Do you recognize those moments when life scares you just a little bit? When things happen so exactly right, so fortuitously, so well-timed, that it seems like it could only have happened because it had to be that way? Because it would not have happened if even one of the hundreds of variables that create such a situation had been off? Those are the moments when, to quote Michael Cunningham, life seems, against all odds and expectations, ‘to burst open and give us everything we’ve ever imagined’. I’m sure you know what I’m talking about. Those are the singular and extraordinary moments when somehow, all the pieces of the puzzle seem to fall together and life seems to finally make sense. At last.
Serendipity is defined as ‘the occurrence and development of events by chance in a happy or beneficial way’. And if the definition wasn’t awesome enough, the word also happens to belong to my favorite category of etymological origins, which is the literary one. The word was first coined by Gothic writer Horace Walpole in 1754, when he wrote a story called ‘The Three Princes of Serendip’, which relates the adventures of—you’ll never guess—three princes which were ‘always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things which they were not in quest of’. The name ‘Serendip’ in itself has nothing whatsoever to do with fortuity, and is actually an old name for the island Sri Lanka. As Gothic writers were prone to exoticism, I’m sure the location must have seemed appealing to Walpole, though what the name eventually came to signify was essentially—hardy har har—a happy coincidence. To complete this list of linguistic trivia, I’ll add for the record that in June 2004 ‘serendipity’ was voted by the English Translation Company to be one of the ten English words that are hardest to translate. Go serendipity!
I admit that ever since my teenage years I’ve had a love-hate relationship with the concept ‘serendipity’. My grandmother always says that all you need to achieve something, (anything, even something extraordinary) all you need is extreme perseverance, and—this is the crux—‘one minute of luck’. But see, that one minute of luck always kind of bugged me, because it seemed to pass me by every single time. To me, it seemed like the People Upstairs (as I call them) had always just ran out of lucky minutes on the celestial clock when it was my turn to be served. Of course, I’m a very impatient person. I would’ve liked to be given my lucky minutes when that was convenient for me (like Felix Felicis, for the people who know their Potter), which, of course, is not how it works.
But then, how does it work? Does it even work? Because serendipitous moments are rare at best (that is why they are serendipitous in the first place; if they hadn’t been rare they wouldn’t be so remarkable), which would mean that the system is fundamentally dysfunctional. But that, of course, would be assuming that there is a system in the first place. What is problematic about serendipity is that while its definition includes the idea of ‘chance’, the happy outcome of that series of events makes us wonder nonetheless: how could it have turned out so well if it hadn’t been planned in some way? If it hadn’t been, to use the cliché, ‘written in the stars’?
This is a debate which has been going on since time immemorial: is the world governed by Fate? Or is life just a concatenation of events that are linked in some way (according to the principle of cause and effect), but completely random in other ways (what we call ‘coincidence’)? What strikes me here is the definition of ‘coincidence’ itself: ‘a remarkable concurrence of events or circumstances without apparent causal connection’. Consider the key words: it is a concurrence of events which is remarkable, and it has no apparent causal connection.
What is tempting to humans, who try to give meaning to pretty much everything, is the idea that such a concurrence of events must be orchestrated in some way, exactly because it is so remarkable. What makes this even more tempting, is that last part of the definition: ‘coincidence’ stipulates that there is no apparent causal connection. Ah... But does that mean that there isn’t? It’s not because you can’t see the connection that that means it isn’t there, right? And so we imagine that somewhere above our heads there is a Great Conductor in the Sky who is moving us around like puppets in the Great Diorama of the World, measuring, calculating and planning how, when and where to put certain people in certain places at certain times, which will define their lives and ultimately create a coherent narrative which you may call their Life Story. And, on a more global level, the History of the World. Now isn’t that marvelous?
Well, not really. Let me say up front that I’m not a religious person, having been raised a critical and skeptical thinker, which is pretty incompatible with some very basic religious principles. Which is not to say that I don’t find it tempting. There is, after all, something immensely comforting in the thought that while you muddle through the mires and morasses of life, not really knowing what the hell you’re doing, someone Up There has got it all figured out. That somehow, at some point, serendipity will strike and everything in your life will fall into place. This is a very reassuring thought. And indeed, it has been proven that religious people have higher happiness levels than nonreligious ones. Religious people have more trust and confidence that things will work out, and walk fearlessly into the Swamp of Life without a backward glance, while nonreligious people teeter-totter nervously at every step, fearful that they might lose their footing.
Being human, but even more than that, being the person that I am, I am constantly looking for connections. The human mind works by means of association, and mine seems to have taken this to the extreme (I refer to my persistent tendency towards metaphor, the very essence of which leans on the associative modus operandi of the human brain). With a mind like that it is very tempting to, when serendipity happens, start dissecting and analyzing the situation to make sense of what it means in the bigger scheme of things.
Yet my rational mind objects to this. There is no empirical evidence that the world works according to any preconceived plan, after all. Witness how confusing, random and frustrating life can be sometimes. If life would be a book, it would be unpublishable, because there’s no way to make sense of it. There is no plot. And those instances of serendipity, of seeming comprehension, of happy coincidence? They are exactly that: a coincidence. Nothing preconceived about it.
This, of course, is not a very cheering idea, but it is a lot more logical than the first one. It is a lot safer, as well. Because once the idea of a bigger scheme has taken root, my mind starts analyzing and wondering: ‘what could it mean, this event?’ This is dangerous. Because even if there were a bigger scheme, not having the full picture, the possibility of misinterpretation is enormous. And I tend to lead my life according to how I would like it to be(come), and I try to discover little hints from the universe which is—I hope—nudging me in the right direction. But following hints from an entity which is probably nonexistent is a dangerous and—let’s face it—rather stupid thing to do. So I’m trying to be more down-to-earth, and not attempt to figure out the meaning of every triviality that crosses my path. Which, believe me, is actually pretty difficult for me. But I’m getting better.
Someone who has been a great teacher to me in this respect is Milan Kundera. While I couldn’t make much of the story in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, I found a lot of wisdom in it which changed the way I look at the world (which, to me, is a sign of Great Literature). The thought of Fate, of preconceived plans, of a bigger scheme, is attractive, not just because it is comforting, but because it means that there are greater things in store for us. We long for serendipity, because we want our lives to be more than we expect of it. ‘Chance and chance alone has a message for us,’ Kundera writes. ‘Everything that occurs out of necessity, everything expected, repeated day in and day out, is mute. Only chance can speak to us.’ And he is right. Whether you call it Fate or Chance or Coincidence or Serendipity, happy coincidences are something I think everyone has a yearning for. I know I do. What about you?