and the 18th green, oohhing and aahhing at the display. I was on the busy scene, being shooed away to a safe distance, when a son of one of the workmen, looking around, said something I will never forget: “These kids are too lucky.”
We were, of course. We hadn’t earned it. We didn’t even deserve it. We were the beneficiaries of accidents of birth that would have far-reaching consequences. Our parents could afford good schools, family vacations in desirable places, summer camps, braces on our teeth, clothes that wouldn’t get us laughed at.
It was, I think, one of the first times I’d become conscious that not everyone lived as I did.
Yes, the rich too can be unlucky, but if you are fortunate enough to have money to buy air bags in your car and a house in a safe neighborhood, then I suspect your good luck only furthers inequality. “The rich get richer,” as they say.
Yet in researching this question of luck, I stumbled on an intriguing possibility that is more democratic and involves no less a person than Dr. Carl G. Jung. During his research into the phenomenon of the collective unconscious, Jung began to observe coincidences that were connected in such a meaningful way that their occurrence seemed to defy the calculations of probability. He used the term “synchronicity” to define occurrences which went, in his opinion, beyond chance.
Everything is connected, says Jung, whether we see it at first or not. Is it possible that once we begin to think of someone or something, the universe begins to behave like an Internet search engine?
Jung recounts this unlikely story: “A young woman I was treating had, at a critical moment, a dream in which she was given a golden scarab. While she was telling me this dream I sat with my back to the closed window. Suddenly I heard a noise behind me, like a gentle tapping. I turned round and saw a flying insect knocking against the window-pane from outside. I opened the window and caught the creature in the air as it flew in. It was the nearest analogy to the golden scarab that one finds in our latitudes, a scarabaeid beetle, the common rose-chafer (Cetoaia urata) which contrary to its usual habits had evidently felt an urge to get into a dark room at this particular moment. I must admit that nothing like it ever happened to me before or since, and that the dream of the patient has remained unique in my experience.”
After the remarkably synchronistic appearance of the beetle, Jung’s patient, who had been psychologically resistant, experienced a breakthrough in therapy. What, if anything, drew the beetle to that window at that moment? What interconnectedness existed between the insect and the two people in the room? What caused the insect to become an agent of transformation?
And the question that I think gets to the heart of the matter: What if Jung had never turned around?
To take advantage of the accidents of life, the synchonicities, you have to be open to them and, I think, looking for them. Life is, after all, what you make it. Rich or poor, you make your own luck.
70° and Clear